I’ve done it a little backwards as I read Darryl Cunningham’s Science Tales, which I absolutely loved and reviewed for Argument, before I read his first graphic novel release, Psychiatric Tales. Whilst Science Tales was a more straight-forward piece of science communication, Psychiatric Tales is a personal and often emotional account of Darryl’s experiences working within the psychiatric care system, told using an earlier form of his inimitable, subtle black and white drawings.
Those working in mental health have made a concerted effort to create a shift in the public from calling someone ‘schizophrenic’, to ‘a person with schizophrenia’- a subtle but important step.
The need for understanding rather than judging, stigmatizing or ignoring those suffering from mental illness are powerfully reinforced by stories spiked with tragic accounts personal revelation, patients coping with both their mental illness and the misunderstanding and prejudice of the society around them. A chapter on famous sufferers of mental illness, including Churchill, Brian Ferry and Spike Milligan provides examples of how mental illness is not necessarily a barrier to greatness, but even there, Cunningham shows careful thought, emphasizing that genius and talent very often comes despite, not because of, the mental illness.
The style of drawing may not be for everyone, but don’t like the simple-looking artwork fool you. There are layers of subtlety in the presentation that magnify the impact of the story being told in ways unique to the medium. More than a couple of times, Cunningham uses the effect of zooming in or out through a sequence of panels, cleverly mimicking the disorienting and nature of mental illness and powerfully magnifying its isolating and inward nature.
The last chapter, which I won’t spoil, comes as a complete surprise, and adds a whole new layer of understanding and emotion to the rest of the book. I’m wary of sounding patronizing but I can’t think a word other than ‘brave’ for the way Cunningham illustrates his own story with such honesty and insight.
Psychiatric Tales won't take more than half an hour to get through (an hour if you read it cover-to-cover, back-to-back, like I did) but it’s packed with powerful mental health advocacy and is an important and engaging reminder that there is always a person behind the illness.
From the looks of his blog, Cunningham’s working on Psychiatric Tales two, delving into some other mental illness, such as Alzheimer’s. I can’t wait to read it.