On October 23, 2015, the Cartoon Museum and the Geek Syndicate sponsored an event titled “Comics: Illuminating the Dark Night of the Soul” as part of the activities planned for Bloomsbury Festival 2015.

The event was described as “an exploration of comics that address the real issues that blight our lives”, but it was more than that. The last few years have seen a rise in the amount of comic creators that have chosen to write about traumatic experiences like depression, grief, eating disorders, sexual abuse, etc. It seems like the comic format has become the chosen medium for these artists to capture with graphic intensity their traumatic experiences. Why have so many artists turned to this medium instead of any other? Can comic creation become a cathartic process?

Lead by the charismatic David Monteith (www.geeksyndicate.co.uk), five artists bared their souls to an inquisitive audience regarding the different tragedies that, for a while, devastated them, and how they were not only able to overcome that trauma, but transform it into the genesis of their own comic creations.

From left to right and top to bottom: Maria Stoian, Matilda Tristram, Nicola Streeten and Brick. The image of the left is a closeup of Streeten’s work, “Billy, You and Me.” Photos by M.A. Walker

Among the invited guest speakers was Nicola Streeten who went through the ordeal of losing a child, an experience that was visually gathered in Billy, You and Me!. Katie Green was also one of the panelists, although we had to listen to her via video-conference. Her work titled Lighter Than My Shadow explores the trauma of an eating disorder and of having been sexually abused. Of a different tone was Brick’s own experiences and work, which explored the anguish of going through depression in the pages of Depresso: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Being Bonkers!. Matilda Tristam, on the other hand, shared in Probably Nothing the emotional roller-coaster of being diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant. Finally, Maria Stoian gathered anonymous stories regarding sexual victimisation and gave it visual form in Take It as a Compliment. Even though each one of them had a very different story to tell, all of them agreed on the medium through which to express their experiences: the comic.

In a very dynamic Q&A format, David guided the guest speakers through a series of questions that aimed to unravel the motivations that lead each and every one of them to turn to comics rather than simply to express themselves through the written word alone. Unsurprisingly, they all seem to have a similar answer to that question: the comic format allowed them a range of self-expression, with its powerful combination of visual imagery and the written word, that was hard to obtained in any other media. They also believed their stories could reach a greater number of people in a comic format.

A view of the lower gallery at the Cartoon Museum where the event took place. Photos by M.A. Walker.

When asked why they did it, why did they decide to give visual form to their suffering, they also seemed to have similar answers. For most of them drawing and writing about their experience allowed them to come to terms with what happened to them in the past. It was, in fact, a cathartic experience.

David encouraged them to elaborate on the process that they went through to give form to their lows and highs. Nicola, Matilda, Katie, and Brick discussed how they kept some sort of journal as part of their grieving or coping process. It was a matter of sorting through their own experiences and then editing them into the final format of their comic before publication. Maria, on the other hand, had a more collaborative project in mind. Her work was a collective memoir of victims of sexual violence. Many of the stories were sent to her anonymously and she hopes to have done justice to them in her comic.

The discussion continued and David asked them about the emotional outcome of their work after making their suffering public and their family’s reaction to their comics. For Nicola, it was a relief to be able to just put everything out there. She had the support of her family to do just that, although one of the youngest family members was a bit surprised that she could continue to live on without her child. For Katie, it was also a relief and she had no problems discussing her experience publicly. She felt like a burden had been lifted when she addressed her problems in this manner. Matilda was also happy because her ordeal was over (she and her child are fine now), and being able to express people’s reaction to her news was also a good experience for her. Brick, on the other hand, tried very hard to keep the news that his comic was out from his own family. He mentioned that his family is from a generation that saw mental illness as some sort of stigma–and so, they blissfully ignored the problem. Collectively, the public response to the work of these five artists has been phenomenal. People have been writing to thank them for the words and pictures describing an impossible situation that they could connect to in a very personal way.       

Top: David Monteith and Brick. Bottom: Steve Marchant (Curator of the Comics Gallery), Nicola Streeten, Maria Stoian, Matilda Tristram, Katie Green, David Monteith, and Brick.
Top: David Monteith and Brick. Bottom: Steve Marchant (Curator of the Comics Gallery), Nicola Streeten, Maria Stoian, Matilda Tristram, Katie Green, David Monteith, and Brick. Photos by M.A. Walker.

Wrapping up the evening, David then asked them to talk about what they expected to achieve with their work. Once again, the five of them seemed to be in accord. They wanted to explore their situation and to inform the world with the graphic intensity of their emotions about a range of subject matters that are still almost taboo in our society. They wanted to make sure that survivors of cancer, sexual abuse, grief, eating disorders, and even mental illness know that they are not alone. Their work is also a message to the rest of the world to be more understanding and to learn to take action. It reminds us that we need to help in any way that we can to morally support those around us that are going through ordeals like these. In the end, among words and images that envelop in equal terms tragedy and comedy, the message that these artists tried to convey is that comics could indeed illuminate the dark night of the soul with a beacon of hope.