Steady as she goes

Paul Constant

May 01, 2018

Seattle cartoonist Ellen Forney's 2012 memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo & Me is a masterpiece. Forney discussed her life as a bipolar cartoonist in a totally new way: she didn't depict her mood disorder as the source of all her creativity, nor did she portray it as a crushing burden to overcome on the road to successful art.

After generations of artists depicting "madness" as the origin of inspiration, Marbles felt like a revolutionary reclamation of creativity. Forney disproved the hackneyed old fallacy that art must spring from suffering and heartache and confusion, and she recontextualized the relationship between an artist and her work.

In many ways, only an artist like Forney - and only a medium like comics - could inspire this discussion. While modern audiences have learned to respect comics as a serious storytelling form, there's still a certain unseriousness to cartooning, a self-deprecating aura, that allows readers to accept a puncturing of the old delusion that art is divinely inspired torture. (Google "writing is torture" and you'll find thousands of articles and quotes propagating the belief that all art is pain.)

Forney's artwork is the perfect delivery vehicle for this message. Her lines are so soft and clean and inviting that readers are drawn to them. You can't see a Forney figure from afar without craning your head to inspect it more closely. These inky curves, emotive figures, and dynamic actions are so easily relatable that audiences can't help but be receptive. Even a topic as fraught with stigma as the relationship between mood disorders and art feels approachable when Forney discusses it in ink on paper.

If you haven't read Marbles, you simply must. It's one of the best full-length comics works to come out of Seattle, and it's the greatest achievement to date of one of our singular literary voices.

Seven years after the release of Marbles, Forney has a new book out from Seattle publisher Fantagraphics, and it's a supplemental book to Marbles. Think, perhaps, of how Michael Pollan followed up the publication of his blockbuster treatise The Omnivore's Dilemma with a short self-described "manifesto," In Defense of Food, that felt like a distilled version of Omnivore, and you might have an idea of what's going on here.

Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life is self-described as "a self-help guide to maintaining stability with a mood disorder." And that's pretty much it. While Marbles was a narrative, Rock Steady is a series of observations, exercises, and affirmations aimed directly at the reader. In it, Forney explains how she maintains her mental health and stability in the pursuit of what Gustave Flaubert described as the ideal state for an artist: "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." (Forney illustrates this quote in Rock Steady by depicting Flaubert as an adorable cartoon bunny rabbit with the nickname "Fluffy.") She lays out a mission statement on the 7th page of the book:

Rock Steady is focused on bipolar disorder, but is also for any mood disturbance - tools to comfort ourselves, recognize danger signs, & just live with a good deal of uncertainty & craziness.

And Rock Steady perfectly meets that mission statement. Forney offers advice on a series of wide-ranging topics: how to calm down after a manic episode, how to be kind to yourself, how to cry in public. It's a practical book that can be enjoyed by people without many resources, and Forney's knack for simplifying even the most confusing subjects is put to good use here.

Fans of Forney's work should be warned: on many pages, Rock Steady is not, strictly speaking, a comic book. Much of Rock Steady consists of Forney's (gorgeous) handwriting filling a page, with some tiny doodles drawn in the margins. Whole chapters are prose and not comics at all. In fact, you have to read ahead to page 36 before you encounter a traditional gridded page of panels and word balloons.

But that page is fantastic! It depicts a therapy session, with Forney's "translations" of the goings-on appearing in caption boxes at the bottom of each panel. The therapist asks, "How are you?" and the patient responds "I'm okay." In the caption, Forney explains that the patient is really saying "Please help me incorporate this chronic illness into a healthy sense of self." A few panels later, after the two really start communicating, their word balloons turn into a heavily overlapping Venn diagram, thereby illustrating their understanding.

Don't get me wrong: there's plenty of gorgeous cartooning in Rock Steady. Forney illustrates merit badges for people who follow her program of stability, and they're so clean and legible that readers of any language could immediately ascertain their meaning. (The merit badge for developing self-comforting tools is just a succession of wavy lines, and Forney is so brilliant at relaying the concept of "comfort" in those lines that she doesn't even need to explain what they mean.)

Still, Forney fans can't be faulted for wanting slightly more narrative strips in Rock Steady, more memoir in all the self-help. While Forney is a world-class explainer, you almost wish that she could demonstrate a story demonstrating, say, how she overcame insomnia in a comic strip, rather than use generic emoji-faced figures to describe to the readers how to overcome insomnia.

Once your expectations are managed - once you understand that Rock Steady is not the memoir sequel to Marbles, but rather a love letter to anyone having trouble dealing with a mood disorder - you'll encounter an abundance of joy in Rock Steady. Forney is, rightfully, proud of her ability to manage her bipolar life, and that pride is infectious.

Rock Steady should appeal to any creative person. Forney's appeal to routine and stability is a whiff of fresh air in the fetid self-pitying swamp of creativity self-help books. Anyone who follows her advice about containing drama and learning how to cultivate a sturdy support network will be better off in the long run. But the audiences at which Forney is taking direct aim - bipolar readers, and those suffering from other mood disorders - stand to learn the most from Rock Steady. Simply put, this is a book that can save lives.

Books in this review:
  • Rock Steady
    by Ellen Forney
    Fantagraphics Books
    May 14, 2018
    200 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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