A Small, Vibrant Sphere: Mental Illness in Finnish Independent Comics
Representations of mental illness open a window into a different world view. From the conventionalized to the idiosyncratic, the glamorized to the realistic to the demonized, these depictions of altered mental processes fascinate me. Given the increasing frequency with which we hear from the mentally ill themselves, I don’t think I’m alone in the desire not only to understand the cultural significance of exterior, imagined depictions, but also the societal ramifications of internal, lived experiences.
Still, speaking openly about personal experiences with mental illness is a brave act. These days it can still pose a potential, if no longer certain, future hindrance. The twin spectres of shame and stigma still haunt the discourse on mental illness. BTSB has recently published an anonymous author writing about experiences they felt should be more talked about, but they worried about negative future consequences.
Yet mental illness is not rare. This Huffington Post article collects a batch of interesting figures largely gathered from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The most salient: one in five Americans experience mental illness in any give year, but only 25% feel that others will have a compassionate response.
A person’s mental illness becomes a sort of shadow life only made public in the “right” spheres. Even then there is often a pressure to conform to some narrative – medicalized, plucky, artistic. Narrativization is seductive, done as much for the comfort of the audience as for the self. This thing that’s been a huge weight and stumbling block can suddenly be corralled, minimized, understood – and all within the scope of a quirky story that entertains and edifies.
Even when the ability and desire to speak openly is present, it’s very difficult to give authentic voice to one’s experiences with mental illness.
That’s why I was quite happy to find Rikkinäisen mielen kuvat at the Helsinki Comics Festival earlier this September. Finland is a fantastic country for independent comics, and this collection of short comics showcases some great examples. The collection is part of the larger RIKKI project ongoing since 2015. The book collects 20 short comics plus a few poems, prose works, illustrations, and mixed format pieces created by artists with mental illnesses on the topic of their own mental illness.
The comics are in Finnish, but some can be followed without a grasp of the language. Many artists use color expressively to differentiate states, communicate distress, and suggest aspects of character. Ansku Wallenius’s “Keskity!” relies on a bold, restricted palette and subtle use of textures to convey the experience of ADHD with minimal words.
Many comics are arranged as a succession of small to medium panels that focus on an expressive human figure. Tiitu Takalo’s “Suojuoksua” tells its story through uniform nine-panel pages, almost every panel depicting the same character. Her series of postures and expressions as she goes through common situations and feelings elicit the reader’s empathy. Each panel is relatable, the character lives though situations similar to what many of us experience; they are simply bigger or out of proportion to other parts of life for the character. Though Takalo’s comic makes heavy use of text that deepens the piece, reading is not necessary to understanding the story and empathizing with the character.
The preponderance of character focused comics arranged in panels makes the occasional two-page-spread, panel-free comics quite effective. These tend to depict more extreme symptoms and experiences. “Psyko/terapia” by Elisa Luhtaniemi incorporates words in a symbol rich design that immediately immerses the reader in a mixture of fear, determination, and hope deeper than language.
For those who read Finnish, many of the comics discuss the difficulty of getting proper mental health care. Although Finns potentially enjoy access to free care, accessing it appears arcane. Some comics show characters seeking preventative care, finding help unavailable until their symptoms consume their studies, careers, and well being. Others depict a cyclical process spanning years in which severely ill characters are doubted, shamed, and ignored before finding the care they need.
For a person already suffering from mental health issues, surmounting such obstacles may be beyond their abilities. A patient, stable person with free time who cares about the help-seeker is often needed. Not everyone has such a person, so it’s good to raise awareness of these difficulties. Humanization and highlighting the difficulties of getting help are part of the mission of the larger RIKKI project.
I decided to buy the anthology after hearing a couple of panel discussions at the Helsinki Comics Festival featuring the editor, Apila Pepita Miettinen, and several artists. While it appeals directly to an artistic, personal, and academic interest of mine, I might have passed up Rikkinäisen mielen kuvat simply given the range of artists depicting mental illness both directly and metaphorically.
The subsection of the festival formerly known as Pienilehtitaivas has expanded into the Helsinki Zine Fest, offering for the first time (to my knowledge) its own program of workshops, panels, and talks. Here I found Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen’s Start Over Again, a collection of short comics in English handling gender and mental health topics from both direct and imaginative angles. Kuura Reign’s short, impactful Dissociation takes a symbolic approach to the depiction of mental illness in stark black and white.
Though I didn’t purchase any of his individual work this year, Wolf Kankare’s contribution to Rikkinäisen mielen kuvat prompted me to flip again through several works of his that have been sitting on my bookshelf. Many handle mental health issues metaphorically, and some contain English translations below the Finnish texts.
Mental illness is a topic richly covered in Finnish independent comics. Perhaps the medium, affording the ability to contradict text with image; easy circumvention of language; and direct appeal to readers’ emotion through color and character design, is conducive to depicting altered mental and emotional states. Perhaps the long history of forthrightly weird and absurd Finnish comics has created a comfortable space for expressing thoughts and experiences that could be seen as atypical. Whatever the root causes, a glance over the tables at the Helsinki Zine Fest reveals an independent comics scene supportive of a range of often marginalized voices and issues.
However prevalently covered in this vibrant but small sphere, I don’t think mental health a topic about which we can talk enough. Until it becomes a common, uncharged act to discuss mental illness under one’s own name and through one’s own narrative, every artist, writer, and creator who brings their voice to the conversation adds value to the discourse.