Several weeks ago, a package arrived in the mail. As frequently happens for me, that package contained a graphic novel, one that I'd never heard of. "Enclosed is a copy of Look Straight Ahead," the enclosed cover letter read, "a story about a teen boy's struggle with manic depression."
Not sure if I'd received either the most depressing or intriguing graphic novel ever published, I started leafing through the book… and to my astonishment found one of the most creative and compelling books by a new creator that I'd read in a long time. As you can see from the images included with this interview, creator Elaine Will is an artist without fear, a cartoonist who pours her soul into every page about the very troubled Jeremy Knowles. She puts readers inside Jeremy's head and allows us to experience life through his eyes – and through hers. You can read my review of this book here.
Elaine graciously allowed me to shoot her some very direct questions about this book, and as you can see from her answers, she didn't shy away from answering even the most personal of them. It shouldn't be surprising that the creator of such an honest graphic novel was so honest with me, but I was still amazed by how open she gets in the following conversation. Thank you so much for such a memorable email conversation, Elaine!
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: First and foremost, why did you decide to create this story? Did these events happen to you or to someone you know?
Elaine Will: I've struggled with depression since I was 13, and in 2002 I suffered a complete mental breakdown (coincidentally, this was also the same year I self-published my first comic!). It wasn't brought on by bullying so much as stress I created for myself – I had to do well in school so I could get into a good university so that I wouldn't be living on the streets, and so on…of course, we know NOW that getting a university degree doesn't mean what it used to…
I really suffered much worse bullying in elementary school than I did in high school. From teachers as well as students. So that part is embellished, as is, of course, the fact that I drew the main character as a male. This was 1) to distance myself somewhat from the story, and 2) an embarrassing by-product of the fact that I couldn't draw women (at least not when I started the book).
CB: Why did you feel you needed to distance yourself a bit from the story by having the main character be a boy?
Will: I had to fictionalize it. When real people you know are involved in a story, you really have to be careful. Nine times out of ten, they won't like the way they're portrayed. Let's just say there were some things that happened that I just couldn't and didn't want to draw.
I have another story in mind to do at some point, about two young women, that delves more into self-harm and suicide – two subjects I didn't really explore as much as I wanted to in this book. But that's down the road – I don't want to become known as "that woman who only draws the really depressing stories about mental illness!" (Although, at the same time, I like to think I do a good job of that, as it's a topic I know very well!)
CB: Whether it was you or someone else, how did you approach creating the bizarre images that are one of the main focal points of the book?
Will: My breakdown was simultaneously the scariest and most fascinating thing that has ever happened to me. I can't explain exactly how it felt – I never actually had any visual hallucinations – the closest I ever came was one point when I found myself staring at a clear candy wrapper and pondering what it would look like it if I drew each wrinkle in the plastic in a different colour. And I just stared and stared at this wrapper as though this was the most important thing in the world. I genuinely felt, at the time, that I was getting a peek at another reality behind our own – for the book I guess I tried to draw what I thought that reality looked like. Scary, but beautiful at the same time.
CB: If you didn't experience the visual hallucinations, how did you imagine the hallucinations that Jeremy experiences?
Will: I just drew what felt right. I had a friend at uni in Bournemouth who drew the most awesome, singular, swirly psychedelic-looking designs and characters, and he once said he drew them because they "felt nice to draw." Flowing, swirly designs DO feel nice to draw. I do lots of small paintings of weird swirly animals like that now. And anything surreal and seemingly random also feels nice for me to draw, because I'm not so hung up on "this has to look exactly like the real-life thing it represents."
CB: This book is very much about the interior experiences of the main character. How did you approach creating his interior life as something that was bizarre but that readers could relate to?
Will: Above all, I wanted to illustrate how it felt to lose one's own mind and to allow readers to go on that journey with Jeremy. The other reality is frightening to him, but it's also a comfort – something he can escape into. God is there in the form of the dragon. God makes unreasonable demands of him, but is still a benevolent force. God still loves him. (I'm not religious, but a lot of mental patients definitely have a preoccupation with sin and religion, and so it was with me.)
