The Black Hood: An Anthology of Depression and Anxiety is a frequently brutal but ultimately illuminating take on mental illness, something experienced by a number of artists. Editors Josh Bayer (who published the book) and Mike Freiheit (who designed it) did a remarkable job of finding a number of veteran cartoonists and younger talent willing to spill a lot of ink in their personal depictions of mental illness. From E.A. Bethea’s almost entirely textual approach to Haleigh Buck’s dense, inky and naturalistic account of a panic attack, there’s a wide variety of styles to be found in the book. However, they are all raw, honest, and vulnerable in how they present themselves. As I have often found in confessional stories about difficult topics, one can sometimes sense an almost palpable sense of relief on the page as the artists have finally told their stories.
That was certainly true for Buck, whose depiction of the physical, visceral symptoms of a panic attack are harrowing in the extreme; it’s so vivid that as a reader I almost felt the sensation of drowning that she did. The story is from the point of view of someone who has been through therapy and knows about guided meditation, breathing exercises, and other techniques that can ward off attacks, but knows that sometimes nothing works. It’s a horrifying realization that’s followed by simply passing out. Mike Taylor’s account of his first panic attack is a little less visceral. He doesn’t go into the same level of detail, though he does note the way it affects one’s breathing, preventing the kind of steady breaths that keep a body calm. The last panel, where he’s sweating in a hot box of a room with dense and gritty hatching, is especially grim.
Compare that to Mark Connery’s “Silly Old Mr. Panic”, where Connery works in his usual cartoony, sketchy, loose style to create an absurd story detailing many of the same sort of symptoms described by Buck and Taylor. That the three strips about the same subject are so different in tone and appearance speaks to why this is such an effective anthology.
Most of the strips are short and punchy. Box Brown’s comic looks like it went from sketchbook to publication with few alterations, as it’s even more stripped down than his usual work, without any polish. It’s clear why: the strip involves him thinking about stepping in front of a bus and ending it all… but not doing it. A three-panel Jason T. Miles strip hits hard with its smiling and cute character telling the audience that he’s “just trying to be” and “it’s tiring.” Florian Lengyel’s story is about his memory: his father coming in to change him, and then walking out in disgust. It’s an “enough said” kind of anecdote, one boding future difficulties. Similarly, Michelle Lemay tells a story of her father struggling with PTSD (having watched his own father kill his mother) and slowly developing dementia, as she has to figure out ways to navigate his illnesses. Lemay captures the claustrophobia of the experience with a 12-panel page and lots of dense hatching.
A number of the cartoonists focus in on the grey, hazy feeling of depression. John Porcellino quotes a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, “I Wake And Feel The Fell Of Dark, Not Day”. There’s a drawing of Porcellino lying in bed, surrounded by black squiggles and with a look on his face that’s a mix of raw fear and blankness. Even the skies outside are inexorably dark, surrounding him as far as the eye can see. Luce’s “It Gets In” takes a similar approach, only the depression is like a fog seeping in through a window, forcing her to stay in bed like a massive, oppressive hand. For Josh Simmons, the haze is more like a snowy TV screen, with glimpses of the comfortable, self-satisfied, and unafflicted living their lives without empathy. Tara Booth goes in a completely different direction. In her silent, full-color strip that looks as constructed as it is drawn, Booth depicts the tears of her sadness slowly bleaching away her existence. There’s a throughline of the ridiculous in her strip, as the Pandora musical streaming service is advertising an Elliot Smith action figure; the most famous “action” the beloved singer-songwriter committed was of course killing himself. Booth saves her tears in jars, imagines her own funeral, ignores her dog’s need to go out (pointing it to the “Indoor poo zone”), and finally tries to get relief through masturbation after reading a book titled “How Even You Can Learn To Enjoy Sex”. It’s perhaps the most memorable strip in the whole book, both because of the static awkwardness she portrays in herself through her art, as well as running the gamut from self-loathing to attempts at self-care.
