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Eric Orchard on 'Maddy Kettle,' depression and mental illness

On one level, Eric Orchard's Maddy Kettle: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch is a classic adventure tale about a girl who has to go find the witch who turned her parents into kangaroo rats, in order to undo the spell. The art is reminiscent of children's fantasy tales, and Maddy meets a fanciful assortment of friends and foes along the way. However, after reading Orchard's recent tweets about his experiences with mental illness, I realized there are many layers to this story.

I asked Orchard if he would discuss the way his experiences with mental disorders — his mother's schizophrenia and his own depression and anxiety — have influenced his storytelling.

Brigid Alverson: How has mental illness affected your life?

Eric Orchard: My mother always suffered terribly from schizophrenia, but when my father died, when I was 2, she fell apart. Most of my childhood was my mother struggling to keep herself together. In retrospect it seems like a heroic feat; even though I suffered somewhat, she overcame things that I find astounding. She had reserves of strength and compassion that saw us through. She was battling fears and terrifying visions so that I could have some kind of normal life. Really, there was only so much she could do. What I recall most was the antipsychotics causing her to sleep most of the day. With no siblings or father, I was alone a lot. These were times I started writing and drawing. I had hours to tell elaborate stories and build worlds. I was taught to read very young by an aunt, and that also helped.

I feel so fortunate the schizophrenia wasn't passed along to me. Talking to doctors about this, statistically the chances of a parent passing along schizophrenia are actually quite low. Even still, I was left with a crippling anxiety and sometimes depression that hits me once or twice a year. I need medications to balance me out, and I need to talk to people to work it through.

The people in my life who love me and the art and stories I've made have kept me going. It scares me to think of my life if I didn't have art. I don't dwell on it a lot, but it gives me a hopefulness and buoyancy in life that carries me through. It makes sense of the terrible memories.

Today the worst is the depression and the pervasive sense of worthlessness I'm always pushing away. I find it hard to make friends because I feel different. When you grow up like that, you just feel separated from people, like you are a little too different to have close friends. But I still try and still reach out to people.

I can't begin to tell you how meaningful it's been to tell stories to people all over the world, hopeful stories that maybe make people feel less alone. Finishing Maddy Kettle was so important. It meant to me I wasn't so damaged I couldn't make something beautiful and important to people. At one time in my life this seemed so impossible. Happily my wife pushed me. She's stronger than me and more insightful; she saw what I could do and basically forced me to do it. I'm so grateful to her. And she's had her own pain to overcome, which makes it even more special.

How did it affect your choice of a career and a medium — specifically, graphic storytelling?

I was lucky to have a large extended family. One cousin, Lorraine, gave me a box of comics when I was little. And other cousins had a complete set of Tintins. I'm guessing, but I think the stories of strong or resourceful people were something I responded to deeply. And I just love to draw. I would draw through everything. Even if it wasn't directly related to my fears and loneliness, I felt like I was building something important. It was also my only talent; I really had nothing else to distinguish myself. It made people in school look at me differently. I didn't like sports; I felt like I really didn't understand people at all. People seemed alien to me. Drawing and telling stories gave me a connection to people. It let them into my life in a way nothing else did. That might be a cliche, but I really loved that people saw me as an artist. Without it I was just a kid with a strange mother and a bundle of anxieties. I think that's something a lot of other cartoonists and illustrators can identify with to some degree. It makes you special in an environment (school) that can be hostile to anyone who doesn't fit in.

I was also very inspired by people like Linda Medley and Jeff Smith and Neil Gaiman who used the medium to talk about powerful emotional things but in a fantastical framework. I didn't see another medium doing it that way. These people reached in deep and talked about compassion and integrity, but in a way that wasn't trite. I really, really needed that, and it came out at the right time for me. I immediately began publishing similar minicomics in high school, inspired by them. I was bullied and misunderstood, and these books saw me through. I'm grateful for comics.

And this is where Maddy Kettle comes from, this place where I needed a hero who could love and forgive but wasn't trite or overly simplistic. Someone who felt rage and anger, but there was always love and a capacity for empathy.

In the beginning of the book, it seems like Maddy is cast in the role of protector, and her parents are very passive. Does this reflect your own experiences, either as a child or as the family member who suffers from mental illness?

Yes, that had meaning almost immediately. When my mother had her worst psychotic break, she was gone. The mother I had always known was erased. There was nothing left of her. She went from sweet and compassionate to enraged and paranoid. She saw things that weren't there and her logic stopped making any kind of coherent sense. It felt like she had become a monster. In fact, in the original script the parents were much more monstrous. And to be honest, Maddy handled this all a lot better than I did. I tended toward despair at moments, but Maddy always had resolve. I wish I was as strong as Maddy was. I also had to rebuild friendships that I had let fall apart because I couldn't face people. I think that was in there too.

And children always feel powerless. I can see it in my son. It breaks my heart a little. You want them to feel protected but also empowered, and it's a tough balance. But children have enormous reserves of strengths, and they are smarter and more perceptive than we know.

In my new book with First Second, Bera the One Headed Troll, I'm also pulling from these experiences, but in this story the hero is more like my mother in a sense. I wanted to show the strength a person with no real power has and what they can do. What love can do.

The character of the Thimblewitch starts out being perceived as the villain but ends up being someone very different. How does her character express what you're talking about?

