On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: comics, mental illness, and me
Posted on May 20, 2015
May 20, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
When I was 15, hopelessly ignorant, and prone to spending altogether too much time in the company of Lady Palm and her five daughters, I had a spectacularly stupid notion.
That notion, the product of a mind flooded with hormones, encased in a body wracked by nightly self-abuse, combined with the spectacular arrogance of youth, was this:
‘Everything I know that matters I learnt from comics and punk.’
15 year old me, I came to understand later, was thicker than pig shit in a drought. While I learned a fair old bit from comics and punk, virtually everything I know that really matters to me, I learnt from my family. Compassion, humour, inquisitiveness, and strong principles. Those are the most important things in life, and not necessarily in that order.
The weird thing about family, is you get so used to them being a part of your life that it’s easy to underestimate the full impact they’ve had on you. Hence why 15 year old me was such a short-sighted little tosser. He couldn’t see the wood for the trees, and if he could, he’d probably be looking for discarded porno.
My family are my anchor, geographically, psychologically, and morally. If I’m struggling, I know they’ll be right there, which is fortunate, because I struggle a fair bit. Mostly, I struggle with depression and anxiety, and it’s not altogether infrequent that I need to check in with them just to remind myself of who I am, where I’m from, and that I’m worthy of love. In the really dark moments, thankfully increasingly rare, they remind me that I’m worthy of oxygen.
Final Crisis – we’ll get to this later!
Sometimes, though, it’s late, and I don’t feel strong enough to talk to anyone. Sometimes, I find myself alone in the dark, figuratively and literally, and calling home seems like an insane action, when it’s actually the sanest thing I could do.
See also: friends. They may be the overwhelmingly awesome extra family I actually got to choose, but they sleep too, and sometimes my perceptions are fucked to the point that I don’t think they’ll want to hear from me, that they won’t care, that I’m alone.
On those nights, in those moments, I fall back on comics. Specifically, I reach for very specific superhero comics.
Now, if you’ve read this column with any kind of regularity, you’ll know that I’m a strong advocate for a broad range of genres and themes in comics, and I like to think my comics shelves reflect that. However, when the depression lays into me, I reach for security, familiarity, and hope. In the weird and wonderful landscape of my psyche, that means epic myths of resilience, of inner strength, of overcoming.
When I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I was just catching up with Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi’s twin runs on Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, which were a couple of years in at that point. For those not familiar, the Green Lantern mythos is one of the most gloriously bizarre parts of the DC Universe. Green Lanterns are literal space cops, each chosen for their ability ‘to overcome great fear’, and charged with a green ring, the most powerful weapon in the universe, able to create anything the wielder can imagine. The only limit on a Green Lantern’s ring is their will.
A device, guided by thought, and limited only by the willpower of its holder? A weapon to overcome fear, a beacon of light in a universe shrouded in darkness… You can understand how this notion might be attractive to a young man feeling trapped in a mental world of near-constant fear and hopelessness.
It seems silly just to write it down, but that idea of overcoming fear by learning to channel willpower helped me through so much. I have the most vivid memories of sitting with those stories and immersing myself in that world, in that idea that these huge and world-shattering feelings might be controlled, that my mind might be brought to some kind of order.
At one point, DC gave away plastic Green Lantern rings as a promotional thing, and so it was that I came to have one in the front pocket of my backpack when I had my first, and by far my worst, panic attack.
Some friends and I were in London getting ready for a good friend’s birthday night out at another friend’s flat, and as the music grew louder, and the conversations to match, I felt increasingly anxious. I nipped into the bathroom for a minute to steady myself, but I couldn’t. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and not recognising the person looking back at me, rapidly becoming aware of my heartbeat in a way I hadn’t before, and it was rising, fast.
I went back out into the living room, where everyone else was sat, and parked myself down on the sofa. The next thing I remember, I was shaking and crying; quick, violent sobs, and my mind was racing. My dexterity was shot as I crawled across the floor and grabbed at the zip on my backpack, pulling the plastic Green Lantern ring out, and clumsily slipping it onto my finger.
As I sat there, shaking uncontrollably, barely cognisant of the hands and voices of my friends as they tried to calm me down, all I could think of was the Green Lantern oath, one of those ridiculous pieces of comics lore which, removed from its context, seems absurd. Hell, it’s pretty weird in context, but there I was, terrified at the primal level in a way I’ve never been before or since, muttering:
“In brightest day,
In blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power,
Green Lantern’s light.”
It gave me something to focus on for a moment, just enough to catch my breath, and come back to myself. Within the hour, I was on a train home to Leicestershire, still a fucking mess, but aware enough to ring my dad to come and pick me up. I didn’t calm down properly, to a level I’d consider normal, for a couple of days, which led to a Minecraft session with my mate Lee the following afternoon that felt more like playing Resident Evil 4 on acid. And speed. Adrenaline is a fucking powerful drug, and when your body is flooded with the stuff, everything feels like a particularly nasty horror movie.
It was pretty funny though. It’s hard not to laugh when you’re a grown man jumping at pixelated sheep.