With regard to trying to find a way out, Lizz Hickey’s “My Lamictal Side-Effect Diary” is another great fit for this book. There are many cartoonists here who do weird and unnerving autobio as well as bizarre fiction, so it makes sense not only to include them, but that they’d be willing to talk about it in such a blunt manner. Hickey goes week by week and talks about the doses of medication she’s taking and the effects, which range from nervous to sleepy, to normal, to frustrated. The final week seems promising at the highest dose, until she becomes manic, teary, and tired once again–and that’s the end of the strip. No further conclusions are offered.
Katie Fricas, in her glorious scrawl, offers suggestions for coping with depression that dip into the absurd, like “Trim the shag carpet with a pair of haircutting shears” and “Try your hand at stand-up.” They’re absurd and yet they’re not, because what Fricas offers here is not so much therapy as it is distraction. Sometimes, distraction is all that can help, if only for a little while. In another strip, she talks about putting on her “slightly-demented-I’m-totally-fine face” to go to work (a flash of gums on a faced colored green) at the library and notes that she will “only occasionally have to go into the stacks to wig out,” depicting herself bent over, pretending to scream. Noah Van Sciver talks about finding ways to use the feeling of being hopelessly crushed and isolated, of being weighed down in bed. His way of coping is using those feelings and expressing them in his work, trying to bring “the universal” out of it for readers. More to the point, drawing at this point is a powerful “opposite action”; that is, willing oneself to act in a way that is healthy but unwanted in that moment of depression. Simply breaking through by applying pen to paper is a powerful, somatic act that reconnects one’s brain and body to a highly pleasurable, fulfilling act in drawing. The jumbled composition of the page, with all sorts of jagged panels and text thrown at the reader at different angles, is juxtaposed by the single drawing of Noah’s actual body in the context of the depressive state: sitting motionless at the side of his bed–until he finds a way to get up.
Another running theme in the book is what I like to call the inner monologue of worthlessness, where one has to deal with deep-seated self-loathing that urges inaction, isolation, surrender, and ultimately oblivion. For Jacob Hamrick, the voice urges self-punishment and self-mutilation as a penalty for a lack of perfection. As cliched and impossible as it may sound, self-love is important in these instances because self-love will lead to self-care–meaning eating enough, sleeping enough, taking meds, going to therapy, setting aside time for art, etc. Another Jason T. Miles strip sees him drawing himself like a sneering Buddy Bradley (by way of R.Crumb’s “Keep On Truckin'”) in order to “escape” his life, his memories, and his persona. It doesn’t quite work, as another aspect of himself is so trapped in this structure of pain that he’s not just a prisoner chained to a wall–he becomes part of the wall itself. It’s a brilliant strip that gets across the feeling of depression without overexplaining it.
Liz Marra depicts her uncooperative and abusive brain as a demanding rat that she has to tie to a chair to get anything done in an amusing story that is a lot more open and airier than the other contributions in the book. It makes for a nice rest stop a third of the way through the book. Mike Freiheit channels 676 Apparitions of Killoffer in depicting himself entering a room, only to be attacked by thousands of versions of himself. There’s no rhyme or reason–just immediate assault. The intensity of that image jolts him into consciousness and action. The desolate landscape and ominous skies are the obvious harbinger of an intense page where Freiheit draws himself dozens of times–selves that are angry and out to hurt him.
Bayer’s own strips don’t delve so much into his own experiences. He interviews other people to learn of their experiences, and concludes darkly by noting that in the one experience he had with situational depression in his life, he did everything he could to avoid it. He counts himself as lucky that depression wasn’t in his hard-wiring, and can only advocate running away from oneself as far as possible so as not to feel anything. That’s somewhat glib advice, but anyone who’s ever had a taste of depression knows how painful it can be. It’s the moments in between depression, not the periods of illness itself, where artists can express themselves cogently regarding their mental states. It’s virtually impossible to create art or do anything meaningful in the full grip of a depressive state, which is why therapeutic techniques designed to help re-wire one’s brain through repetition can be so important and helpful for some. This anthology’s intention isn’t so much about finding answers as it is to simply give each person a chance to tell their own story, and it’s a tribute to the talent of the artists who participated that so many of the entries here are so powerful, vivid, and compelling. The immediacy and lack of slickness of the production is perfectly suited to the artists, as one can sense a lot of the pieces were quickly and furiously created to retain that sense of urgency in expressing thoughts about this subject.