I do believe there are bad people, people who want to use you or think they know what's best for you and will control you. I've seen too many people I care about used and abused to believe otherwise. So, I never wanted people to think I have an overly rosy view on people's motivations. I really don't. But I also believe many people make terrible choices and that they can be redeemed. I believe Thimblewitch has less to do with my mother and my own struggles with getting well and more of a general belief in redemption. I think most people have empathy and if they just could understand and had the inner strength they could change. I think a lot of Maddy's power comes from her ability to listen and forgive. One reviewer felt Maddy was too forgiving but I see it a strength, a positive. I felt I was being honest about who Maddy is. I followed her lead, I didn't force that attitude on her. She's a good person.

How do the visuals of the book — the palette, your drawing style, the way you frame the panels — support the story? Are there aspects that you thought through beforehand?

To me Maddy Kettle is a kind of fairy tale. It doesn't follow exact fairy tale tropes but I wanted that sense to fill the book. So I tried to use visual language to communicate that. I referenced Victorian and Edwardian children's book illustrators whose works are heavily associated with fairy tales: Rackham, Dulac and others. I wanted the world to swirl with life, like a Van Gogh. I have degrees in painting and art history, and I sensed that how it looked would have an emotional impact. People would just understand the nature of this place. The colours were more of an aesthetic choice; I love comics with flat colors. And it suited the way I drew the book.

My hope was that the fairy tale feel would be friendly and strange enough to invite people in. And that maybe they'd understand things things in an indirect way.

I also have a love of dark things, gothic horror and ghost stories and I think that found it's way in as well.

There's a sense that runs through the book of loss and retrieval: Maddy has lost her old life, the Thimblewitch has lost her powers, the Spider Goblins have lost their magic, even the city in the clouds is a ruin that was abandoned by the raincloud dwarves. Does this reflect the reality of being mentally ill?

Life with a mentally ill person is very unstable. There were threats from everywhere, that my mother would be taken away, that my mother would hurt me, that people knew I was different and ostracized me. Our house growing up was a disaster. Dirty pots hidden in cupboards, clothing everywhere, an unfinished basement crammed with detritus. It looked abandoned. And I lived beside a stretch of wood with abandoned shacks as well. I sometimes felt I was living in a world of ruins. I really internalized this. I think the world I was living in was very different from the world other people were living in. To be honest, I resented the stability I saw all around me; it made me angry. I think I'm still a bit angry. I don't resent nuclear families or wealth, but it hurt to be outside of that. I know I'm not saying anything original. And my family is still together and I love my mother and we are honest about things now. It's hard not to be grateful for that. I also know how much worse it could have been. If circumstances had been a little different — my gender, my sexual orientation, my race -- it would have compounded things, I'm sure. I would disappear into my stories and drawings. I would build something new.

On the other hand, Maddy and the bear and raccoon are more active — for instance, the bear and raccoon fix their balloon every time it's damaged. Is that the other side?

They are. They keep going no matter what. Against impossible odds. They are about exploring and helping. A teacher in art school once begged me not to give in; she had a relative in the same position and they gave into their mother's schizophrenia. It gets into you. You start to think like them. That person lost their path in life. I am fortunate to have picked up a certain buoyancy at some point. And it's carried me through. Maddy and Harry and Silvio are buoyant. There was a scene in the first draft of Maddy where she gives into despair. She stops fighting. But it seemed all wrong. Maddy wouldn't do that. She would push through to the end. She is flawed in some ways, but she is full of hope and resolve and I think that's important for kids to read. I want kids to know it's OK to hope no matter what, not to be consumed by cynicism.

The story doesn't have a traditional happy ending. Can you explain what's going on there? Do you plan on another Maddy story to continue her adventures?

Yes, Maddy Kettle is going to be a series. It will switch more to the Cloud Scape and exploration and helping people there. Harry and Silvio will act as sort of mentors to Maddy as she learns to map the world of clouds.

I was looking at your Facebook thread where you talk about your childhood, and several people suggested you do a graphic memoir. Why do you prefer to say these things more obliquely, through fiction, right now?

I would love to, and I've begun it more than once, but I just can't find the right tone. It always comes out dreary and self pitying, and that's not how it is at all. Even at the worst there was a lot of beauty in my life, a lot of wonder and gratitude. And it's so hard to balance it all out because it was awful at the same time. I was terrified. And to be honest, mental illness has a funny side. It's so complicated. And it might just be boring. A lot of dealing with these issues was dull. Sitting quietly in mental wards while my mom stared off into space. Long, dreary bus rides to see her. There must be a good approach that is compelling and truthful, but I haven't hit on it yet. Nate Powell did it so beautifully in Swallow Me Whole; I'm a bit envious of that!

I have glimpses of what it could be. And I feel it could be important to people. My natural way of writing is children's stories so it would probably come out that way. When I try for more adult writing it comes out forced and unnatural. It's not in my nature.

How does mental illness affect your life now?

I live with mental health issues every day. It's always there. I need medications to get through the day and I need a lot of support. And drawing and writing helps a lot. Making Maddy helped so much, I can't even express it.

It's interesting because it's not directly related to my mother in an obvious way. I never think about that. It comes out in crippling anxiety and depression and a sense of worthlessness. My mother will call, crying and apologizing, and I have to tell her it wasn't her. It was her illness and I don't resent her at all. But I have issues related to it. I find it hard to trust people. It's hard to make and keep friends. I worry about being a good father.

This is a topic many people avoid. Why do you think it's important to talk about it? How has talking about it changed your life?

Honestly, it all spilled out in a fit of pain. I hadn't eaten or slept in days. My wife was getting worn out, and I had spent the evening in emergency seeking psychiatric care. I just started sharing and it kept going. And I thought it might help people who were also in pain. I felt I was able to articulate some things that had eluded me before and I'd better say it now.

One of the first fan letters I received for Maddy was from a young autistic girl and it made me think, if I could reach one isolated person with my stories I could reach more and we could all feel less alone through stories.

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