graphic novels

This graphic novel on schizophrenia is a rare and artistic biography

Ravi Thornton uses the form to tell the intensely personal story of her brother.

A sister tells the powerful, personal story of a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia, using his own poetry and diaries to chronicle his distressing journey and eventual suicide. HOAX Psychosis Blues is highly creative, an ode to a brother, and a brave attempt to shine a light on a condition that has traditionally been talked about in hushed tones.

The UK-based Ravi Thornton talks about the graphic novel HOAX Psychosis Blues and the stage musical HOAX My Lonely Heart. A newly combined tour of the UK is being planned in 2017, along with discussions on mental health, a tour that she would love to bring to India, given half a chance. Excerpts from the interview:

To start with perhaps the most difficult question, how did you come up with the idea for a graphic novel based on your brother’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, his attempts to grapple with it, and his ultimate suicide?
I don’t really know how far back to go… I was chatting with theatre director Benji Reid around the idea of doing a play based on one of my brother’s poems titled HOAX. That chat led to the musical script, which explores the six months prior to my brother’s diagnosis.

But the questions being asked about what happened after he was diagnosed made me want to explore and communicate that aspect of his life as well. I was thinking about how to do that – how to process and communicate a decade of complex psychosis – and I felt that a graphic novel would be the ideal medium.

I was already familiar with the medium, through my first published graphic novel, and had established a wide network of illustrators. I knew that their vast array of styles could be used to capture the vast array of thoughts, moods, facts and fictions of my brother’s schizophrenic mind.

Also, because graphic novels have so little text compared to prose, you can deal very sensitively and lightly with subjects that are very painful and deep. The lightness of touch of the words, partnered with the impact of the illustrations, or vice versa.

And particularly because graphic novels give the reader space on a page, space for them to do their own grappling, with whatever it is that they’re relating to.

We get asked a lot about the book and its availability. In fact, from Ziggy’s wish, it only comes with the musical, as we feel it’s important to experience HOAX as a whole. But we would consider a publisher taking the graphic novel on under the right circumstances.

In the author’s note you mention that he wrote hundreds of poems, that you would sit and help him with them as well... in a “lighthearted way”, despite the obviously heavy context. And that you both planned to make “illustrated literary art”. Can you share anything about these conversations?
I remember distinctly, we were both sitting on the floor of the living room in my mother’s house in the summer. Rob was writing poetry and I was drawing stylised cats for a short story I’d written. We were chatting away to him. And there was definitely a feel of magic in the air. It always felt magical when we had conversations with such creative common ground.

Schizophrenia can make it hard for people to communicate and hard for you to communicate with them – whether that’s an inability to speak, or a roaring torrent of rage. I think when we had these moments discussing these shared dreams, the components of which were so beautiful, with such beautiful language, such lovely curlicues of pen on paper… it felt beautiful. A common goal. A common dream.

This work is a beautiful tribute to your brother, but also has an eerie effect on the reader. You have mentioned that people feel that it unlocks something in them, allowing them to share some of their stories, their emotions. Could you expand on this?
I think it’s the simple honesty of the book, paired with it being “art over memoir”, that gives people permission to speak.

The alternate scenes, where Rob is talking to me, are such simple moments, just the simplest moments from life. They make both Rob and his condition extremely accessible.

People who experience the extremism that come in the other sections – the highs and lows and tears and insane laughter – those are the things people struggle to share. How do you talk about them? They’re so extreme, so powerful.

But then those simple, honest, real, side-by-side moments – they become the doorway for people to step through and be in a simple moment where they can articulate those extreme thoughts… and just speak the truth.

It’s such a reflective book, so simple yet so provocative.

This is a very powerful and personal story… like a sequel to what you have called the “dark stage musical”, HOAX My Lonely Heart. (Both are being combined into a tour.) What is the collaboration like, what are you hoping it will achieve, and what have some of the reactions been? Could you also expand on the partnership with mental health experts?
HOAX Psychosis Blues is in effect part two to the musical HOAX My Lonely Heart, and both projects were amazing collaborative experiences. What we are doing now is bringing these together into a combined touring event called HOAX Our Right To Hope, and expanding the collaborative team from purely creative to now include mental healthcare professionals from the Psychosis Research Unit as well.

PRU noticed the musical and book were having a profound effect on audience members and that the reactions were powerful. Some said that HOAX allowed them to open up about their mental health problems. Others said it allowed them to understand better their friends and family with mental health problems. Others said it helped to break the taboo. As a result of these responses we partnered with PRU so that we can actually study the effects that HOAX has on people in a fully quantifiable way.

We’re planning to tour HOAX Our Right to Hope across England in 2017, taking both the musical and graphic novel together as one experience to a number of venues: and are looking forward to reaching a wider and varied audience and getting their feedback, so that PRU can analyse this and see whether we are genuinely helping to reduce mental health stigma.

Finally, if we could talk about stigma a little bit. In India, even today, amongst the very privileged, English-speaking urban society, while the stigma may be lifting to the extent that people can discuss say, depression, or anxiety disorders and therapy, without worrying too much about stigma, that’s not the case with diagnoses like schizophrenia or other psychosis. Is that something you’ve noticed in England as well? And is that something you’d hope the HOAX project could help address?
I think that’s very true. Although the stigma here for things like depression and anxiety can be just as severe as it can be for conditions of psychosis like schizophrenia, I think there is a sense that anyone can feel depressed or anxious, but that people with schizophrenia are “different”.

This creates a “them and us” situation which is very negative, rather than a “this could be me” situation which encourages empathy.

We hope absolutely that the HOAX project can help to address this. PRU’s research shows that psychoses such as schizophrenia often starts with symptoms of depression or anxiety, so it’s essential that people feel free to talk about any kind of symptoms and seek early diagnosis.

For people whose symptoms do progress, it’s crucially important that they don’t feel stigmatised as, also shown by PRUs research, stigma can greatly worsen the condition. We’re proud to be touring HOAX in the UK and to be working actively to raise awareness around mental health and reduce stigma, and we’re very keen to take that message further afield. We are particularly keen to tour with HOAX Our Right to Hope in India for the very reason you’ve said: that stigma in society there is still a very current and damaging problem.

HOAX Psychosis Blues, by Ravi Thornton, with Hannah Berry, Karrie Fransman, Leonardo M Giron, Julian Hanshaw, Rozi Hathaway, Rian Hughes, Rhiana Jade, Ian Jones, Mark Stafford, Bryan Talbot, published by Ziggi's Wish.

Amrita Tripathi is a freelance journalist and author of Broken News and The Sibius Knot.

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