Ellen Forney is the Eisner-nominated cartoonist of books including “I Love Led Zeppelin” and “Monkey Food: The Complete ‘I Was 7 in ’75’ Collection,” a book gathering every installment of her acclaimed comic strip. Forney is also the artist of “Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads from Seattle’s The Stranger” Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award winning novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
Her latest book, a New York Times Bestseller, is “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me,” published through Penguin’s Gotham Books imprint. In it, Forney discusses her diagnosis as bipolar and the following years as she struggled with her illness. Over the course of the graphic novel, Forney comes to terms with what it means to be an artist, discovering a new way to think about her own life and work. The result is her finest work to date, simultaneously as playful and inventive as anything she’s created while remaining a moving portrait of illness and recovery.
CBR News: First of all, Ellen, congratulations on making the bestseller list.
Ellen Forney: Thank you. That was a pretty amazing feeling.
When did you start working on “Marbles?”
It depends on what you would consider a starting date. I don’t know of anyone who creates a big work where it hadn’t been percolating for a long time. That part of the process is a very important one. The short answer would be four years that I worked on it. Two years for the proposal — starting in 2008 — and then a year to map out the story and thumbnails, then a very intense year doing pencils and inks.
Of course I’d been thinking about it for a long time. I don’t remember exactly what I was talking about with my psychiatrist in her office, but I was really frustrated about something and I remember just realizing that I was going to have to process this in a comic. Just feeling like this is what I had to do. I had no idea how I was going to do it. I felt like I was being given an assignment by myself, but I had to wait until I felt stable enough. I had been really private about [my bipolar disorder] for all these years, really up until right before I put out the book. I also knew that I had to wait until I could have some perspective on it. I guess I was gathering the material from way back when I was writing and drawing in my journals because all of that went in [to the book]. I wasn’t thinking specifically that it would go into my eventually graphic memoir.
Up until “Marbles,” your work had been short pieces. Why did you have to create a graphic novel rather than shorter piece for this?
That was another thing that I wrestled with for back in my psychiatrist’s office when I came to this realization. I had long considered myself something of a graphic essayist. My work was short ,and I felt that was a characteristic of my work and how I expressed my ideas. I remember thinking, how am I going to say what I’m going to say? Am I going to take a panel to say that I’m bipolar and then talk about what a pain in the ass lithium is? I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it.
I realized it was going to have to be long form and that was one of the many, many things that wound up being new to me. To figure how to make a long narrative arc and just logistically how I was going to pencil and ink such a long thing. How I was going to wrap my head around the different parts of it? I was accustomed to just looking at my 11×17 piece of paper and moving things around. It was clear to me that it needed to be long form and that I was just going to learn as I went.
To what degree was the need to make it longform the result of including all these other elements beyond your own personal story that are in the book?
There were a number of reasons I put in basically two other threads: the artists and writers and their stories, and the different studies and symptoms and very specific information. It was an important thing to me from the very beginning that it not just be my story. There were these other elements that I was very interested in, so it came from a personal place. But I wanted to also have those elements that were more universal and that people reading the book might find useful and helpful in a very different way, a more universal way.
You touch on this idea of connection as being key, both in terms of your personal life but also the idea of linking to other artists who have dealt with this and the importance of not feeling alone with this.
Exactly. That was an important thing for me. I think that’s an important thing for everyone, really. Except for very few people, pretty much all of us seek company and inspiration from others. It’s just a natural human inclination. The company that I got from Kay Jamison and her book “An Unquiet Mind” and William Styron and his book “Darkness Visible” was something that I wanted to be able to offer to people who read “Marbles.” That’s another lineage I was hoping I would be able to be a part of, to whatever degree
Styron’s book is just brilliant and has been a great help for me.
It’s so powerful. He’s just so eloquent. Kay Jamison’s is amazing in her own, different way, but Styron just really nailed it using these really great phrases and words. I put some of my favorite ones [in the book], but to just be able to nail what I was feeling when not only did I not know how to express what I was feeling, I couldn’t really figure out how I was feeling. One of the phrases that was so poignant to me and pointed was “infantile dread,” because I just felt so helpless. Feeling so helpless, there’s an element of feeling like a really ugly baby. I think that was where my there’s a drawing that I did of a phoenix-like Ellen in 1999 that’s me in a diaper. This feeling of feeling like an ugly baby, I hadn’t seen that anywhere else. That one phrase of his nailed a lot of that swirling feeling of helplessness for me.
