I had the chance to catch the end of a panel presentation by Andrea Charise during the Canadian Conference on Medical Education on the importance of Medical Humanities in understanding illness from not just a clinical perspective, but also from a personal perspective. It reminded me of Laura Knetzger’s SeaUrchin, a comic published by Retrofit Comics that I’ve been meaning to talk about since last May. I barely know where to start, but wrapping my head around the idea of medical humanities and how art has values in understanding illness and those afflicted by it allowed me to get a better grip on the Sea Urchin.
Our protagonist in this book is Laura, presumably the same Laura as the artist. We follow her journey of living with crippling depression and eventually her bittersweet ride onto the sunset road to recovery. Laura talks at length about the ongoing issues caused by this depression. What am I good for? Why do the things I enjoyed no longer have any importance to me? Why am I mean to the people I love? Why can’t I get out of this funk? How can I live like this? Knetzger describes in painful detail the realities of dealing with such an illness. It permeates your life, your daily thoughts and affects both your behavior and your physical health.
I was glad to see Knetzger take what must have been a painful topic and expose it to a new light, to different angles. She wrote a mini-comic called Find me, Look for Me a few years ago (reviewed here) where these themes were, much like mental illness, hidden slightly below the surface. In this case, our protagonist is depressed because of the disappearance of her brother and the fallout of it and she finds solace in caring for a defenseless alien, or pet. But I believe that depression isn’t necessarily caused by a specific event, but rather a confluence of many factors, both social, psychological and physical. While her first work addresses those issues, it is Sea Urchin that approaches these themes in a much more head-on manner. Its a discussion on how depression affects emotions, causing a huge onset of hopelessness, irritability and invading dark thoughts. Touching on how this causes fatigue and how it affects concentration is key in relating this story. Suffering from depression is not a temporary weakness, it is a real medical condition. Sea Urchin doesn’t hide its theme, nor does it explain how it begins or even offer diagnostics on how to fix it. I felt a sort of courageous strength in the work. Laura describes all of this without doubt, fear or shame. It is here and it is an issue to work through.
I will mention that this work is in Black & White. It looks gorgeous that way; the lines are clean and expressive. It has an energy to it that I find charming. Her pages don’t follow any sort of standard grid which lends it that energy, but it never gets confusing and never strays into incomprehensible mess. I did enjoy the use of color in Find me, Look for me. The blue tones added a sort of coldness, a sadness that is difficult to replicate without colour. The strength of the material allows it to not lose any of its impact. A true strength of the work. The size of it was jarring at times, varying from perfect on the page to blown up just too much, as if you had zoomed in on an iPad version of it and the size had gone on to 125% of the original size of the art. It only happens a handful of times, but it was certainly unexpected and took me out of the book. I kept wondering if this was done intentionally, or if certain pages had been blown-up because they were drawn on different sizes of paper. Regardless, Knetzger's style is consistent throughout and just delightful to see.
While Knetzger talks about depression openly, Sea Urchin never feels like a laundry list of ailments or a plea to commiserate with her. Sea Urchin approaches its themes seriously but is not simply about the pain. Moments of levity are also plentiful in this work. The protagonist walks in the street, trying to conjure up the courage to pat a dog she thinks looks cute. These moments remind us that, while illness is serious, moments of happiness do arise, however fleeting they may be. It also helps create a more rounded protagonist. We aren’t simply observers of her pain, but also of her small victories. This lands the work a charm that other works of its kind don’t necessarily have. There is no answer in this book, simply scribbled maps leading to some better ways. It is a work of great depth and attention to detail that is key in understanding the quirks afflicting those suffering from depression.