Talking with Ellen Forney about Rock Steady, stability, and what's next

If I were in charge, Ellen Forney would be Seattle's Cartoonist Laureate — her writing and art would be all over the city's signs and materials, and would represent the city to the rest of the world. Just as Seattle is so beautiful that it's hard to remember sometimes how complex and difficult it can be to live here, there's something so inviting and approachable to Forney's art that it's almost impossible for a casual reader to recognize how much actual work goes into every illustration or page of comics that she does.

Forney's first full-length narrative, Marbles, was an account of what it meant to come of age as a bipolar cartoonist. Her new book, Rock Steady, is a how-to guide that serves as a companion piece to her memoir. Forney explains how she found stability and an acceptable level of normalcy as an artist, and she provides strategies for audiences to cope with their own bipolar traits or other mental disorders. We talked last week, the day after Forney returned from a reading tour for Rock Steady.

Okay, so you read my review. Do you want to talk about that? I know I spent a lot of time talking about how a lot of Rock Steady wasn't actually comics.

I knew right off the bat it was going to be difficult to shelve. The language of words and pictures is really broad, you know? And I generally think of comics as a narrative medium, and there are a lot of markers that we're accustomed to — panels and the other symbols, like word balloons.


But primarily the concern is they're narratives. That is my definition of "comics." I certainly wouldn't consider Rock Steady a graphic novel. There are some comics within it, but I would not argue that most of it would go into the realm of comics.

When I work, I like to take a look at all of the subject matter, all the information that I have to reference, and let that dictate the form in order to communicate it best. If I were to try to put [Rock Steady] into panels and make it more of a story — sculpt it as a story — the information would have gotten kind of diluted.

I would say that it definitely landed on the word end, in that spectrum of words and pictures.

When [Forney's partner] Jake and I travel, we keep a travel journal. And it's a lot like that. It's a lot of blocks of text. There are some full pages of text, with maybe an illustration or two. It's handwritten, which is an important part of it to me.


When we're talking about big blocks of text, it's handwritten, so that communicates information differently from just a text.

I felt like I needed to use this range in order to tell these different things. The specificity of language is important to me. There are some things that really work better in words, that wind up being cumbersome if you try to do them in pictures or in words and pictures.

For example, any cartoonist that has tried to do a comic of a recipe has run into this, because it's very specific information, and to have that information sprinkled around in a comic makes it cumbersome to use. It's difficult to use as a reader, if you really want to cook from it.

And I reminded myself a lot as I was doing Rock Steady that communicating the information was my priority — that I didn't need to make it pretty if it wasn't coming out pretty.

One long stretch of text is in the chapter about substances, in dealing with partaking. I really wanted to communicate to people who were wrestling with issues around substances.

This was something that I talked about in Marbles, — about dealing with smoking pot, and my whole identity around being a pot smoker. I didn't want to depict anything too specific. I generally say that words are explicit, and pictures give more of an abstract feel, or a mood. Obviously that's a big generalization, because you can do a whole story in just pictures.

But in something like substances, there were ways that I could be more general just using words — where if I was actually depicting someone smoking pot, then somebody who was having an issue with alcohol might not really relate to that. And I didn't want to make it funny. I really wanted to be really careful.

It's also a really controversial take on substances. I don't mean to dwell on the substances part too much, but I took a lot of time and revisions and editing, and I worked with addiction psychiatrists on that part.

Having that be in mostly text allowed me to be really explicit, and it also allowed me to sidestep drawing someone using or partaking. That's an example of a place that I decided that I was going to let it be wordy, that the information would dictate the form. And even though that was about as far from comics as I would get, I had to be okay with that, and trust that enough readers would be able to hang with that.

Anyway. So that was my lengthy response to a concern that you brought up, that was something that I had thought about. Which is, it's not a comic. It's not a narrative from beginning to end like Marbles. But the kind of information that I wanted to communicate, and the amount of information that I wanted to communicate, wasn't going to fit into a narrative structure. I wasn't going to be able to fold all of that into a longer narrative.

And Marbles Part Two doesn't have much of a story arc. You know, I stayed stable.

And that's not much of a plot, yeah. I felt bad that I spent so much time on whether or not Rock Steady was a comic in my review, but I do think that was something that I thought that readers would want to know, right? But at the same time, I was concerned I was doing some sort of bro-y, gatekeeping sort of thing? Because I'm not that interested in whether it's comics or whether it's not comics. It's more like, does it work?

I think that those points are really important. I would say that probably a good block of people who are gonna pick up Rock Steady are familiar with Marbles and not the rest of my work. It has a lot of the trappings of a comic, and it doesn't read like a comic. I knew that Rock Steady would run into that — if you see it on the table in bookstore, what it is isn't necessarily clear right away.

And I know that that's a thing. I remember an art teacher talking about your expectations, like if you have a glass of brown liquid in front of you and you think it's apple juice, and you sip it and it's actually bourbon, you're gonna spit it out. And so that I know there are a lot of readers that are gonna have to kind of readjust, like, 'Oh, it's not a narrative. Oh, it's not Marbles Part 2.' It's a companion book. It's a how-to book. It's a manual that uses the language of words and pictures in a number of different ways, I guess.

But there's graphic elements that go into even the pages that are all text, right? I mean, that's not your handwriting, right? That's not how you write a shopping list.


The writing on the page is not just you dashing something off. You're actually thinking about how the words go on the page, right?


And there's design to that as well. And that's something that I don't think I got across in my review. There's still cartooning even if there's not a drawing on the page. You are still cartooning, right?

Well, because there are so many different skills and techniques that go into doing a page. And I rarely use panels, I rarely use a grid. So really, every page is sculpted from what the information is.

