When dealing with real life issues in comic form it is a very thin line between preaching to, speaking at, and relating with. While effecting in their own right it is beyond imperative to ensure that you're doing what you need to be (and what you should be) doing with the issues you're addressing. Lucy Sullivan has masterfully woven a story of mental health by immersing the reader in the reality of torment.
(Broken Frontier and A Place to Hang Your Cape Indie Comic of the year list)
(Broken Frontier Breakout Talent 2019)
Lemire Alix Otto is having a very bad day. Easily her worst so far. A year since they fished her friend’s body from the river, she finds herself hounded, haunted and driven to the brink. Caught in a situation she can’t explain, Alix is handed over to the professionals and sectioned, left alone in a labyrinthine system with her delusions running wild… Barking is a tale of grief, madness and the ghosts that haunt us.
Yes, the reality of torment is what I said. Grief, anxiety, loss, depression, anger … and the active barrage we face from all of them daily, is torment. It is a normal or accepted part of life for some, just a hurdle to jump for others, and still for some it is devastating. This torment is ever present. Sometimes it manifests on its own for no reason and other times it is triggered by an event. Either way it is real and it can be all consuming. Even worse? The stigma attached to this torment and the laughable at best support systems society has in place to help those being tormented to cope and overcome. While there is representation of the health system in the book, it too is all too familiar. Alix (the main character) finds that while it isn’t out of a lack of want or care from professional outlets they simply can’t provide the help. Even more torment is piled on as she has the burden of her own hell placed squarely on her shoulders and is left with nothing but her already under assault mind to fight this torment. The chosen metaphoric piece for the torment in Barking is, as the title suggests, a dog. I’m not sure it could be more appropriate for this though. The history of dogs metaphorically in story telling, myth, etc is long versed and well engrained. Using some of those aspects and then attaching the real to life aspect of mental health has given Sullivan an absolutely perfect way to truly bring across the penetrating nature of what this book deals with.
Barking. Penetrating. Echoing. As the issues that this book deals with resonate, so to does the bark of a dog. It’s a signal. A warning. A call to action. A bark from a dog goes across vast distances and through walls. Here we’re getting this delivery in a figurative sense. Hounded by a big black dog, Alix is fighting falling apart completely a year after her friend’s body was found in a river. Stressed to the point of breaking the police pick her up and actually sanction her under the Mental Health Act.
The apparition of the big black dog isn’t just looming over Alix. The torment isn’t laying in wait for the perfect time to spring its trap. Manifesting and forcing confrontation of self and the torment by way of a dog is beyond brilliant. Dogs are predatory animals by nature. They track and hunt. It is the perfect representation of how this torment treats those afflicted by it. Sullivan’s art adds yet another layer to the literal and figurative representation. The lines are both scrawled about seemingly aimlessly as well as forming and barrier like. There is an aggressiveness and fierceness to much of the work that captures the barrage that the torment reigns down on Alix. Yet still the scriggles and scrawls create an imperfect fitting of connectivity that the character has with her life, her torment, and we as readers have with the issues being dealt with. The raw nature of the art is powerful in its expression yet endearing in its truthful representation. The torment being gone through both on page and in life is ugly and relentless.
Sullivan captures this and so much more by creating the grotesque nature of ill thought through beautifully true black and white imagery. Part of the brilliance of the work is the black and white of it because this torment is anything but. This though, is how it works. Both the art and the torment it represents. The uneasiness and insecurity abounds just like it does in life with those that suffer this torment. I’d venture that Sullivan’s excellence in this is also how it has to be represented. Again, this is speaking at or to and isn’t preaching to any of these tormenting aspects. It is relating with them and with us. The unfiltered pages are exactly what is needed. There are times too though, where the lines are suffocating and cut off the pages and imagery. Beyond appropriate as that is the other side of all of this. Being hunted relentlessly by the thoughts, ideals, and conjured also gives way to an overbearing dread of inevitability.
Barking is an absolute perfect example of the power of the comic medium. We are taken along a journey with Alix rather than being shown it. The honesty of the work holds the reader’s hand and walks us through the torment, what it is to live it and leaves us with more truth …