So yeah, the Green Lanterns use will to overcome fear, and that’s how I handle my anxiety too. Depression though, is a far more slippery beast, at least in my experience. I can be as anxious as all fuck, shaking like the proverbial shitting dog, and still believe that I have worth, that my life has meaning, and that there are good reasons to get out of bed, look after myself, and, y’know… live. With depression, when it feels like the world is coming down inside my head, none of that is a given.
When I feel like I’m at the bottom of that pit, with tonnes of blood-soaked earth tumbling down around me, and there’s a gnawing desire to just let my will, my control, my very selfhood slip away, to surrender to despair, and eventually death, there is one volume, and only one, that I reach for.
That volume is Final Crisis, by Grant Morrison, J.G. Jones et al.
Final Crisis is Grant Morrison, widely recognised as one of the greatest comics creators of all time, given the entire DC multiverse to play with, and the story he decided to tell, is a story about heroes, humankind, reality itself, being crushed under the boot of Darkseid and his pantheon of evil gods. It is glorious in it’s scope, and it hits you like a thunderclap.
The New Gods were created by Jack Kirby, who actually was the greatest comics creator of all time. Residing on the twin planets of Apokolips and New Genesis, the New Gods are neatly divided into two camps. The Gods of New Genesis are personifications of nice, benevolent things, but they’re not all that important here, because they’re more or less dead by the time Final Crisis starts.
No, we’re more interested in the denizens of Apokolips, an entire planet built for destruction, violent oppression, and torture, where firepits pock the landscape, and nothing grows, or would particularly want to. All the resources of the planet, all the industry, and all human endeavour focused toward the ultimate tyrant, Darkseid.
Darkseid is the ultimate evil in the DC Universe, and Kirby created him as such. Kirby’s evil incarnate is not a moustache-twirling villain, but a cosmic force that withers hope, dignity, meaning, remaking everything it touches in its own image. Darkseid is the ultimate fascist, and he turns entire worlds into death camps. And Jack knew death camps, because he was instrumental in liberating one:
‘I thought I was going to see prisoners of war, you know, some of our guys that got caught in some of the early fighting, but what I saw would pin you to the spot like it did me. Most of these people were Polish; Polish Jews who were working in some of the nearby factories. I don’t remember if the place really had a name, it was a smaller camp, not like Auschwitz, but it was horrible just the same. Just horrible. There were mostly women and some men; they looked like they hadn’t eaten for I don’t know how long. They were scrawny. Their clothes were all tattered and dirty. The Germans didn’t give a shit for anything. They just left the place; just like leaving a dog behind to starve. I was standing there for a long time just watching thinking to myself, “What do I do?” Just thinking about it makes my stomach turn. All I could say was, ‘Oh, God.”’ – Jack Kirby, quoted in the Jack Kirby Collector #27
Final Crisis is about the heroes of the DC Universe, modern myths of heroism, moulded by generations to reflect the noblest aspirations they could imagine, facing cosmic terror, modelled around a great artist’s eyewitness testimony of the Holocaust, of the full scope of humanity’s evil.
It is the story of the moment the heroes fall, each destroyed, vanquished, or subsumed into Darkseid’s war machine. It is the story of the death of hope.
And yet, it isn’t, as it all turns on one utterly perfect scene, where Batman, the living embodiment of human resilience and strength in the face of despair, comes face to face with Darkseid himself. A broken, bloodied Batman, physically and mentally exhausted after days of torture, comes up against the living embodiment of the very concept of evil, of oppression, of despair, of death.
And then this happens:
Batman is a fiction. Darkseid is a fiction. Neither are real in any empirical sense, but the things they represent, the common struggles they represent, are. Humanity is capable of incredible nobility, and incredible evil, of incredible acts of optimism and hope, and utter despair. These characters may not exist in a way we can touch but they represent ideas, notions, and possible futures that we can either claim for ourselves, or reject.
When I read, and re-read Final Crisis, I choose hope. I choose will. I choose to fight on.
A young Jewish kid from a deprived part of New York can shape an entire medium, fight fascism, help liberate a concentration camp, raise a family, AND be responsible for the creation of huge chunks of the dominant mythos of our time, that of the superhero (DC and Marvel might own his creations on paper, but we know better – their worlds belong to Jack Kirby).
A misfit Glaswegian geek can grow up to become a comics icon, recasting Kirby’s creations for new generations, and writing a story that echoes with Jungian archetypes and unspoken truths.
A frightened and scared young man, considering harming himself in ways so stark that tears roll down his face just thinking about them, reads a story built on the work of dozens of creators, across four generations, and for a split second, catches a glimpse of a better future, and decides to fight on, to fight forever if need be.
Because every last day, every last breath, is worth the battle.
So yeah, 15 year old me was pretty stupid, and comics haven’t taught me nearly as much as my family and friends have, but when I need them to, they give me great big thundering ideas to cling to. They remind me of why life matters, and why I keep fighting this shitty, petty, manipulative little illness, and will keep on fighting it for as long as I have to.
Because every last day, every last breath, is worth the battle.
And on the off chance you’re struggling with mental health problems yourself, talk to your doctor, and remember that you are never alone with this stuff.
The rest of you, piss off and read some comics. I know I’m going to.