Because bipolar disorder is so common among artists, it’s a frequent subject for autobiographical accounts of mental illness. What sets Ellen Forney’s book Marbles apart, however, is that, as an acclaimed cartoonist, she tells her story in graphic novel form (or really, graphic autobiography, but that term hasn’t really caught on yet). In describing her own experiences with bipolar disorder, starting with the shock of diagnosis to eventually finding the right medication, Forney also seeks to answer the greater, eternal question of whether a little mental illness is required to make great art. That she does this through images, a more immediate and certainly more visceral artform than writing, is what makes her take so rewarding and unique.
When Forney’s behavior is really inexplicable, she tries to describe the events in as straightforward a manner as possible, saving artist interpretation for when she herself feels introspective, or when attempting to depict moments that aren’t just understandable, but could border on cliché. In other words, truly manic moments are given blow-by-blow descriptions, but depressive lows, which are neither fun to describe or read about, are often depicted in abstract images, rather than words. It’s a useful, smart device that helps to explain a big part of what’s so hard to understand about severe bipolar disorder: how the brain tricks someone into perpetuating a cycle of extreme highs and lows without seeking help.
Forney’s answer to the big question of “bad minds for good art?” isn’t really explicitly answered, but she does feel comfortable as an artist with her disease under control--comfortable enough to write the excellent Marbles.