There are no rules in comics. There are guidelines, suggested structures, and traditional formats. But none of these are set in stone, and it’s more startling and visually engaging to experience comic books which proactively manipulate and contort those traditional structures of reading through panels and pages in a certain manner. Two such comics that tear past such sensibilities are Lucy Sullivan’s Barking and Erika Price’s Disorder. This pair of comics is determined to unsettle the reader engrossingly. They are designed to insist upon them an authentically horrific reading experience through their combination of thematic subject matter and sequential construction.
Neither Sullivan nor Price places themselves into the comics as characters, but they nonetheless remain autobiographical in nature. Barking tells the symbolic journey of Alix Otto exploring a breakdown in her mental health and the consequences of attempting to recover within a broken mental health system. Disorder consists of a series of short comics that capture surreal, grotesque body horror as a metaphor for gender dysphoria. Barking feels the more traditional of the two – a full-length graphic novel initially crowdfunded and published through Unbound, whereas by comparison, Disorder is a series of self-published comics that are ongoing in their structure.
It’s no coincidence that both comics produce such startling results by being monochromatic. No color is to be found on these pages because including color would remove much of their power. The immediacy of these black and white pages is what hits you, yet there are terrors lingering in the shadows of these pages that can’t entirely be perceived. They linger in your mind long after you’ve finished reading them, taking root amongst the primary immediacy of how violently riotous these comics are.
Barking deconstructs the mind. Disorder deconstructs the body. Both books are informed by the lived experiences of their authors, Sullivan through her mental health and Price through her experiences of body dysphoria. In the afterword of Barking, Sullivan clarifies that much of the events in Barking are, in actuality, toned down. Disorder, by comparison, has no such veil applied. There’s no reassuring afterword included in the Disorder comics. Erika’s tangible experiences pierce through these pages. Barking feels the more elegant of the two in its deconstructions, the more refined. It tells a coherent narrative with a definable beginning, middle and end. Disorder’s nature consists of numerous short comics amounting to horrifically surreal, stream-of-consciousness vignettes involving physical corrosion. There are no traditional narratives at work here, nothing resembling a plot. The bodies that creep out of panels highlight the disconnect between the comics in how Disorder is the more physically destructive of the two comics.
Sullivan’s artwork initially appears unfinished in its line art and undetailed in its inks. On close inspection, there are minute and spontaneous visual intricacies crafted all over her elegantly undefined pages. Interior and exterior mental visions swirl together throughout the comic, creating an unraveling sense of unease for the reader, but rarely feels overwhelming to process. The unease in Disorder is a more physically uncurling one. It’s one you can put your finger to, and feel those fingers being crushed under the weight of Price’s fierce sense of detail. Every page brims with a cathartic pain. There’s a symmetrical quality to the comics scattered throughout Disorder that captures your eye in a different manner than Barking. Price applies more traditional page layouts to her comics – borders are sharply contained, making the physical pain embedded throughout pierce and claw at you with a more tangible sensation.
Separating the two further, Barking’s conclusion hints at an optimistic future for Alix as she’s forced to endure the perception of her mental illness as much of her illness itself. Sullivan crafts Barking to be as much a sobering comment on the bureaucratic treatment of mental health as an extrapolation of grief, fear, and madness itself. Disorder makes no room for such emotions. Where Barking explores a spectrum of feelings and experiences, Disorder crafts a variety of sickening scenarios to capture the entrapping sensations of body dysphoria, seemingly with no escape. Disorder undoubtedly presents a crossover of ideas into Barking with spillage of mental illness erupting from the dysphoria themes of Price’s comics. The visual focus in the Disorder comics may fixate on brute physicality, but this is combined with stark narrative dialogue that feels much more inwardly tuned.
Through their fusion of subject matter and execution, Sullivan and Price’s comics are weighty, bruising explorations. Their anti-conventional structures allow them to offer frighteningly riveting introspections into traumatic subjects. They also highlight the formidable power comics can have as a medium to target, extrapolate and examine taboo concepts with an immense creative soul. These comics are good because they are difficult, uncomfortable, and unpleasant things to read. That’s the idea. That’s the power they inflict on you. That’s the impact of mental illness.