And ideally, it reads easy enough. That's the idea. That's my aim — that it reads easily enough that you think, 'Of course it's that way. Of course that's how it's written. Of course that's how it's laid out.' My work is meant to come across as really spontaneous — its kind of friendly, welcoming quality, is because of a certain sense of ease.

Yeah. There's a sense of ease and there's always a sense of approachability.

But it is very designed. It is very designed, and redesigned, and tweaked, for sure. And it gets hidden. Every now and then somebody will say something about how effortless [my work] is, rather than how effortless it seems. I'll just go ahead and take that as a compliment.

It's interesting you were talking about the substances, because I don't know if you could draw somebody doing drugs in the way that wouldn't feel, on some level, inviting. Because your art is very approachable, and even if you draw something that's supposed to be bad, there's a level of fun and appeal that comes across to the reader. So, you definitely have a level of responsibility there.

Yeah. It was a really tricky one. I didn't want to draw something that was cute. I drew a little tiny bit of cute in the very beginning so that it kind of eased your way in, with two beer bottle characters.

In this book, you talk about the importance of stability. And that is something that a lot of people who I have interviewed would say is not important or is antithetical to art. Some people — and I'm not in this category, but a lot of people are — think that art has to be spontaneous and uncontained and unstable. And so I was wondering if you've gotten any pushback on your call for stability in art.

I would say that, at least from the people who I hear from, there is a lot more relief that it's possible to be creative and be stable. It's a great, big fear that stability is gonna mean losing a certain spontaneity or passion or creativity. And my saying that it's possible to be stable just kind of gives a flicker of hope. I'd say that that's the primary reaction that I've gotten.

And one way to think about that that doesn't feel restrictive is keeping a regular rhythm. Think of Led Zeppelin. If you have a really solid rhythm section, then you can have guitar solos, you can go out into creativity and innovation, and it's still grounded and you're going to come back to this rhythm that keeps everything together.

And so if you think about your daily rhythm that way, then you can go off and do all sorts of things. I mean, an example would be like, "I want to go to the mountaintop for that crazy artist week-long residency." Great. Make sure you get enough sleep. Make sure you're eating. You know, take care of certain things in your routine and you can do your guitar solos.

Speaking of changing rhythms, you've been on a book tour. I usually talk to people before they go on tour, so this is a nice change of pace. What was the tour like?

It was great. It was really fun.

What was the response to the book like on the tour?

I mean, I am back as of yesterday. I have a little processing to do.

People seem to be getting the point — that this book is coming from a point of view of someone who's had this experience and has an investment in these practices and ways of thinking. Most of the books [in this genre] are by therapists or doctors, and this information is really different, coming from me.

Also, I've gotten people really relating to things that are really important to me, that were really important to me to include, like messing up. It's okay to mess up, most of the time — it'll be okay or it'll be fixable.

It was really embarrassing when I put in the book how I accidentally took Vitamin D instead of my mood stabilizer, Lamictal, for three days. That's a bad mistake, and for me, it was overwhelmingly embarrassing. But I dealt with it. I looked up information on the internet, realized that actually I was kind of in danger territory, called my doctor, figured out what we needed to do, and learned my lesson, and went on. I don't make that mistake anymore.

That's a big part of taking care of ourselves: You're gonna mess up. What are you gonna do then? I think it seems so far like people are kind of getting that.

You might not want to hear this question so close to publishing a book, but I'm sure that my readers would like to know. What are you working on next?



No, that's okay. The thing that I'm toying with now is a book that covers a lot of the same aim as Rock Steady, except for teens. When I was first starting to do Marbles, a friend of mine, who is a high-school English teacher, said, "please make this available for teens, because they just need it so much."

It's such a huge issue in schools: in your teens is really when a lot of the symptoms start developing and coming out, and diagnoses are kind of starting to come into play, and a lot of kids are getting on medications. It's a really confusing time, and there are a lot of issues in the air that aren't clear.

With Marbles, I had to tell the story how I had to tell the story. It turns out there was too much drugs and sex for it to get into high school. Not that plenty of teens didn't read it, and I've heard from plenty of teens, but it couldn't be officially taught. Well, I mean, it has — I talked to a high-school class — but rarely.

Yeah, you had to Judy Blume it.

Yeah. When I was starting Rock Steady, that was one of my aims, that it be available to teens. And I had a three-hour talk on the phone with a high-school psychologist/counselor, and I wound up realizing that I wasn't gonna be able to do that. There are some issues that are just way too different. Most high-schoolers are still on their parents' insurance, so dealing with finding their own health issues is different. Agency, just in general is a big issue. They just don't have the kinds of freedoms that adults who are taking care of themselves do.

I have mixed feelings about medication in general, and I hope that that is very clear in Rock Steady, that I don't preach meds. I don't think that they are necessary for everybody. I don't think that they're necessary for the long-term for everybody. I think that there's a lot of over-diagnosing and over-medicating now. And teens, so many of them are on meds now. Their frontal lobes are still developing, and it feels like a really even more complicated piece of an already complicated issue that I would wanna deal with differently.

And there are a lot of other issues that are different, like questioning the diagnosis. It's really different for a teen to be like, 'Mom, Dad, Doctor, I'm not sure about this diagnosis that you've given me.' It's a big deal, and to have that in a book, it'll be really tricky.

I decided, "Okay, this isn't something that I'm gonna be able to do with Rock Steady. That's a separate project," and so that's what I'm thinking about now. That's the long answer.

I'm just trying to wrap my head around how I'm going to do that, which groups of teens I'll turn to, if it should have fictional elements. Should there be more narrative elements? I don't know. I feel like I am now kind of opening it up, more, to different possibilities. 'Cause it's gonna be tricky.