Psychiatric Tales From the Source

Posted by on January 12th, 2011 at 1:34 PM

Published by UK publisher Blank Slate Books Psychiatric Tales is a collection of stories chronicling and explaining various mental illnesses. Underground artist Daryl Cunningham, having worked as both a psychiatric and care nurse, sheds light on disorders that all too often are grossly misunderstood or of which the effects are under- or over-exaggerated. His own bout with a severe depression delivers an insight that goes beyond any medical experience and often grounds the stories with humanity and discernment.
Dealing with a broad area of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder etc, Cunningham not only delves into the way these people are cared for but also distinctly specifies which illnesses are caused by physical factors like a malfunctioning in the neural transmitters and which are due to environment (family, upbringing, social situation) or a combination of both. It is an approach that I can only applaud; to look at this subject so concise and to the point, involving both the sufferer and those surrounding him is one of the main strengths of the book.

I don’t know exactly what the state of the psychiatric care is in the UK or how the medical field is perceived by the general populace there but judging from the complaints Cunningham brings forth in the book, there’s still more than enough room for education surrounding the subject matter. In Belgium, psychiatric care is at a reasonably high level and the level of knowledge involved in the general populace is also quite high I think (just wish the government would subsidise it more). Therefore the book will appeal to certain strata of the populace more than others.

What works against a truely smooth reading experience though is the didactic undertone. Told by a first person narrator – Darryl Cunningham himself – I often found myself taken out of the tales presented (or the diseased focused on, as you prefer) due to the storytelling choice. Oftentimes it spoke to me more as a sort of standard text book on cases chronicled with the added flair of visual storytelling. Cunningham often rectifies the didactic tone by playing with the panel crops and page layouts but overall this was something that disturbed me.

The drawing style of Darryl Cunningham is angular and cartoony supporting a high contrast black and white approach. His often almost iconic drawings are sometimes interspersed with details of photographs, their black and white levels driven to extremes. Panel backgrounds are most often in black with white lines slashing the black forming context like a room, furniture, rain etc.

It is an interesting approach and I find myself wondering about his intent. Drowning the interiors in black certainly brings out a sort of depressing and moody atmosphere but it could be argued if this is the effect he should be going for. Not that the book should be all Bambi eyes and joy of spring but he often elaborates on common misconceptions thereby shedding light on various mental illnesses like cutters and anorexic patients so maybe it would have been a good idea to also literally shed some light on the drawings. This is however, a personal side remark. Cunningham certainly produces some beautiful work here with a good eye for panel layouts that enhance the effects of the illnesses discussed. His characters are immediately recognizable even with a minimum of lines and his layouts are often direct, effective and just utterly charming.

Playing with the black and white medium is a technique that is used often in the book and especially effective in the final chapter ‘How I lived again’ (see the image example below this paragraph).  Cunningham reveals his inner struggles and lays it all bare before the reader, chronicling his own battle with a severe depression. While the chapter starts out very dark with even buildings and environment in negative, white lines on black background; gradually white becomes more the norm in the course of this story dealing with Cunningham finding a renewed interest in life and in himself.

Knowledge is power as they say but it also is wisdom. Reading Psychiatric Tales can be a very cathartic process and certainly enriches your understanding of your fellow human beings. Psychiatric Tales educates and entertains at the same time but most importantly, Darryl Cunningham delivers insights into human nature and shows us that understanding equals empathy and acceptance. And for that aspect alone, Psychiatric Tales is a must read book.

Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham is published by Blank Slate Books. It is a hardcover counting 150 pages in B&W and retails for £ 11.99.

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