Mental Health Themes in Graphic Novels
SPOILERS in the discussion for each graphic novel.
When I began to shift my counseling focus towards geeks, gamers, and misfits I turned to one of my favorite pastimes: reading graphic novels. Plenty of graphic novels incorporate more general psychological themes. However, I wondered if anyone had tackled mental health.
Here is a list and brief discussion on some of my favorites I’ve read so far:
Motor Girl- Terry Moore
Motor Girl is about a veteran, Sam who has returned home and is working at a scrap yard. She has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her war experiences. She does suffer from hallucinations that are explained further along in the story as being a result of shrapnel stuck in her brain. The plot follows her through a series of tough decisions and tribulations with trusting others.
The panels are black and white only which seem fitting for someone with PTSD.
Sam has to wrestle with the comfort of her imaginary friend and the discomfort of culture shock back to civilian life. Her hallucinations involve aliens as well, so the comic touches on themes of sense of purpose and meaning in the world. Even the quotes at the beginning of each issue seem to point to those questions. Someone with a traumatic past usually deals with existential questions such as this.
Main themes that are consistent with most folks’ experience with trauma: trust and building a sense of meaning.
Brave Chef Brianna- Sam Sykes
Brave Chef Brianna is about a young woman who wants to follow her world-renowned chef and father’s footsteps by opening up a restaurant. She is only able to find a space to open this up in Monster City- another world where monsters causally live their lives. She wrestles with self-critical doubt, anxiety, and conflict serving literal monsters as customers.
Her self-critical thoughts show up as different lettering- an inky black background with all caps white text. Sometimes the inky black forms into little creature shapes crawling on her back or breathing down her neck. The plot shows her confronting and coping with these anxious thoughts by allowing others in, and giving up some of her perfectionist tendencies.
Main themes that are consistent with folks with anxiety: going over social interactions in head, self-critical thoughts, and perfectionism.
Fun Home- Alison Bechdel
Fun home is a graphic memoir about Alison’s childhood growing up in rural Pennsylvania. She details her memories related to her relationship with her father who seems to have committed suicide. Alison narrates over memories with intellectual and literary reflections for each panel.
She wrestles with a plethora of mental health challenges and triumphs, including her own process of discovering her lesbian sexual orientation, coming out, death, autism, emotional neglect, channeling expressiveness through art, and larger family dynamics to name a few. It’s heartbreakingly raw and at the same time hides behind the aesthetic intellect the author has developed.
Main themes that are consistent with folks with trauma/suicide in the family: coping with the intellect, control, and storytelling.
Maus- Art Spiegelman
Maus is a graphic memoir that depicts his father’s accounts of surviving the Holocaust. It oscillates between scenes of Art interviewing his father and representing his actual memories. The reader picks up on dynamics between him and his father, and the absence of his mother who committed suicide.
Art’s father copes with his wife’s death by burning her diaries, and has trouble remembering sequences of events. The dynamic between them is depicted as very matter of fact. The way they interact can sometimes be cold or even cruel. Living in those moments rather than focusing on the here and now relationship between them.
Main themes consistent with intergenerational trauma: passing on hurt unintentionally, and not being vulnerably honest with the next generation.
I have more on my to-read list, but am curious what suggestions you all have for mental health themed graphic novels?
Ready to get started with a mental health counselor who understands the power of graphic novels? I’m accepting new clients in south Austin. Check out my services page and email me here to schedule a free in-person 30-minute consultation with me this week.
Julia Stamman, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Ann Stoneson, LPC-S