What was the main challenge of telling the story, because memory can be tricky and also, we don’t remember pain well.
As you might imagine, a lot of it was very hard. [Laughs] It was very difficult to go back there and it was very difficult to go back to my manic episodes. They made me cringe. I really had to not overplay my being a pain in the ass, but also be understanding of myself at the same time, showing and really examining and looking at how I affected other people and how they responded to me. As you might imagine, the obvious answer is that going back and looking at depression was extremely difficult and very painful for a couple of reasons. From this vantage point, going back and reliving it — and to a large degree that’s what it felt like, reliving that — I really had to immerse myself in that. That’s a lot of pain. I had to immerse myself in different emotions, not just what they felt like but what that feeling would look like, and so really needing to feel it very deeply in order to depict it. Going through it during the creation of the book was a very thorough immersion in those feelings.
Also, this sense that I wish that I could go back and comfort myself like I do finally in the end. I was thinking, this is such a device — the conversation that I have at the end with me now and me then. But that was one of the things I was aiming for when I was doing this book — to make some sense out of this very difficult lost and often hopeless feeling that I was having back then. I wish that I could have given myself some sense of hope when I really wasn’t sometimes even pretending that I had.
The moment I keep coming back to in that scene is where you tell your younger self that in a few years you’ll figure out a balance, and your younger self explodes, “Years?”
It’s funny, but that’s true! We get through these things in part by thinking we’re just around the corner. I don’t know what we’d do if we knew it would take many long, difficult years.
Exactly. The panel before I wrote that the light at the end of the tunnel is just a Looney Tunes character. I think that the wording of that came out too long, but I couldn’t draw a picture that would have said that. That was actually a picture that I would get in my head. It’s a little bit like infantile dread or like evil clowns, something that’s supposed to be cute and friendly, but it’s twisted and demented. That was part of it for me, this Looney Tunes character and light at the end of the tunnel, but whatever, I’m just going forward. What else am I going to do?
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because the way that you visually convey your moods and so many things are very striking, with a visual language for so much of what you were experiencing. Was this a challenge, or do you think visually?
One of the things that I do in my comics is I play with page design. I don’t work on a grid a whole lot. There are more pages that are organic than there are grids. I knew when I was setting out that the pages where I was manic and the pages where I was depressed that I was going to draw in different styles somehow but I didn’t realize just how many different visual styles I was going to use. By the time I was doing the pencils, I was very involved in the story. Like I said, I had really immersed myself. It felt like the story in some ways was calling for things and it was just up to me to figure out how to do them.
One example is when I was doing the Vincent Van Gogh pages. When I found out that he had done forty self-portraits in the last couple years of his life — my self portraits had been so important to me, and I realized that I was going to need to draw all forty self-portraits. I just knew that if I was drawing this line between him and me, I needed to go there. I remember feeling like, argh! It was like getting an assignment. Damn it story, this is what I have to do? Okay. You know how fiction writers will sometimes talk about how their characters take on a life of their own and sometimes their characters surprise them with things that they do? I always thought that was kind of bullshit because it’s a writer doing the writing, but I came to an understanding of that. I really felt that this story had a shape of its own and it was up to me to pull that together.
When did you know that the book would reproduce some of your sketchbook pages?
I had planned that from the very beginning. In that percolating period in the mid-2000’s, I was looking at my sketchbook, and in some ways I really like the drawings. They’re very different from the other drawings that I do and they were coming from a place that was very raw and honest and coming from a lot of pain, which is something that I don’t really relate to, normally. These were very particular to a time and a place and a pain that I hoped I would never experience again. I remember looking at those sketches, and to me it’s like a scrapbook with photos of your grandmother and grandfather that you would never be able to reproduce. If my apartment building burned down, I would never have anything like this again, and I wanted to have them in a form that it wouldn’t be lost. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to incorporate it into any other piece, because they are very different from anything else that I do. It just made sense that they would work their way in. Though, when I first started doing “Marbles,” they weren’t going to be so archival-looking. I had planned on doing them to look like a sketchbook in the same way that when you look at the list of artists and writers, it looks like you’re holding a book. As the story went on, it became apparent that they needed to be more like archival pieces on their own. That this was a real story and these are real sketchbooks that I’m talking about in the story and here they are.
