Over the years, I’ve found that more and more I seek out unique black-and-white comics that, most often, are written and drawn by female creators. And I have a particular interest in any books dealing with mental illness. For example, one of my favorite graphic novels is Ellen Forney’s Marbles, a memoir focusing on her learning to live with bipolar. I was pleased to find recently another book that addresses the topic of bipolar — Elaine M. Will’s Look Straight Ahead.
Writing a review for Look Straight Ahead leads me to write two reviews in one. First, I am writing for those who will read the book because they are looking for a graphic novel that is a great work of fiction with fantastic art. Secondly, I am writing for those who are interested in reading it as a work of fiction dealing with mental illness, specifically bipolar.
Look Straight Ahead, unlike Marbles, is not a memoir. Instead it tells a realistic story of a high school senior who is dealing with the onset of bipolar (most likely*). And as much as I love Marbles, I appreciate finding a book about a teenager because it is, therefore, also a coming-of-age story, one of my favorite types of narrative in fiction, comics, and film. Though we get a brief glimpse of the main character, Jeremy Knowles, a few years after graduation, the bulk of the story focuses on a short period of time in Jeremy’s life: His dealing with the onset, diagnosis, and early treatment of bipolar.
Jeremy’s story is also about his relationships at school and at home. We find out that at school, Jeremy has been bullied most of his life and has only a few friends. He also has a crush on a girl he has never really spoken to. We are witness to this bullying that continues even into his senior year of high school, and we see that it only gets worse after an emotional outburst in school.
His relationship with his parents is equally painful to see: He is an only child, and the father seems to see his son’s moods, speech, and behavior as simple teenage rudeness and moodiness. Even after Jeremy’s diagnosis, his father wrestles with knowing how to interact with Jeremy without getting angry, even though he now knows many of the symptoms of bipolar I.
His is a common struggle for family and friends of those with bipolar. The father is not shown as uncaring. In fact, he’s shown to care a great deal. He’s shown simply as confused and hurt, and his anger is an expected response, even though it obviously makes things worse for both father and son. We see Jeremy’s father struggle to understand his son’s suffering. For example, at one point, we see him sitting down to read Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, which is the most famous memoir on bipolar not only because it is well-written, but also because the author is both bipolar herself and specializes in bipolar as a clinical psychologist.
Surprisingly, we see very little of Jeremy’s time in the mental institution. We see only glimpses of his time talking with his doctor, and we follow him as he goes AWOL with a new young friend he meets there. Of his time in the institution, we are shown mainly what Jeremy is going through internally.
This focus on the internal, in fact, is why I like this book as much as I do, even though it causes some problems for those reading it because they or their loved ones are dealing with bipolar, a point to which I will return. As an artist, Will spends a great deal of time — much more than you would expect — showing us Jeremy’s mental and emotional struggles, using her art to make these struggles visual for us.
Will’s attempt to give us these depictions is a difficult one because Jeremy’s illness includes hallucinations and hearing voices. Therefore, some of the images we see show us what Jeremy sees. However, many, perhaps most, of the illustrations are trying to represent externally the chaos of Jeremy’s confusion, his disturbed thoughts, his depressions, and his mania. In this case, the imagery represents what is going on inside and is not literally what he sees in the world around him (even if what he sees is not real). For example, when we see strange figures talking to him, we are being shown the hallucinations that Jeremy literally sees. However, when we see floating puzzle pieces, abstract art, and black scribbles, we are not seeing what Jeremy is seeing. We are seeing representations of mental and emotional states.
I love the artwork in both cases. In the panels showing us Jeremy’s hallucinations, Will increases the impact by occasionally adding color. And the representative artwork conveys well the internal world of someone with a mental illness. So, if someone is reading this book to better understand someone with bipolar or depression, these images are fantastic at communicating that which can never be spoken or conveyed in words.
However, the depiction of hallucinations may cause some difficulties for those who want to learn about bipolar. The representative art describes well what anyone with bipolar goes through; however, the hallucinations are a much rarer symptom of bipolar I, the most extreme form of bipolar, which is a mood disorder existing on a spectrum. And even many people with what is called bipolar I do not have hallucinations. So, as much as I love seeing this artwork — it’s fantastic — and as much as it adds to the quality of the story as a fictional work, it might be misleading to those who are trying to understand bipolar, including those who have just been diagnosed.
In many ways, this part of the review is hard for me to write because it’s not usually part of a book review, and many people would argue that I should not be introducing this critique of the story. It’s an exceptional work of art. There’s no question about that, but since so many people with mental illness struggle to learn as much as they can and because they often want to find ways to explain their mental illness to those close to them, this book will be sought out by those with bipolar, by their loved ones, and possibly by those in the field of mental health.
For this audience, an audience new to bipolar, there might be an assumption that not having hallucinations or hearing voices means that the person with bipolar, or even a less severe mood disorder, does not have a serious need for treatment. This would be a dangerous assumption since bipolar is treated most effectively with medications. In fact, most of those in the mental health field who recommend not using anti-depressants for depression, do acknowledge that bipolar depression is best treated that way.
The other potential danger for this group of readers is that they might belittle what they are going through in comparison with what is happening for Jeremy, and as a result, they might not think they need treatment at all. However, being on the bipolar spectrum at all will usually lead to a need for medication at some point since bipolar gets worse over time, particularly if not treated with medication. Also, it’s a common, but alarming, fact that most bipolar patients will either try to avoid medication or attempt to go off medication (usually multiple times), and as a result, they usually will suffer a dangerous relapse. Will acknowledges this issue in her story about Jeremy — he, too, tries to get off medications (secretly) and risks his life in doing so, a realistic portrayal on Will’s part.
As a professor who teaches mainly freshman students, I see every year many students struggle with mental illness as they leave home for the first time and face new pressures they could not have anticipated. One of my goals as a professor is to talk about mental illness in an open fashion in order to encourage any students needing it to seek out our college’s mental health services. I am particularly worried about male students because men seem to face the most pressure to avoid seeking this help. Look Straight Ahead is an important work for many of my students because it’s about a male teenager under a lot of stress dealing with the onset of bipolar. And for many people suffering with bipolar, the onset of the disorder manifests itself in the first few years of college. So far, Marbles has been the book I’ve had to offer them in addition to An Unquiet Mind. I’m greatly pleased that I can add Look Straight Ahead to that list.
To end my double-layered review, I cannot praise enough Look Straight Ahead as a work of art. If you love coming-of-age stories as much as I do, you will want to read it. And if you are interested in mental illness, particularly bipolar, then Look Straight Ahead is a must-read.
*I should note that the author/artist never mentions that Jeremy has bipolar, so perhaps she has a particular type of psychosis in mind. However, in addition to Jeremy’s symptoms, the fact that Will goes out of her way to draw a particularly clear and detailed image of the cover of An Unquiet Mind — a cover many people will instantly recognize — suggests that she has bipolar I in mind. The fact that she does not mention bipolar, however, suggests to me that she wanted this book described in terms of mental illness in general so that it would not limit her potential audience. A great work of fiction like this one, however, should appeal to any lover of great art, even if they have no interest in mental illness.