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Illustrating the fine lines of mental illness

by admin February 2, 2010

Mental illness is one of the few social taboos that is completely ignored, misrepresented, or flat-out denied in the Western world. Reality paints a much different portrait of those suffering from a mental illness. In fact, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime and schizophrenia affects one per cent of the population.

Von Allan, author and illustrator of the graphic novel the road to god knows…, experienced the toll a mental illness can take on a parent first hand. Allan’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 11.
“It was when she started having nervous breakdown episodes and being hospitalized that I realized she’s not well at all. She was having problems and the problems were such that I couldn’t help. There is a really strong sense of powerlessness that goes with that,” explained Allan. “There’s nothing I could do.”

Set in Ottawa during the fall of 1988, the road to god knows… is centred on Marie; a 13-year-old girl coming to terms with her mother’s schizophrenia. The novel opens with Marie returning to their small barren apartment following her mother’s release from a clinic following another mental collapse.
While the graphic novel is fiction, many events and elements are based on Allan’s childhood. It’s deeply personal and as the plot unfolds there are a series of increasingly stomach churning breakdowns. With each episode, Marie is forced to confront her mother’s mental illness and with the help of a friend, Kelly, begins to comprehend her mother’s struggle.

What is particularly interesting is that Allan has decided to tell his story through a girl in her early teens because he was uncomfortable with the idea of making it completely autobiographical. It’s quite difficult for an author to develop a central character from across the gender divide, but Allan has succeeded in Marie. It’s also clear that Allan has planted some of his personality in Marie; take for instance her love of tag-team wrestling. The result is a well thought out and completely likeable tomboy that you’ll root for.
Allan’s art is simple, but fitting for the stripped down storyline. What is most surprising is that Allan only began drawing at 25. Easily the most memorable panels come when Marie is visiting her mother in a mental hospital. Allan subtly bends the straight lines of the black and white checkered hallways adding to the already unsettling atmosphere. It’s a nice touch that enhances his style.

When Allan set out to write the road to god knows… he approached the plot and theme with one simple guideline, “Don’t be up on a soap box, don’t be preachy, don’t be didactic, don’t try to be lecturing, or anything like that, certainly don’t say anything like mental illness is bad or the person who has it is bad.”
Allan has succeeded in every measure. the road to god knows… portrays only a tiny slice of life for those with a mental illness. It’s gripping, dramatic, and will leave you with a deeper understanding of the relationship between those who are afflicted and the people that love them.

the road to god knows… is available at Astro Books (1844 St-Catherine St.)

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