Part of the power of fiction is to give people the chance to experience life from inside somebody else's mind. And part of the power of graphic novels is to allow us to literally see what the world looks like from behind somebody else's eyes, to truly walk in their shoes in order to experience the world as they do.
Look Straight Ahead puts readers within the head of Jeremy Knowles, a 17-year-old Canadian high school student who's struggling with manic depression. Elaine Will, the talented creator of this book, allows us to see with Jeremy's eyes, bringing the boy's syndrome alive on the page, and presenting his painful delusions as shocking experiences for the reader.
This is artful rather than pandering. A lot of what makes Look Straight Ahead a fascinating graphic novel is that Will allows readers to see the world as Jeremy sees it, with all his hallucinations and confusion, all his pain and delusions. She delivers a book that shows Jeremy's experiences as jagged edges and bizarre creatures — metaphorical battles that become literal battles, emotional struggles that become wars with demons, along with visions of flight, dreams of the devil, and literal thoughts of drowning in the impossibly confusing mindset that mental illness has created.
This is a remarkable debut graphic novel because of Will's sure-handedness with her subject matter and delivery. The book is immensely detailed, with imaginative scenes that continually reflect the roiling stress that mental illness, hormones and puberty are wreaking on Jeremy. Square panels reflect scenes when Jeremy is feeling mostly normal, but when he's feeling lost, confused or delusional, the pages seem to explode with an energy and confusion that reflect his disease. The standard grid is abandoned as Will adapts her storytelling on each page to depict the vision that's most appropriate for the moment.
Comics are ideal for this sort of interior/exterior presentation, where we're able to watch experiences develop objectively and subjectively at the same time. We can't help but be sympathetic towards Jeremy's struggles at the same time that we're sympathetic to his long-suffering parents and mental health workers. Everybody really to help our protagonist, but his own problems drive people away rather than bring them closer to him. Jeremy can't help but to make things worse for himself, a fact that gives the middle sections of this book real poignancy.
My favorite graphic novels are ones that show me an aspect of the world that I could never imagine. I've been to Asgard and I've been to Hell, but Elaine Will's Look Straight Ahead takes me into one of the fascinating and frightening places a comic has ever brought me: the inside of a very sick young man's head.
Read my interview with Elaine Will here.
Look Straight Ahead can be ordered from Elaine Will's website. It's also available for pre-order from comic shops and bookstores, and will be officially out October 30th in comic shops and November 5th in bookstores.