What does your sketchbook usually look like? Is it like those sketchbook pages, stylistically, or is it closer to your published work?
As much as I encourage my students to keep a sketchbook, I don’t really keep one. I’ll draw on other things, but when I sketch it doesn’t look like that, no. It looks more like doodles. I draw faces a lot. I love drawing different characters.
We’re having this conversation about very serious topics, though we keep laughing, and I think it should be mentioned that there is a lot of humor in the book.
That was very important for me for many reasons. I think that in general, humor is a very important way to have perspective. You have to get outside of a situation to laugh at a thing and it’s definitely a coping mechanism that I use. I love humor, just as a human being. I love being able to be funny. In particular in a story like “Marbles,” it really needs it. It was important to make it come out in the heavy parts, too, in the depression parts. It wasn’t really hard. A friend of mine had surgery recently, and it was really upsetting and awful. When she came to after the surgery, the thing she was so conscious of was that all of the doctors around her were wearing Crocs. [Laughs] It’s exactly details like that that are so human and so important in telling a story — and experiencing life, I think.
I just keep coming back to this idea of the artist and what defines them. Part of the book is your coming to terms with the idea that a lot of it is romantic nonsense. Is that fair?
Yeah. I think there are a lot more questions than there are answers. I mean, what is crazy? What is a disorder? I think that’s basically what my answer is. I hope that I bring up a lot of questions for people to really think about what does this mean and that we all have our own answers — and even those answers change over time and depending on how you look at it.
A big question, how does bipolar disorder affect my work? I don’t know. I could talk about that for a couple of hours because I am bipolar and how do I affect my work? How does my being who I am affect my work? How do you want to pick that apart? You can ask yourself a lot of questions from a lot of different angles, but you really can’t come to a definitive answer.
You touched on this idea in the book in your exploration of Georgia O’Keefe, how there’s no sign of her illness in her work and how that’s very reassuring, knowing that your illness doesn’t have to define your work.
When I go back and look at “Monkeyfood,” the collection of “I was 7 in ’75” comics that I did, there was this period of time when I was really depressed and yet I managed to do my comic every week. There are a couple that I can point out like I remember having a hard time drawing that character because my hand was shaking or I remember having a hard time doing this part, but for the most part even I can’t remember how I felt. Even then when I was really depressed, it’s not like it necessarily leaked out into my work. It’s curious that way. I think that a lot of us would think — and I did, too, when I was doing this book — that when you’re depressed, the subject matter and the color choice is going to be more blacks and grays and blues, and when you’re up, it’s going to be more colorful and more active. I don’t know that that really holds true. I doubt it. It’s a different thing that goes on not depending on the person. For me, I really couldn’t get much work done when I was manic.
You mentioned earlier that you weren’t open about your bipolar disorder until the book was released. Just knowing you through your work, you come across as a very open person.
Are you private about things? [Laughs] Here’s the thing with that: Part of being open and honest is being open and honest about the things you want to be open and honest about. There are things that are private. There are things that I didn’t put into “Marbles.” There are things that I was not going to put into “Marbles” that I wound up feeling were important. I wasn’t going to put in anything about pot, because I really felt, similarly to how I was in the book, I can deal with this myself, this will make my character inconsistent. I realized later that it was really important when I read that a huge majority of people with mood disorders have substance issues. That maybe there were more defensive reasons I was avoiding it and it’s not just my private thing. But there were definitely things that I decided weren’t going to go in. I think you can be open and honest without telling all. That’s more about being honest with yourself.
Have you thought about what you’re going to work on next?
I’m really not sure at this point. I really felt spent when I finished “Marbles.” Not in a bad way; I just felt like I had tied up a present and I was happy with it. I really feel like it took all that I had. I have a couple of ideas that are percolating. I can’t really say a whole lot. Maybe something completely different. Some sci-fi giraffes in space kind of thing? I don’t know. I could go in any number of different ways. For the most part, I’m resting. I’m doing some short pieces. I just did one short piece called “Crazy Mart” about branding mental illness. It’s a bunch of different things you can order online at a fake website — Pez dispensers that look like Sigmund Freud to dispense your meds and other things that would actually be really cool to have. [Laughs] Hopefully that will be in print or online soon.