Interview: Ellen Forney On Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, And 'Marbles'

I had this sense that I was part of, sort of a lineage of artists and writers through history that have had mood disorders.

When cartoonist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over 10 years ago she was, understandably, crushed by the news that she was now the recipient of a bright, shiny, new DISORDER. But alternately, she was kind of elated. She had arrived. She was legit. She was, in her words from her wonderful new graphic memoir "Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me," "Eccentric! Passionate! Tortured! Scary! Deadly! Fire! Ice! Unmoored! Unbridled! Unpredictable! Dangerous!" She was officially a "crazy artist."

The relationship between madness and creativity is fascinating and Forney explores it beautifully. Is craziness necessary to be an artist? Can you create if you haven't lost it a little? Is mania and depression just a by-product of brilliance? Are all artists a little mad? Forney embarked on a journey of self-discovery throughout the creation of "Marbles" and came away with not only a better understanding of her diagnosis, but a graphic novel that will help guide the bipolar, the depressed, the mad, and the fellow (crazy) artists who may or may not have actually lost their marbles.

I spoke with Ellen Forney over the phone about the risks of revealing so much of herself, being admitted into "Club Van Gogh," and whether madness is a necessary component to the creative process.

MTV GEEK: How difficult was it to simply sit down and start this?

Ellen Forney: Very difficult, it was very difficult, as you might imagine. It was one of the hardest times in my life. Sitting down and basically reliving and looking and turning over all of this information, all of these experiences were hard. I knew that I wanted to pull this out. Like pull out this splinter and really take a look at it. As a cartoonist its how I take things out of me and process them really.

GEEK: Were you worried about putting yourself out there? Were you worried about people's reaction to you, as an individual, after reading this?

EF: Absolutely, it was one of my concerns in the beginning that I was going to be very out about being bipolar. I had always been pretty private about it before; my close friends, my family knew, but I knew that I had to do this book for myself and I really wanted to put it out there for a number of reasons and I just knew that, that was something I was going to have to figure out how to deal with. But really, in the end, putting it out now, I mean it’s been out since November, but I turned it in the beginning of the year, which is when I really had started to talk about it, a bit, little by little, I guess when I was inking and penciling. What I found, more than anything, is that some people have their own experiences with bipolar disorder specifically, either themselves or someone close to them, or depression, a lot of people struggle with depression, that it wound up being much more of a sense of community and not so much a sense of me exposing myself.

GEEK: Do you feel the book serves a purpose of--not necessarily a self-help book--but something someone who’s going through the same situations can look to and get something from?

EF: Yes, I do. There’s my own story, that’s my story that maybe other people can relate to or not. Because everybody has their own story but there’s a lot of information in there that is more universal, like the symptoms, I detail the symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy, I detail that and what that’s like and different studies correlating mood disorders and creativity, and then a lot of information about artists and writers through history that have had mood disorders. So whether or not someone can relate to my own story or just read my own story as a story as a friend of mine put it, a trial and triumph story. There’s also a lot of other information in there like how to swallow your pills in one gulp, hopefully a useful tip to someone attempting that.

GEEK: A large part of the book is about creative people who also were or are bipolar, can you tell us what "Club Van Gogh" is?

EF: Well, I had this sense that I was part of, sort of a lineage of artists and writers through history that have had mood disorders. There are any number of lists of these people online, I found it in a book called "Touched by Fire" by Kay Jameson, and that’s actually the one that gets quoted a lot on the other lists that you find. It’s pretty striking just how many there are. And so, in a way I found that comforting because I had all of this creative company. I felt like this was a special thing that I was finally a member of and that was what I meant by "Club Van Gogh," that I’m finally a crazy artist, that I have some sort of cred. Then it also had an edge to it that was really scary, or I guess actually a couple of edges. For one, they were unmedicated and at this point in history Abilify or Lamictal didn’t exist yet and so if they were doing this brilliant stuff, then they were doing it without medication, and that is something that I was really wrestling with, not wanting medications. The other thing that in this same list there is a little key for whether they were institutionalized or attempted suicide or committed suicide, and there were an awful lot of them that did and had all of those things, so that was pretty frightening as well.

GEEK: Was exploring these different artists always part of this story, or was part of a natural extension of your own exploration.

