The Salvation of Art: The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott by Zoe Thorogood

The mental health comic has emerged as a genre of its own thanks both to a proliferation of highly-relatable and easily Instagram-ready comics and a growing social media consciousness that has made discussion of previously shunned topics infinitely more acceptable. But there are even stronger, more complete analyses of the complexities of mental emerging as full formed graphic novels. The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is one such book, comprehensive in its approach and honest in its presentation.

The drawback to the litany of mental health comics presented in the quick-share model (offered by Instagram or other similar platforms) is that the snap-shot-esque size and scrolling presentation model leads to an inherently microscopic depiction, one that I often find repetitive and - not to belittle anyone’s attempt to reconcile their own real and important feelings - a little stereotypical. To emphasize, I think such a criticism is emblematic of the flaws of the distribution model - social media sites - and not that of the creator in particular. A fully realized graphic novel like The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott offers something the veritable gag anxiety comic cannot by definition provide, namely nuance. What makes a book like this work is that it is able to move beyond the realm of diagnosis that most mental health comics fixate upon. It isn’t a picture of a moment, or even a collection of moments; rather, it is the dynamic progression of life, in this case one of youth embedded with creativity, anxiety, and tragedy. 

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott opens with the roommates of our titular hero debating Billie’s potential existence. Cloistered away in her room without any contact with the university students renting rooms in the shared house, we find Billie at an artistic crossroads, concerned about her future as an artist and wondering where her life would go without art as a guiding principle. She suffers from a creative block, understandably fixated on whether anyone will ever recognize her work. Her fortune changes when she receives word that her work has been accepted for an exhibition. Finally, she feels imbued with the kind of requisite confidence and enthusiasm she needs to propel her art forward.

But the impending blindness will have something to say about all of that. 

Said enthusiasm vanishes as Billie is assaulted while attempting to create a candid portrait for her show. At first, her injury doesn’t seem severe, but she awakens the next day with slight vision problems, and learns days later that her retinas are detaching and total blindness is imminent. Pressed for time, Billie has two weeks to complete ten portraits, and it’s this do-or-die scenario that forces her out of her comfort zone and provides the entire impetus for the story to come.

The story that follows documents the next two weeks of Billie’s life. Zoe Thorogood manages to cram what feels like a year’s worth of events into that timeframe without rushing the story. At points, you almost forget that Billie has two weeks before her blindness fully sets in because Thorogood manages to create character arcs and plot progressions that almost defy that calendar. Underneath that part of the composition, though, feels like a metaphor in itself. Wracked with both social and creative anxiety, Billie retreated from the world and poured herself into the one thing that made sense - her art, even if her creative endeavors weren’t as therapeutic as they needed to be. When confronted with an absolute tragedy, Billie breaks with type and dives headfirst into her fears. It’s not surprise that she seems to live a full life in two weeks; it’s the contrast with the life she led before.

Billie begins to bond with her housemates before she eventually boards a train at random, ends up with a bar hopping bachelorette party, and finds herself stranded in London. Essentially homeless and in dire need of finishing her ten portraits, Billie finds herself splitting time between the Third Chance shelter and the Funland junkyard squat. Billie, who didn’t seem to have a community before, immediately has two. And therein lies the first part of the prescription Thorogood provides. What essentially saves us in our darker times are those around us. Finding a community is paramount. Billie seems able to find two, even if she can’t quite see it at first. She realizes that her personal ambitions are certainly worthwhile, but a life for and with others is a necessary component for both happiness and creative success.

As a cartoonist, Zoe Thorogood works in textures, colors, and layers. Her linework is long and sinewy, allowing her to capture movement and body language of the vulnerable people she depicts. Characters float to the forefront and often times seem placed on top of the scene as if Thorogood were assembling a collage. She has three distinct patterns for the layers of her panels. She often washes the background in a fairly bright primary hue and adds details and tight geometric structures to the inanimate setting behind the characters. The London alleyways, the abandoned junkyard squat, the bars and metro - they have a fixed and ordered quality that separates them from the characters, all of whom take a wilder, freer form, even for the proverbially more “put together” figures. They appear almost out of place, on top of their surroundings, perhaps just a tad out of proportion with their surroundings. It’s a nice effect, and it allows the reader to focus primarily on character interaction.

Like The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is very much a prescription for art therapy. There is an important scene in the middle of the book after Billie falls in with the Funland crew. Thorogood contrasts the residents of the shelter with those who live in Funland via the route that led them to their fringe status, and the Cook highlights this distinction when he discusses the mind of the creative and the need to live with less restriction. The lesson Billie and her friends all seem to learn through their interactions is that you can still be part of a community all the while and, if anything, it’s more necessary to find that community and embrace it than it is to live the all-too-romanticized depiction of the creative as a willingly isolated individual. Underneath that notion is a message for all readers regardless of creative ambition. The road out of crisis is built by friends. It is easy to assume that no one feels the way you do nor could they even fathom your perspective. Billie’s salvation is precisely the recognition of that assumption as entirely fallacious. 

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is Zoe Thorogood's first graphic novel. 
It is available in the UK on October 8th, and in the US on October 14 from Avery Hill Publishing.