Friday, May 2, 2014

Hospital Week: Updown Clown

Whit Taylor's hospital story is a fictional one, and it takes place in the psych ward of a hospital, not in one of the general inpatient wings. There's no question, however, that her book Updown Clown is very much about what happens when one lands in the hospital for an illness. In this case, it's mental illness at work here in this story of a professional clown with bipolar disorder. To be sure, the concept of a depressed clown creates an instantly understandable set of reversed expectations, one that could be almost too on the nose if Taylor wasn't so careful in terms of treating the subject and the character with great sensitivity and empathy. The character of Gabe the clown is presented as sympathetic if flawed, with the doctors he meets trying to divine the environmental as well as chemical reasons why he wound up as bipolar. This form of disorder is best known to laymen as "manic-depression", meaning that the person cycles between periods of intense energy and euphoria and then cycles down to crippling depression. It's the sort of depression that literally prevents one from getting out of bed. Gabe is initially presented as someone resistant to the idea of this diagnosis, even as the cyclical nature of the illness emerges repeatedly throughout his life as Taylor depicts it.

The book is divided between two narrative timelines, one beginning with the event that sends Gabe to the hospital and seeing him through to his discharge, and the other starting with the day he met his future girlfriend until he reaches that critical breaking point. The book flips back and forth between the two timelines, which are more or less linear other than a flashback scene to childhood during a therapy session. One thing that's immediately noticeable about the comic is that Taylor clearly did a lot of thinking with regard to her use of panel layouts. Rather than sticking to a four or six panel grid, she varies that format on an almost page-to-page basis, often going to an unusual 3x2x3, 2x3x3 or 3x2x2 set-up. This allows her to "zoom in" on her characters and emphasize facial expressions and body language during key scenes, like when Gabe is confronted by his long-suffering sister in the hospital. Taylor is limited in terms of her draftsmanship, but this book is full of her finding ways to work around visual problems by concentrating on keeping the actual drawings as simple as possible while working hard to ensure the actual page design provides a fluid experience for the reader. Her difficulty drawing things like hands is offset by her skill in drawing facial expressions, and the close-ups she uses on these expressions is a good example of a visual work-around that she uses. The one difficulty I had at first was differentiating between the two narratives; there aren't any kinds of visual cues like a different line width for the panels for past sequences that would have made that flashback easier to process. Once into the book and armed with the understanding that the story would flip between sequences, it became easier to process this, but it's the one formal problem in the book that lacks an elegant solution.

Taylor made the bold step of publicly declaring that bipolar disorder was something she struggled with herself (type II a far milder form than Gabe), giving her a unique bond and understanding of this character. There is the occasional use of narrative captions that provide commentary here and there, but Taylor wisely uses them sparingly so as to allow the characters to tell the story themselves without too much of an overarching voice tying things together for the reader. Through Gabe, Taylor explores a lot of issues related to mental health. There's the resistance to a mental illness categorization and the sense of resentment when one's everyday behavior is pathologized by a doctor. There's the struggle with being medicated and its side effects, especially for artists who find themselves feeling deadened by either the medication or its side effects. That often leads to a sense of feeling "cured" (especially during an up cycle) and abandoning one's medication altogether, as Gabe does multiple times in the course of the book. There is the feeling of guilt and shame that is felt when one understands what the disease does to one's loved ones. Regarding those loved ones, Taylor painfully and accurately depicts that toll and how it can play out, as Gabe's sister feels drained and his girlfriend eventually leaves him. Most importantly, while the end of the book depicts the conclusion of a narrative sequence, Taylor refuses to put a bow on it and declare it a happy ending. It's simply a chance to become functional again, one that could be used or squandered. There's no "cure" here, just the possibility of life-long management.

Taylor didn't set out to do a primer on bipolar disorder the way that Ellen Forney did in Marbles. Instead, she chose to track a character with whom she spent time establishing and fleshing out through his moment of greatest despair, kicking off his hospital stay with an inadvertent gag on his part--tripping on one of his oversized clown shoes and knocking himself out, full of an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. While he claims that his intent was not one of suicide, Taylor points out it didn't matter all that much--it was only a matter of time. I appreciated Taylor's portrayal of the health professionals in the story, depicting them neither as saviors nor demons, but rather people trying to figure out the best way to help.  With Updown Clown, Whit Taylor has taken a major step forward in this bracing character study of a clown struggling with bipolar disorder who wakes up one day to find himself in the hospital. She depicts his illness in a restrained, sensitive and empathetic manner, emphasizing human relationships above all else.

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