Cartoonist: Lucy Sullivan Publisher: Self-published through Unbound Publishing
WHAT IS IT?
An exploration of mental illness in black and white and a mercurial, scratchy style.
It has the "mental illness explored artfully" element of Black Swan, but it's very much its own creature, difficult to imagine being brought to life without illustration.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Charles Bukowski once wrote a book of poetry he titled "Love Is A Dog From Hell." In this haunting tale from Lucy Sullivan, this shadowy hellhound is more an anthropomorphization of depression, anxiety, and likely other mental illnesses.
We meet our protagonist, Alix Otto, at her breaking point, contemplating suicide to rid herself of a shadowy dog only she can see. The dog taunts and torments her verbally, following her everywhere, always talking, never resting.
Alix has had a very hard year, and we get the feeling that she hasn't been able to heal from her trauma. In fact, it's seemed like it has festered within her. Forced into an institution in an effort to save her from herself, she's thrust into a fresh hell unequipped to help her heal and come to terms with the history which haunts her.
Is there hope for Alix to heal? Can she rid herself of this black dog forever and escape or be released from the institution that only makes things worse?
"Barking" as a title works so well on so many levels. We've all heard the term "barking mad," meaning "insane." But it also personifies that insanity into the form of a dog, making it thematically central to the story. If you've ever had a dog (or a neighbor with one) who won't stop barking, you know it's extremely difficult to concentrate or get any peace – it's incessant and impossible to ignore, like the negative self-talk coming from the dog that represents her mental illness. Also, to "dog" someone means to hunt or follow them like a hound, which is what the dog does in the story, always with her. We also see other "dog" references and allusions throughout the work.
Earlier, I called the art style "mercurial." You can see an example below, pulled from Sullivan's website. It might give you a rough sense of the style, but you truly don't know what to expect until you're deep into BARKING. The whole book is black-and-white, with loose inks and hand-scrawled dialogue and sound effects. With the exception of impersonal dates and times, everything is raw, raw, raw, messy as life, visceral and fluid and in constant motion.
The black and white work to the art style's advantage. The two are like oil and water; there isn't much in the way of gray, and white space is used just as smartly as the ink on the page. It's interesting when pages get really detailed or chaotic, seeing what draws your eye first, and then discovering that there's more you're only registering now. It's like a painting in a gallery: you're at first drawn to the focal point of the piece of art, sure, but there's much more on the canvas to take in.
The lettering is just as chaotic as the art style, again with the exception of the typeset captions, but even those have hand-drawn boxes around them. Balloon size, amount of air in balloons, letter style, all of it changes constantly. Sometimes, there isn't even a balloon for the words floating around Alix. But all of it works together to build this atmosphere of anxiety and hurt and fear, constantly seeing haunting messages, like "THEY ARE NOT HERE. I AM."
Readers will likely gasp at some page turns. The art is wild, even savage at times; how Sullivan presents Alix's struggle and story on the page vacillates between more grounded in reality and more surreal and unhinged or emotionally charged.
In some places, the text gets so loose or insubstantial or upstaged by the art that you can't even see what it says. This is intentional and a good thing, showing how Alix's internal monologue or external events overpower one another at times, and how the two bleed into one another.
The dog isn't always a dog. Sometimes, it's a black cloud hanging over Alix's head – often a metaphor for doom and gloom that seems to follow us. Other times, it's a face in the shadows, eyes just two pinpoints of light, watching, hidden, yet ever-present.
The scenes from the institution are heavy. We go from Alix alone with her trauma to surrounded by people, often ones in power dehumanizing and shaming her, linking her distress to a lack of religion or morality.
Also in the title, but especially in the scenes from the institution, there seems to be a fixation on hands, especially with regard to the nurses. It's interesting because we see that, even if the intent was to give Alix a "helping hand," they only seem to stoke the fires of her trauma. There are very few faces. Whether this is because Alix doesn't want to look them in the eye or because their actions speak louder than their words is up to reader interpretation, but it seems like an overwhelming number of bodies. They say they want to help, but their body language disagrees. When faces are shown, they're uncomfortably intense, staring deep into the reader's own eyes – thus, we understand why Alix may not want to make eye contact with them.
BARKING will make you feel. I know that's kind of a strange thing to say, but in a world where we've been desensitized by media constantly trying to leverage our emotions, having any work actually break through and make you feel something is rare and should be treasured.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK?
The "make you feel" statement above and the one about "sobbing" below are very real. You may need a hug or some quiet time after you finish this, or you may want to take some breaks rather than reading it all at once. It's very heavy, emotionally, and it can weigh on you if you're sensitive to emotion in media.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
BARKING is a masterpiece of the comics medium, a triumph for Lucy Sullivan and Unbound Publishing. Finishing reading it feels akin to recovering from a bout of uncontrollable sobbing; you feel as if a weight has been lifted from you, and you're better for it.
Reading BARKING is a visceral, emotional experience that I highly recommend, especially for audiences looking for a comic unlike anything else and for anyone wanting a work of art that tackles mental illness head-on. Brutal in its honesty and more haunting than any horror story, BARKING is a much-needed exploration of mental illness in a world that prefers to believe it doesn't exist.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
Hey, Amateur! by various creators
If you like the art:
The Wishmaker's Gimcrack by Ram V, Lucy Sullivan & Aditya Bidikar
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Lucy Sullivan – Cartoonist
Multitalented: Lucy Sullivan embodies the "Multitalented" superlative here; not only is she a writer and artist, she's an animator, a teacher, and a director and creator of TV and film visuals, as well.
BARKING was partially inspired by Sullivan's own experiences, particularly after she lost her father in her early 20s. However, it's not autobiographical, and it's also informed by others' experiences, as well.
Lizzie Kaye – Editor
Recently left her position as Commissioning Editor for all graphic novels at Unbound.
Kaye is also fantastic to talk to (as is Lucy Sullivan), and tremendously knowledgeable about comics and publishing.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
BARKING gets its official release on March 5th. Find it here:
The image(s) used in this article are from a comic strip, webcomic or the cover or interior of a comic book. The copyright for this image(s) is likely owned by either the publisher of the comic, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the comic. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner in order to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
All Lucy Sullivan characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are trademarks of and copyright Lucy Sullivan or their respective owners. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED