Stories To Save Your Life: Graphic Novels on Mental Health

I was trying to think of an opening paragraph for this, a post to recommend some comics about mental health. I decided I love comics + I go on a lot about mental health = This Post was probably sufficient.

I haven’t deliberately chosen the comics (1) below to represent different styles but by luck they have. Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and A Half is a neon coloured webcomic in a style she describes as “purposefully crude”. Reading it gives you a deliberate and very funny sense of almost childish chaos and mess, but can also act as a Trojan Horse to surprise you with some more tragic observations. Daryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, which talks the readers through different mental health problems as well as the author’s own breakdown, is all stark blacks and whites and blocks and angles. It feels harsh but also exceptionally honest and clear. The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon is beautiful watercolours, a contrast to the ugliness that the protagonist feels inside.

stories to change your life

The title for this post is taken from the excellent book by Paul Gravett – “Graphic Novels: Stories to Save Your Life”. (“The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil” was a close 2nd.)

So, in no particular order, here are 4 comics about mental health that I would highly recommend:

1. Hyperbole and a Half: This isn’t a ‘mental health comic’ in that it’s not written just about mental health – it covers various shenanigans in writer Allie Brosh’s life, including her mad dog and various childhood misadventures. It does include however one of the best stories about experiencing depression I’ve ever read – best in the sense of most honest and most accurate (the dead fish analogy I think is a particularly good portrayal of how difficult it is to communicate depression to people around you). It manages to be funny and heart breaking at the same time. As an absolute cherry on top, you can read it for free online.

2. Psychiatric Tales:The author was a mental health nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward who has also struggled with his own mental health difficulties, so this book is both personal reflection and education, discussing different mental health problems and their consequences. Stephen Holland describes it perfectly as “a book of…instinctive, level-headed compassion, communication and education”.  Excerpts and an interview with the author here. The follow up, Science Tales, is pretty awesome too.

3. The Nao of Brown: The illness itself is never named in this book, but seems to be a type of OCD, possibly the ‘pure O’  or primarily obsessional type. There’s a ‘study guide’ here which discusses some of the themes in the book, particularly the importance of cycles (notice how her head is a washing machine on the front cover). For a contrasting viewpoint, this post takes issue with the book for the ‘spectacularization’ of mental illness, which is well intentioned but just perpetuates myths. I think it raises some interesting points, though not ones I personally agree with.

Nao of Brown

The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon

4. Acme Novelty Library #18: As far as I’m aware this is out of print, but I felt I had to include it as I actually used it as a prop in a presentation on depression once. As soon as you open the book there is a striking, and classically Chris-Ware-esque, illustration of a woman literally surrounded by her negative thoughts. To me, it’s a fantastic representation of rumination – the experience of being trapped in cycles of depressive thought. The fact that you, the reader, have to spin round with the character by physically rotating the book to read it is a perfect example of exploiting what comics as a medium can do.

The ruminative cycle in comic form by Chris Ware

If you’re into comics yourself, or by contrast if you’re not sure about this mental health comic malarkey at all, please do comment below! If you’re interested in how comics portray health issues more generally, or their potential role in education or awareness, then the Graphic Medicine site will be right up your street. Finally, if you like the look of any of the above (or indeed if you just loved that Iron Man movie (2) and want to know what the books are like these days) then the lovely people at Page 45 in Nottingham or OK Comics in Leeds are always happy to help, and both do mail order!


(1) Most people I know who read a lot of comics call them exactly that – comics. I deliberately went for the guardian-favoured “graphic novels” in the title as I do think comics still carries childish or throwaway connotations, which I disagree with, but I didn’t want to risk putting people off. I’ve stuck with comics in the main text though. My personal beef with saying I read “graphic novels” is the number of people who, upon hearing this, raise a quizzical eyebrow and say “What…porn?”

(2) Another assumption of course is that all comics are about superheroes. When I’ve mentioned comics in the past, people will look surprised (and, to be honest, a bit superior) and say “Really? You don’t seem like someone who’s into superheroes.” (3). This the equivalent of someone saying they like films, and responding “Really? You don’t seem like someone who’s into westerns.” Separate your medium and your genre, people.

(3) Also, I love superheroes. Check out my awesome Avengers! And Thor’s teeny tiny hammer!


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3 Responses to Stories To Save Your Life: Graphic Novels on Mental Health

  1. Cheryl says:

    This is an excellent piece! Will have to hunt some of those titles down (I 100% agree about the magnificence of Hyperbole and a Half). I also love graphic novels/comics for the fact that they can go beyond other genres to represent and explore aspects of experience and imagination in striking new ways (including the “super-” and “para-” aspects!).

    Just wanted to shout out to the Sandman comics, especially Delirium – it’s not necessarily about mental health in a definable diagnosis-y way, but it is often very beautifully and senstively about all sorts of forms of despair, confusion and pain

  2. Pingback: Chocolate, broccoli, and a test of strength: where do games and therapy interact? | saraheknowles

  3. pamwatts says:

    Wow, great list. Just found this when searching out “mental health” and “graphic novels” for a list for my own blog. Thanks!

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