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Published on December 27th, 2012 | by Julie Davis


Feature: Ellen Forney’s Creativity and Crisis in Marbles

The Scream by Ellen Forney

At a book signing event held at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, cartoonist Ellen Forney began with a reading from her book, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, describing her experience with bipolar disorder.

In the first chapter, Forney talks about getting a tattoo on her back, using vivid, sensory language.

“I was walking on red hot coals,” Forney said. “I was being transformed…Everything was magical and intense, bursting with universal truth.”

Set against this vivid backdrop, Forney’s narrative in the following chapter — describing her experience being diagnosed with bipolar disorder — seemed that much more bleak.

“My own brilliant and unique personality was neatly outlined in that inanimate stack of paper,” Forney said. “This sank in like the sun had gone behind the clouds.”

Already a well-known cartoonist from her work in the Seattle alterative weekly, The Stranger, and her autobiographical comic, I was 7 in 75, Forney takes her career as an artist to a new level with Marbles, a memoir in graphic novel form. The terror following this revelation — that her personality was not unique at all, but merely a collection of symptoms — is at the heart of Forney’s story, comparing her fear of taking meds to a fear of blindness. After all, art was her vision; if medication left her without it, Forney asks, who would she be?

Ellen Forney“The sense of heaviness was alleviated by a back-handed sense of cred,” Forney said. “I was officially a crazy artist.”

Although Forney is hardly the first artist to write about depression, her ability to take a deeper look at the “crazy artist” is what makes Marbles unique. Her book goes on to explore the histories of well-known “crazy artists” such as Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. Do mental disorders produce better art? Are creativity and craziness linked? These are questions that Forney poses both to herself and her readers.

Forney is also a master at interweaving poetic language with data and creating raw images that bring her emotional highs and lows to visual life. Mixed in with autobiographical accounts of her own treatment, she ponders the connection between mental disorders and creativity, including scientific studies and excerpts from Edvard Munch’s description of the The Scream and Sylvia Plath’s poetic references to electroshock therapy in The Bell Jar.

As a comics artist, Forney is uniquely well-equipped to explore the connection between creativity and mental crisis. Using a simplified drawing of herself as an avatar (a similar technique used by comics historian Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics), she easily alternates between speaking directly to readers and positioning them as voyeurs, having them sit in on her psychiatrist’s sessions, watch her cry into the mirror or spin her mental wheels with one failed drug combination after another.

Ellen Forney swordWhen Forney talks about community in Marbles, a “Club van Gogh” of other artists who have felt pain similar to her own, it’s hard not to think of cartoonist Allie Brosh and other artists, still struggling to cope. Brosh, author of the popular webcomic, Hyperbole and a Half, also wrote about her personal struggles with depression in a strip called “Adventures in Depression” in October 2011. The strip described her own listlessness and self-recrimination during a depressive episode. Brosh’s strip has been on hiatus ever since, a situation that’s been treated as news itself by concerned fans, who’ve publicly worried about her welfare on Reddit and The Daily Dot.

During the Cartoon Art Museum’s Q&A session, Forney explained that one of her motivations for Marbles was to create “art to reach back to my younger self.” At the end of the book, Forney once again meets with her therapist — a recurring image throughout Marbles — showing the connection between herself now and the way she was at the beginning of the book. However, Forney’s true genius lies in her ability to connect with others, the inner workings of her readers and fans, through her personal trials and tribulations.

“Believe me, younger self,” Forney says, “everything will work out.”

See more of Ellen Forney’s work at

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About the Author

Writer, editor, photographer and sometime cartoonist Julie Davis became addicted to comics and Japanese animation at a young age and hasn't yet grown out of them (and probably never will). Former editor in chief of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly, an English-language magazine about Japanese animation, she co-authored the book Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces and contributed to The Complete Anime Guide and Manga: The Complete Guide. A native of Michigan, she now lives in San Francisco and teaches classes on comics writing and history at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and creates graphic designs for the Cartoon Art Museum.

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