My other reality was also frightening – there are SO many delusions I had that didn't make it into the book. Such as when I thought there was a bomb in my head that would explode if I fell asleep, killing everyone within a 100-mile radius. But during the euphoric hypomania stages, I wanted to be in that reality. I was drawing non-stop, better than I ever had before – and I had so many ideas I couldn't get them on paper fast enough. Jeremy does this close to the end of chapter 3 – it was a really hard thing for me to illustrate though, the hypomania. It wasn't enough for me to have him say "Oh, I'm drawing so much better than I ever have before! This is amazing!" You know they always say "Show, don't tell." I couldn't figure out how to show that aspect of it. That's my one regret.
CB: That's a fascinating idea, that the hypomania is exciting and terrifying at the same time. I suppose that idea could fuel a lot of the thinking about crazy artists and is often reinforced by the media. Do you ever find yourself fighting those euphoric hyponamic feeling as you create your comics now? With the level of detail and thought that goes into each page, is it fair to say there is an intensity that goes into your cartooning?
Will: I've never
once felt as intensely as I did then. In fact I find it harder to get into what I call "the zone" now…the point where I'm just working and working on something without noticing the passage of time. Sometimes I literally still seem to treat art as a matter of life and death…I shouldn't, because that makes it much harder to create.
CB: You actually make hypomania sound wonderful! Do you consciously try to keep that spirit alive in yourself, and if so, what do you do?
Will: I make it sound fun, but it can be very dangerous. You may have heard stories of people engaging in excessive spending and sexual activity while manic. Luckily it didn't manifest that way for me. There was one Canadian journalist who purchased an entire warehouse full of antique Chinese furniture with the idea of opening a storefront back home…only to realize what an outlandish idea that was once he came down from his manic high…
I don't know if I do still have that spirit – I feel more like I'm constantly chasing it. Now there's an idea for another book! I've actually been depressed a lot these days, although I make a point of not talking about it online unless it's in comic form. That maybe makes me part of the problem – people should talk about it!
CB: One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that no two pages look alike. As an artist, was that a deliberate choice and how did you take on that challenge? Did you take pains to echo scenes and attitudes throughout the book?
Will: The real answer is more embarrassing – I can't draw the same thing twice. This is the reason I had to quit studying animation. Sameness in my art drives me nuts too, in a weird sort of reverse-OCD. I know a lot of people sing the praises of The Six-Panel Grid, but I've got no use for that. That's not interesting to me at all – at least not when every page is drawn that way. I'm interested in how far I can push my page layouts. How I can use a different panel shape and size to effect the mood of a scene. I like to think I accomplished that. I did re-use a lot of symbols throughout the book, too, like the puzzle piece.
CB: I'm curious about your approach to color in the book. You use it sparingly, so that when we see color it's a great shock for the reader. What was your approach to including color in Look Straight Ahead?
Will: Above all, to add impact to the scenes that really counted. I know I'm not the first person to use colour as a storytelling device, but I felt I had to in a story like this – and it was probably inspired by that candy wrapper I mentioned earlier. As were the scenes with Jeremy and the Kit Kat wrappers!
As well as adding intensity to the hallucinations, colour is meant to symbolize the comfort of the other reality for Jeremy – something he can hold on to in a life he feels he has no control over. And as I said earlier, being in a hypomanic state felt very colourful to me – my drawings were livelier, my thoughts seemed clearer, everything just felt like it was going to be okay. And I loved everything in the world intensely. If I could experience that again, if only for a moment, I probably would. Even with knowledge of the "crash" that comes afterward.
CB: Since so much of this book has to do with the mental health system, I have to ask how you think the system serves teens with mental illness.
