Truth is no fun

This one-shot comic, which is the first book I’ve pulled at random out of what is to be the last box from Shortbox Comics (although the imprint will continue to release individual titles) could be summarised, I guess, as an allegorical body-horror short story. As allegory I feel it stumbles somewhat, since its allegorical topic is also its literal topic, making the whole conceit feel somewhat redundant. This might not be much of a problem, as a slim pretext has never really got in the way of my enjoying a tale of the macabre, but Gristle isn’t really a genre piece either. It’s a portrayal of depression, and a successful one on its own terms, I would say. It represents the loneliness and isolation of depression with a good deal of accuracy, as I can attest from my own experience—but in this accuracy lies the seed of my difficulty in enjoying the book. To portray the solitude of depression in a comic as short as this one, Lily Blakely made the reasonable decision to exclude any character other than the protagonist and their grisly, paranormal interlocutor from the narrative, leaving the reader to absorb a drama conducted almost exclusively in the protagonist’s head. Although Blakely’s cover is lushly decorative (and the book as an object is as pleasing as I’ve come to expect from Shortbox), her interior inks give a form to her character, and to the objects that make up her world, which is harsh, awkward, lumpen—just as a depressed person sees the world, in fact. Again, I found this a very convincing portrayal of the experience of depression. A drawing style in which everything is beautifully sculpted and aestheticised would have served only to undermine the protagonist’s view of the world: Blakely has made her comic formally and aesthetically consistent with its narrative, and the result as published is nothing if not creatively coherent. The allegorical conceit (I’m really trying hard not to drop any spoilers here!) is developed to show the protagonist internalising or owning her illness, accepting it as a permanent aspect of herself—as well as a self-inflicted wound. Again, a powerful representation of depression, whose sufferers are rarely fully liberated from its burden, and often feel (as I do) that to be entirely free of its grip would be to lose some defining facet of their personality. Public representations of pathological or divergent mental states can be of inestimable value in helping sufferers to feel seen—that moment of recognition can puncture the self-sustaining sense of isolation that often accompanies poor mental health. But for reasons that aren’t completely clear to me I didn’t feel that sense of recognition, despite Blakely’s success in representing aspects of the experience of depression. Instead I felt something between ‘yeah I know, so what?’ and ‘oh shit, not again’. I’m not entirely sure that’s down to Blakely—it might have as much to do with the fact that I’ve spent thirty-five years of my life working out how to deal with this shit, and that makes it hard to engage with it as ‘entertainment’. But I have enjoyed many narrative works that tackle depression on some level, and I have to say that the ones I’ve liked have deployed a lot more humour than Blakely does (sometimes they’ve been riotously funny). I also feel that her decision to place such strait dramatic limits around the narrative (one character interacting with one symbol) makes it hard to feel any of the dynamism I want from a story. In summary I’d say that Gristle is very successful on some level, and Lily Blakely is clearly a cartoonist with a good deal of potential, but that reading it wasn’t much fun.

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