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Barking (review)

Creator: Lucy Sullivan

Avery Hill Press, 2024

Barking is the story of a woman named Alix Otto, who is institutionalised after being pulled by police from a pedestrian overpass, where she had been contemplating suicide. We were initially unsure how to categorise the title, and reluctantly went with “Non-fiction”, “Slice of Life” and “United Kingdom”, even though:

a. the events depicted in the story could happen anywhere, and are not particular to the United Kingdom; and

b. the circumstances leading to and including the protagonist’s time hospitalised are bleak, and do not come with the usual urbanity associated with “slice of life” stories. This is a story about mental health, not about a meandering Sunday on Portobello Road.

This is publisher Avery Hill Press’ promotional copy:

A year after the death of her friend, Alix’s depression and grief still hound her in this personally-inspired graphic novel.
Loopy . . . cuckoo . . . stark raving. . . .
When the depression and grief Alix feels over the death of her friend overwhelm her, she’s institutionalized. But inside a psychiatric ward, things don’t get better for her—now she has nowhere to get away from her rapidly-spiralling thoughts. As Alix navigates disinterested attendants, group therapy, and isolation, she must build herself a new equilibrium and tame the black dog of her depression.
Inspired by her own struggles with mental health, Lucy Sullivan tells a powerful, emotional story about the problems that sometimes overwhelm us all—and the failures in the mental health system we depend on.

The black dog, Winston Churchill’s famous metaphor for his own depression, manifests throughout the story as a giant whispering wolf. The wolf is a terrible metaphor throughout the story: ever-present, looming, menacing, and insidious. There are two antagonists to the story: this lurking metaphor of Alix’s mental health, and the system itself, which is not a fit environment for someone endeavouring to overcome their mental health struggles. In an interview for Fanbase Press https://fanbasepress.com/press/interviews/comics/item/54641-fanbase-press-interviews-lucy-sullivan-on-the-release-of-the-graphic-novel-barking-with-avery-hill/, creator Lucy Sullivan notes,

“We step into Alix’s shoes (or lack there of) as she navigates the threats, systemic attitudes and difficulties of hospital life. All whilst dealing with the manifestation of the eponymous Black Dog and maybe some others she’d rather not see. It’s based on personal experience combined with research and a dash of folklore to bring readers a wider understanding of a mental health crisis and the UK care system… I’m grateful for the NHS healthcare we have in the UK, but some of the practices are frankly barbaric and can make patients significantly worse.”

The art for this title is striking and reminiscent of the work of American avant garde comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz. The smudges and smears of black against stark white is representative of the author’s mental health: the bleak white spaces remind us of the interior of wards. Images fray, devolve into scribbles. And the panels are not orderly: they bleed into one other in another jolting method of describing what is going on inside the Otto’s head:

The word balloons become disorientating, filled with swear words. Who is saying what? Where is the eye supposed to go on the page? Is this what it is like to be on strong medication, to have one’s perceptions so warped?

It is hard to read. The negative messages which Otto deals with from the dog inside her head are confronting. The failure of the mental health system to deal with someone in Otto’s ill-health is upsetting. And the inability of all but one person to reach out to Otto in support will inspire guilt in anyone who has ever failed a friend with a mental health issue in need. Otto’s problems stem in her inability to process grief upon the death of a friend. She is capable of treatment, but she is let down at every turn.

Integration and acceptance of grief is the message. “It’s the past but you drag it around. Make it part of you.” The story leaves the reader solemn, sad, and thoughtful.

Barking is available here: Barking by Lucy Sullivan – Pre-order | Avery Hill Publishing (bigcartel.com)