EF: It was an extension of my own exploration in this book specifically. I did a ton of research when I was putting "Marbles" together. I guess I did a ton of research on my own story, I went back through my journals and my sketch book and I recreated my sketchbook and I also talked with or interviewed a lot of my friends and family. "What was it like when I told you for the first time that I was bipolar, how did I act then," so my own story. But then also, as far as the other writers and artist went, I did that research in the context of researching "Marbles" specifically. So for me earlier, in previous years, it was more about this idea of "Club Van Gogh," this list, these long lists of artists and I didn’t really delve into these artist stories on more than a superficial level. We all know that Van Gogh suffered from mental disorders and did a variety of paintings but I hadn’t really delved into how this manifested itself, all of the different institutions he was in, that he had done 40 self-portraits in the last couple of years of his life and what did that mean? So a lot of that research came later. But the whole idea of doing this book as exploration of what does being an artist mean to me as someone who is bipolar? How do mood disorders correlate with creativity? is something I explored specifically in "Marbles."

GEEK: What was the process like when you creating this? The art style varies and it’s very loose. Can you go into how you came up with different styles or how you created certain pieces that reflected the feelings you had?

EF: Well I knew when I set out that I was going to use at least a few different drawing styles for mania and depression and thinking about comics and the ways that words and pictures combine. One of the things that is an important is that the visuals can create a mood, so just like any prose book, the words can be very specific, but then the visuals cannot just be specific but they can also create an emotional expressiveness. For example, when I was manic in the story I just did a looser loopier style, sometimes it was extended for two pages and then when I was depicting depression, it was more dark and more like in a grid and rectangular panels. But I didn’t realize how many different styles I was going to use, styles that looked like photographs, reproductions of my drawings and scans of my lined journal, photographs of my sketch books in particular from when I was depressed and also my sketch book when I was really trying to keep my feet on the ground and having a really hard time, and I was creating these weird characters, and more. It really seemed like, to me, it was what the story called for, so I wound up using more styles than I had initially set out to do, but it became an important part of how the story rolls out, and just seemed to need those things and eventually, I was just following what the story was calling for.

GEEK: In the book "Catching the Big Fish" by David Lynch, he talks about meditation and how artists shouldn’t have to suffer to show suffering. Do you agree with that?

EF: Oh that’s a complicated question! For one thing I don’t think art needs to be about suffering, sometimes it really seems like it’s only the art about pain that is interpreted as profound and in my work for years I’ve really tried to deal with subjects that are substantial, not just fluffy, but presented in a more playful, approachable kind of way. I know that there are artists, including ones that I have in "Marbles" like Munch who did "The Scream," he was bipolar, and he didn’t want to lose as he put it “his sufferings” because he felt that’s where his inspiration came from. Anne Sexton said something similar that it was basically the artists' duty or mission to put down our pain for people who cannot express it themselves, but then of course she committed suicide, so I think that it’s tricky. I have things to say other than about this painful experience in my life. Things that are not about pain, that are good stories, and involving and might have some sort of universal relevance. It struck me as an odd twist to me to have this book that I poured myself into, in a way that I’ve never poured myself into my work before, I worked harder on this and just used everything that I knew and that it was in fact about a very painful time in my life. I feel like I agree with him and then I also have experienced the opposite. So my answer to that would be more of a question, or more vague, or it changes, or who knows.

GEEK: You’re on tour right now, have you had anybody approach you to tell you that this book has had a positive effect on them?

EF: Well the book hasn’t been out for all that long. The most common thing that I hear, in some way, is people who have some sort of mental disorder themselves, or their son, or I’m buying three because I have friends that I really need to give this too. But so far, yes. Well, I know that one person told me that he had read it and went back to his psychiatrist to have meds changed. He’d kind of just been floating along feeling like they weren’t working for him and had kind of lost momentum in his own treatment, so there’s that and hopefully that wound up actually being a more successful thing for him. I’ve gotten that people who really didn’t know what it’s like have a better idea of what it was like. Frankly, I feel like a lot of that has to do with that there is art in it. I think the same way that you can understand something when you listen to a piece of music, it is not a rational thing, you process it in a different way, you can kind of understand an emotion better using other ways to express those things.

GEEK: How do you follow something like this up?

EF: Well, I haven’t figured that out yet. It’s got to be something different, either different or kind of rolls on more similar ground, like something about mental disorders... I don’t know. I have some vague ideas that are a little more specific than what I just mumbled, but I’m not worrying too much about that now. "Marbles" really took so much and such a thorough effort from me that I was so happy to tie that up and have it feel satisfying. I’m doing some shorter comics, that are either related or not specifically related but aren’t necessarily the next big project.

"Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir" is available now.