IF YOU'VE BROWSED the sex toys at Babeland or taken a recent walk through the streets of Seattle, odds are you've seen Ellen Forney's work. Over the course of 15 or so years, her brash, sexy comics have cropped up in venues both highbrow and low: she's illustrated kinky personal ads for Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, created banners for Seattle streets, and provided the art for Sherman Alexie's great, National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. She teaches comics at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts, recently won a Genius Award from The Stranger, and is much-loved for a series of instructional how-to comics including "How to Smoke Pot and Stay Out of Jail" and "How to Fuck a Woman with Your Hands." Oh, and she does custom wedding invitations.
Her personal new graphic memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me dives 15 years into the past, to the days when Forney was a stoner 30-year-old recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. With honesty and humor, Forney describes the challenges of coming to terms with her diagnosis: In addition to figuring out how to manage medications and treatment for the disorder itself, Forney worried that being bipolar was somehow tied to her creativity, and that if she medicated herself into normalcy, she might somehow lose access to her own creative processes. Throughout the book, there's a persistent fascination with the connection between mental illness and creativity, as Forney struggles to figure out if once she's no longer a crazy artist, she'll still be an artist.
To write the book, she interviewed friends and family members about their memories; she also includes scans from old journals, which clearly illustrate the night-and-day difference between Forney's episodes of mania and depression. She meticulously documents the various medications and therapies she underwent—what worked, what didn't, what meds gave her memory problems, what made her break out, and what killed her sex life.
"My intent wasn't specifically to have writing the book be a form of therapy, but it wound up being that," Forney told me over the phone from Seattle. "It was like pulling out this enormous splinter and really cleaning that out. And then also I wanted it to be very specifically and immediately useful to other people—that's why there's so many endnotes where people can see where things came from."
It's only a matter of time until someone puts together an anthology of addiction and mental illness as depicted in graphic novels: Nate Powell's swirling fields of buggy black; Julia Wertz's fed-up brain fleeing her body in disgust; Alison Bechdel's endless sessions on the therapist's couch. Marbles' contribution might well be its wrenchingly effective snapshot of depression: one wordless page of simple, sequential black-and-white images depicting Forney, a lump in the bed, dragging her blanket to the living room to become a lump on the couch. Her highs, though, are just as bad, and she's frank in describing the damage she did to friendships in the grandiose throes of a manic episode.
"The idea of the crazy artist is that we're passionate, up and down, throwing ourselves around... and that this outpouring of passion is where our art comes from," Forney says of eventually learning to manage her disorder and her art. "When I was first diagnosed I had the idea that that was a part of being an artist. It's different for everyone, really, but I guess the big answer for myself is that stability has been really good for me and my creativity."