Marbles sat on my shelf for a while. I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. I was already reading some heavy stuff, and I figured it’d be an uncomfortable read. To add to my hesitation, I’ve never been a huge fan of Ellen Forney’s work, whether it’s her comics in the Stranger, or the critically acclaimed Monkey Food or I Love Led Zeppelin.
Over a few weeks, the sky blue cover stared out at me for a while, slyly whispering. “Come on, read me, yeah it’s about mental illness, but it’s not all bad. It’ll be fun. It’ll be safe. I won’t make you cry…much. Sherman Alexie said I’m hilarious on the back cover!” A couple days ago I figured, may as well, let’s dive in. Beware pretty blue books right rainbows on them. They are liars.
I’d thought Forney’s work just wasn’t my thing and I was wrong. Marbles is incredible. Marbles is an extraordinarily intimate work. Marbles is indeed hilarious, and it’s a rough ride. Most importantly, Marbles is vulnerable. Throughout the book Forney documents struggle through therapy, balancing medication, and the impact of bipolar disorder on her life and work. Throughout the memoir she is incredible open and honest, giving readers remarkable insight into her life and experience managing mental illness. This is simultaneously a memoir of her experience and an examination if one has to be crazy in order to be creative. These two tracks weave in and out smoothly, at times distinct and at other times completely blended.
Sequential art (stuck-up nerdspeak synonym for comics) is, without a doubt, the correct medium for this story. Through her words and pictures Forney immediately gets the reader inside her head. The artwork is explosive, frenetic, and disorienting during her manic episodes, and it is perfectly juxtaposed with the extreme minimalism of the depressive episodes. Forney also subtly shifts the style as the timeline moves from mania to depression. Throughout, however, the therapy sessions are portrayed exactly the same, stable, simply, just two people talking. This artistic choice clearly highlights the stabilizing role of Forney’s therapist throughout the journey. As it should be with comics, the artistic vocabulary adds meaning to the words, creating a powerful symbiotic relationship.
Marbles really got into my head. For the past two nights I’ve had dreams that I’m going through Forney’s manic episodes with images in her art style flying through me. Before reading Marbles, I had a vague idea of what it means to be bipolar: you go up and down in mood, and you can’t really control it. Reading Forney’s first experience through a depressive episode completely broke me. I had no concept of how debilitating depression can be, and the impact of the illness on Forney’s life is impossible to misunderstand.
Marbles would be an incredible text for teaching abut mental illness. It’s so completely accessible. She makes progress, slips back, tries new options, goes back to old ones, all in an attempt to find stability. Forney also emphasizes that this is a lifelong process. There is no cure, mental illness requires constant management. It would take a savvy, nuanced teacher to navigate the more difficult portions of the text, and following Forney on this journey is well worth the effort. As a reader I was rewarded with increased empathy and compassion for people experiencing mental illness. I also have an improved understanding of the complex support system necessary to help someone manage their illness. Twenty bucks and a couple hours of reading is a small price to pay to gain this understanding.