Marbles, cartoonist Ellen Forney’s excellent graphic memoir about being bipolar, opens with her in the middle of a 5 1/2-hour session in a tattoo parlor. Every time the needle traces a line, Forney writes, she can “see the sensation — a bright white light, an electrical charge.” Those opening words are a perfect description of her book. From the very first page, Forney allows us to see sensation — to inhabit, as closely as possible, her bipolar world, from its manic, exhilarating highs to its oceanic, debilitating lows. Bipolar disorder defies easy treatment; each individual patient must become their own guinea pig to discover the balance of medication and lifestyle therapies that will allow him or her to achieve long-term stability. For Forney, this was an intense four-year process that she chronicles with her deceptively simple drawing style, an emotive line that matches her expressive prose.
Is it weird to call a memoir about bipolar disorder entertaining? Well, this one is, thanks to the ease with which Forney translates her vivacious, fearless personality to the page. This is easiest when she’s getting that tattoo, planning a massive book party or orchestrating a steamy photo shoot in one of her manic phases, but her unfailing sense of humor, honesty and engagement with the world sustains us through the low phases as well. After receiving her diagnosis, Forney plans future projects to occupy herself when she becomes depressed, but as the cycle inevitably shifts, she writes, “I sensed that I had landed, a familiar feeling I’d forgotten. … I had a tickle in my throat and there was pressure in my nasal passages. I’d forgotten this part, too. During a manic episode, depression seems entirely impossible. At the end of a high, though, I’d get sick. I had a sinking feeling … I’d been so sure that I could manage without meds, that I could take care of myself. That conviction disappeared all at once.”
From a distance, it can be tempting to romanticize the bipolar artist, as Forney herself points out, providing a list of celebrated painters, writers and composers who shared her diagnosis. But by alternating comics with pages from the sketchbook she kept during her lows, we see what depression looks like through her eyes, and any romantic notions are quickly dispelled.
Forney has a virtuosic understanding of what words and images can do in congress, playing them off one another in ways that allow her pages to be more than the sum of their parts. A wildly branching flow chart mimics the frenetic geometries of manic associative thinking; drops of water on a wall morph into a woodland scene to show the process of visual creativity at work; on one page, gray cloudlike forms press down on a small figure to evoke the claustrophobic anxiety that oppresses Forney during her lows. No matter what she’s experiencing, Forney wants you to be there with her. Chances are, if you have even a passing interest in nonfiction comics, psychology or what it means to be creative, you’ll want to be there, too.