Creator: Katriona Chapman
Avery Hill Press, 2021
Katriona Chapman’s Breakwater is a non-fiction graphic novel centered on the mundane life of Chris, a woman in her 40s who is an introverted loner that spent a large part of her life working in a local theater called Breakwater Picture House. The copy to the title reads as follows:
Chris finds a new friend…
…then has to decide if she has room in her life for one.
A loner and an introvert, Chris has worked in Brighton’s Breakwater Picture House for many years. It’s the kind of job that people drift through; friendships flourish for a time, contained within their allotted hours and place…and then fade when people move on. When Dan joins, Chris finds someone who breaks out of these designated boundaries and gradually becomes a part of her life. But as she learns more about her new friend, she must decide if the solitary life she’s built is the one she’s actually most suited to after all.
While Chris is the protagonist and the fulcrum from where the story itself pivots, the story itself otherwise rests on Chris’ interactions with the people around her, most notably her co-workers. Chief among these is her new co-worker, Dan.
Dan, when first introduced, is the ideal co-worker. He is confident without being overbearing, has excellent people skills and, as a gay man, isn’t really interested in muddling up Chris’ non-existent dating life. Dan enters the Breakwater Picture House as its newest employee and influences positive changes in the workplace. Dan teaches Chris to be less of a doormat for rude customers, gives the young Craig a much-needed older brother figure, and even puts his skills as a former nurse to good use during a medical emergency.
Breakwater starts off slow. The Breakwater Picture House seems to be barely hanging on as a business, and this malaise lingers through the beginnings of the story. But people who are looking for more significant plot movements should exercise patience. Ms. Chapman introduces the cast to the reader, and then elevates them beyond stereotyping. Craig isn’t just a rude, teenage slacker with no ambitions in life. Breakwater owner Jeff is not just an out of touch business owner close to retirement. Even a rude customer that most people would readily dismiss as a “Karen” gets fleshed out. (Ms. Chapman takes great care to explain why the customer is ill-tempered and rude, but avoids using the reason behind his temperament as an excuse for bad behaviour.)
The pivot in Breakwater is sudden. After making the reader care so much about Dan, Ms. Chapman reveals Dan is suffering from borderline personality disorder. This reviewer does not have any background in discussing mental health issues in depth. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, borderline personality disorder is an affliction characterized by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behaviour – which tend to manifest in a person’s life as impulsive actions and severe shifts between conflicting emotions.
We initially meet Dan as a very positive person who has a buoyant effect on the lives of people he comes across. But as soon as an abusive ex-boyfriend appears and tries to reconcile, Dan starts to fall apart. Dan withdraws, starts to become unproductive, and even self-destructive. Dan knows something is wrong and wants to fight it, but he tries to do it by himself and refuses outside help, partly out of pride and partly out of shame. We get to see Dan get back to his usual self, and then relapse. Dan reaches a nadir of despair with a suicide attempt.
It is at this part of Breakwater where one starts to get an idea of the duality in the graphic novel’s title. Chris’ workplace, the theater house, is called Breakwater because it is situated near an actual breakwater. But it can also be a metaphor for Chris’ role in Dan’s mental health issues. She tries to take the impact of the waves.
Here lies the cautionary tale. The novel tries to get across the very important point that people who suffer from severe mental health issues can require professional help. Much of the time, the problem can’t be solved by mere intent and encouragement. And as exemplified by Chris’ case, an unqualified samaritan could end up sacrificing her own quality of life.
Breakwater is poignant. It tackles a very complex but oft-misrepresented subject matter. It doesn’t speak as an authority on mental health issues. It instead puts you in the perspective of a normal person who gets caught up in the gravity well of a loved one suffering from bipolar personality disorder. We would not say that Breakwater educates people on mental health issues, but it shows readers that there is a real problem with real consequences. Maybe it would encourage people to seek out more information. Yet this message does not detract from the main purpose of a graphic novel, which is to tell a story.
We would be remiss if we don’t give credit to the art. The interior pages are monochrome, but there’s a stunning amount of detail in the panels. The story does not have any dynamic action scenes to smear across a lack of detail. The art does not skimp on much needed information – signs, empty seats, discarded popcorn buckets, the glow of a projector screen. Ms. Chapman renders them all effectively using black, white, and shades of grey.
Clocking in at 160 pages, Breakwater is, notwithstanding both that page length and the heavy content, a read that you can finish in one sitting. Some readers may find it confronting. But it is an immersive tale with beautiful art that is worth reading through more than once. The book is published by that wonderful indie press house, Avery Hill Publishing, and is available here – https://averyhillpublishing.bigcartel.com/product/breakwater-by-katriona-chapman-pre-order.