February 27, 2014

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Look Straight Ahead

Written and Drawn by Elaine M. Will
Cuckoo's Nest Press/Alternative Comics

Jeremy Knowles has a lot of problems. He's relentlessly bullied at school. The girl he likes is dating his best friend. And perhaps worst of all, the entire weight of the world rests on his shoulders as God tasks him to save the world with the power of art and a precise number of Kit-Kat wrappers. This breathtaking debut graphic novel by Canadian writer/artist Elaine M. Will tackles the subject of mental illness in an imaginative display of artistic styles, panel placements, typefaces, and splashes of color to provide a glimpse into Jeremy's hallucinatory state.

Jeremy, a high school senior, hasn't slept in weeks. When the book opens, he's stumbling along a highway, thinking about death. Though he is soon shown back in school, the effects of his sleeplessness are evident. As Jeremy's behavior becomes more erratic, he escapes into his art, but finds only more demons out to torment him. Finally, things come to a head when Jeremy freaks out on his parents' front lawn. He wakes up in a mental hospital, where he pieces together what has happened to him with the help of his doctors, his fellow patients, and his initially distant but ultimately well-meaning parents.

It's not a straight line from madness to sanity, though. Will's portrayal of the aftermath of bipolar disorder is quite realistic, as Jeremy suffers a relapse and is given a wide berth by his classmates. The book is also unflinchingly realistic in the way medication affects artistic ability, when a phantom asks Jeremy if he'd truly be willing to risk his life for the power to draw again. Jeremy must struggle against his own drawings come to life, in a battle for both his stability of mind and the integrity of his artistic vision.

Will's artistic style is varied, with some of the early scenes having an almost comic-strip-style feel, while the hallucination scenes are more finely detailed, portraying a different layer of reality where Jeremy must fight monsters and bargain with demons. The way dialogue can cross over into different panels and the scattershot placement of panels reminded me a little of Nate Powell, but then, you don't really want a clean formatting in your book about manic depression. Though most of the book is black-and-white, brief splashes of color (and once, a whole page) are used to signal Jeremy's hallucinations, a bit of Technicolor trickery that completely worked for me.

This semi-autobiographical story was one of the last winners of a Xeric Grant, and Will was certainly a worthy recipient. Look Straight Ahead receives my highest possible recommendation for both its great art and its important subject matter that might strike some people a little close to home. Check out her site to receive updates or read the entire book for free, although I really think this book works better in paper format.