Will: This is a tough question to answer. Considering the way things USED to be (when they'd basically just lock people up and throw away the key), I had a pretty good experience, although I insisted on illustrating the marked difference between my psychiatrist and the nurses: The nurses argued with me about my delusions, but my psychiatrist never did. Not once. He didn't say, one way or the other, whether they were true: he knew that they were real to me, and so he tried to find out as much about them and the reasons I was feeling that way as he could. I'm not sure but I'm guessing a lot of psychiatrists would never do this…for me, I like to think it made a difference.
I also think oftentimes genuine mental distress is mistaken for plain old teenage angst and raging hormones…and a lot of people don't seek out help at all, for fear that doing so would make them appear weak!!
As much as the system does fail people due to staff shortages or whatever other factors, we've still come a long way.
CB: Who are some of your favorite influences as a cartoonist?
Will: My number one influence is the British cartoonist Bryan Talbot and his book The Tale of One Bad Rat. I read this book when I was 15 and it's still my favourite graphic novel of all time. If you've never read it, it's about a young girl who runs away from home fleeing sexual abuse by her father. She travels to the English Lake District searching for the birthplace of Beatrix Potter. In the end she meets an older couple who take her under their wing and give her a job in their pub, and finds the strength to stand up to her father. This is a book that will make you cry, and I'm shocked it isn't more well known. Everything I've drawn since reading this book has taken some inspiration from it.
Besides that book I'm definitely influenced by Craig Thompson and Charles Burns, which is probably pretty obvious looking at some of my pages…
The artist I credit most with getting me into cartooning in the first place is Scott Shaw!. He and Roy Thomas created Captain Carrot & His Amazing Zoo Crew in the '80s, but I was first introduced to his work through Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog. He only drew the first three issues, but when I saw those I knew I wanted to make comics for the rest of my life. He is an amazing cartoonist and I hope to meet him someday!
CB: I see Bryan Talbot in your work, and Charles Burns, but Scott Shaw!? Where do you see his spirit in your book?
Will: Probably less so with this book, and more so with my weekly comic strip On the Bus– shameless plug! I draw that for a local newspaper. I usually pitch it as "two monster characters saying and witnessing awkward things." It's humorous, cartoony, just me having fun – completely different from LSA. I really want to do a longer story with these characters at some point – a friend of mine reckons it should be a road trip story, because "the movie version of a sitcom/cartoon/short subject is always a road trip" (the example he cites is Beavis & Butthead Do America). I agree, and I think it should also be a Quest of some sort!
CB: This book seems very much part of the new wave of more artistic graphic novels that are coming out in a bigger flood these days. How do you hope the market receives the book, and do you think there's a bigger audience for this type of material than there was a few years ago?
Will: Being self-published, I know I don't stand much of a chance in the way of selling tons of copies! But I hope it does well, all the same. I don't really know much about the market, to be honest. I know, through working in a comic book store, that independent graphic novels sell poorly in most comic shops compared to the mainstream stuff. But they definitely seem to do well in the book market. Again, I know people have been saying this for years, but I firmly believe Our Time Will Come. Books like March will make people sit up and take notice. Comics can be important literature and they can touch people's lives.
CB: Yes, comics can touch peoples' lives. Have you shared the book with people who have gone through the same experiences as Jeremy's family has?
Will: As much as possible! I've heard from several people online who said the book helped them with their own mental issues. While I was still in the process of posting it online, one person said it was the only reason they got out of bed on Monday mornings. Another person came up to me at Emerald City Comic Con in March to thank me for making it, and was literally in tears the entire time – they said it couldn't have come along at a better time for them, because they were going through a really bad bout of depression, and the book had helped them as well. That was really wonderful. I thought, "Man, that's why I do this." I once said that if I helped even one person with this book, I would have done my job. Looks like I have!
CB: What's next for you?
Will: Good question! I'm working on a couple of short stories, and On the Bus is still ongoing, but other than that…I had an idea for another graphic novel in mind, but when I sat down to actually write it I went "Nah, this isn't working." I think the core idea is still a good one, it just needs some retooling. I struggle with writing a lot, actually – I'd rather just draw! Hoping to find someone in the industry I can collaborate with. We'll see!
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.