Let’s Talk About Healing (Or: The “Not Okay” Comic That Inspired It All)
Trigger warning: This article contains brief mention of suicide.
Let’s talk about healing… It can be anything from an embarrassing moment (who hasn’t had one of those, amirite?) to making peace with mistakes (see below to read more). It’s also about speaking up when things don’t feel right. Using that gut instinct to guide you when something feels yucky and use your power as a comic creator to rewrite it. Heal it. And most importantly: help others, too.
I had this kind of experience recently and my gut ended up screaming at me to talk about this topic… and also realized I had a lot to learn about it too.
“I am not okay with this!” went through my mind as I finished the comic I Am Not Okay With This—quite fitting, although, I’m not sure if that was the response Charles Forsman intended when titling it or not. I still was surprised even though it had his signature tone of exploring the dark sides of the human experience (like his other comics Slasher and The End Of The F***ing World…the latter, you might recognize from Netflix).
But before I go into what I was SO not okay with, let me get this out first: what I’m going to share is an important conversation starter and completely opened my eyes, because, truth: we never know who’s reading our work. I’ve been there myself. Years before I made comics, I wrote a short story (that I’ll be adapting into a comic soon) that didn’t take this into full consideration.
Being so close to my own work, I didn’t realize I was contributing to something that needed to be addressed much differently. I wish I saw then the power our work has to make a difference in other’s lives. While a creator can’t be held responsible for a reader/viewer’s reactions, there is a chance to either contribute to a problem or be part of changing it…
While reading I Am Not Okay With This (IANOWT for short), I became enthralled with Sydney, the main character, and her experience navigating her bi-sexuality, home/school life, the loss of her father, and the unique twist of her having telekinetic powers (very Eleven from Stranger Things.) At first, I swooned over the metaphor that when Sydney uses her powers to get back at someone (i.e. giving them a splitting headache), she herself would suffer…a wise lesson that when we hurt others, we ultimately hurt ourselves. But the story quickly writes itself away from that metaphor, resulting in Sydney abruptly dying by suicide on the last page of the book.
The worst case.
Like other recent stories in the entertainment world (ahem, 13 Reasons Why), IANOWT had the opportunity to tell a story that spotlit hope and the alternative to suicide—but instead, both 13 Reasons and IANOWT chose to go with the worst case scenario possible. And my short story, mentioned before, did the same. I didn’t handle a character’s suicide like I should’ve. There could’ve been hope infused instead of tragedy and many other options I could’ve written to drive the story forward instead of suicide.
So why was I (and these other stories) so quick to choose the worst case?
After researching interviews with writers and looking back at the process of writing my story, I found a few common threads: many of us focus on telling stories that are “real”, because things like that happen in the real world. Others justify it as highlighting the problem in a “this is what happens, let’s stop it”/”here’s what not to do”/shock factor way. But what I now realize: if we step back and look at the conversations we have in comics, books, movies, etc., the truth is that what we create is what’s fueling the real world. Like the ultimate cycle of influence.
Suicide is a matter of public health. No question about it. Through understanding that on a core level, the #1 thing we can do as creators is to help the issue and encourage help-seeking. Helping the issue doesn’t mean giving your work a total make-over of subject matter or tone and painting it with pink, as Marianne Williamson says. It can be dark, brooding, gritty, real, and still show the alternative to suicide.
As I said earlier, we never know who’s reading.
Allow people the choice.
When Netflix aired the episode of 13 Reasons Why that contained graphic depictions of both rape and suicide, they issued a trigger warning beforehand. However, with comics and other printed forms of media, trigger warnings are far and few that I’ve seen beyond the general “Teen +” or “Mature” ratings. Comic publishers and individual creators can learn a lot from Netflix. It allows viewers/readers to be willing participants in what they choose to consume. While it’s not a perfect solution, it leads with compassion and consideration of where people are in their lives.
When I shared my short story online years back, I took a cue from Wattpad (a user-generated writing site who’s users employ trigger warnings) and put a disclaimer before it. It did its job and I’m so glad. I had forgotten that a friend of mine’s family member died by suicide. When I told her “Hey, I wrote a short story, it’s on my website!”, she was super stoked to read it but after seeing the trigger warning she never did. That’s always haunted me. The fact that she chose to guard herself from the potential trigger that I had written to life is hard. After experiencing tragedy, shouldn’t our work bring light to reader’s lives and not continue or contribute to pain?
This gets me to my next point: portraying LGBTQ characters. Let’s face it: representation of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans characters isn’t where it should be. Although it’s getting better and there are amazing independent comics and creators like Alison Bechdel who’s been rocking it for years! Having a teen character, like Sydney in IANOWT, exploring her sexuality was so awesome to see. However, it also made her killing herself even harder. The Trevor Project shares this fact about suicide from the CDC: LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
Many mainstream LGBTQ stories are centered around obstacles and tragedy (graphic novels like Blue Is The Warmest Color, films like Brokeback Mountain, and TV shows killing off gay characters—more on that here.) It’s wonders like the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name that beautifully challenge what to expect from a form of entertainment, especially one featuring LGBTQ characters. Many viewers reported that they were nervous during Call Me By Your Name, anticipating something tragic, sinister, and seriously non-loving would steal away the romance between Elio and Oliver.
With the majority of other stories focusing on obstacles and tragedy it’s no wonder we’re set up for that anxiety. But there’s none of that in Call Me By Your Name. It’s a beautiful lesson on how a story can be told with love and still effect us, devastate us, and make us crave the same beauty for ourselves. Defenses lowered. Hearts open. Minds full of hope for the magic life has to offer us.
Our work supports.
A great deal of that mindset is perspective and the way we approach what we create is the first step to making a larger impact. This isn’t a plea to tell exclusively warm and fuzzy stories or trying to say that nothing bad ever happens or that lessons can’t be learned or support given from the hard things… All of that is true but this is a time like no other to ask ourselves:
What if instead of showing the worst of the worst cases, we show what it’s like to see beyond the dark times and painful moments?
…To support each other from near and far. Even when it’s hard. Even when it feels impossible. To show that there still is hope. To tell stories that heal and bring light to those dark nights we all experience. Let’s make the work we create send that message. Like turning a corner, going from a really bad neighborhood into a safe, better hood, we can help people, and ourselves, discover that something magical has been living within the darkness all along.
Here are some organizations giving guidelines for writing about suicide as well as my own personal pointers on addressing other difficult topics in the comics we create:
Note: if you are looking for support and/or having suicidal thoughts, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255) A free, 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons or those around them with support, information and local resources.
• What would you like to see represented or supported around the experience?
• What would’ve made you feel better seeing/knowing while going through it?
• What is off limits or would’ve made it worse?
Use the answers you get to help approach these emotional topics and not guess or take it in a potentially harmful direction. When selecting people to interview, be respectful. Make sure its someone who’s already openly sharing their experience and you aren’t pressing them to open a closed issue. Also search for organizations providing advocacy for the topic to get larger support for how to best handle it. By being informed, you’ll be able to approach writing your comic with an even more healing, compassionate perspective.