Nightmare Scenarios, a graphic memoir by Matt Barrell

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Nightmare Scenarios by Matt Barrell is a series of short graphic stories depicting people in mental-health crises – which Barrell draws based on people he sees in the street or on TV, pairing them with a story either real or imagined. Review by John O’Donoghue.

Cartoon of a man at a bus stop

The cartoon is the black sheep of the art world. It’s the scruffy, untidy drawing, often done to order, that pokes fun at politicians and celebrities, and can make us laugh while pointing up the truths everyone acknowledges but nobody dares to say. Look, says the cartoon, the Emperor has no clothes, John Major wears his underpants over his trousers, Donald Trump is actually a blimp-sized baby.

But the cartoon has a much more respectable history than this most recent version of the word. Once ‘cartoon’ meant a full-size drawing made as a study or modello for a painting, stained glass, or tapestry. Cartoons were typically used in the production of frescoes, to link the component parts of the composition when it was painted on to damp plaster.

Perhaps it’s this parallel status that gave rise to the parodic, satirical element of the modern cartoon. Masters of the form such as Gillray and Cruikshank stand behind all of our contemporary cartoonists, from Ralph Steadman to Steve Bell, from Posy Simmonds to DAO’s very own Crippen. And over all of these stands the figure of Hogarth, who satirises not just particular figures, but the society of which he was such a shrewd chronicler.

One fairly recent development in cartooning has been the rise of the graphic memoir. Books such as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Stitches by David Small, and Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash all expand the notion of the comic book and the graphic novel to deal not with the fantastical world of the superhero or the Third Reich seen through the eyes of small furry animals (I’m referring to Maus) but a range of experience from being gay in a straight world to cancer.

Cartoon of man in swimming pool

Matt Barrell’s Nightmare Scenarios uses the conventions of the form to explore his experience of dealing with mental health problems. Through a series of panels that introduce the reader to a range of characters and situations, Barrell explores a veritable DSM of diagnoses: obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, psychosis, dementia, drug abuse, and alcoholism.

Barrell worked as a sub-editor at TVQuick magazine in the 90s, as well as numerous other publications; but became unwell in the mid-90s, resulting in five separate psychiatric admissions. In recent years he attended art therapy courses and counselling offered by the Camden and Islington NHS Trust at Isledon Road Resource Centre, Holloway.

Some of the ‘scenarios’ draw on Barrell’s experience of meeting with and hearing from others. There’s a man in dressing gown and pyjamas flagging down a bus. A text box to this side of this image says, ‘… I was sick of living behind closed doors so I slipped out one when a new nurse was taking is to breakfast.’ Where will the man go? Will the bus stop for him? Can he make it in the unforgiving city?

But before we get an answer we’re over the page, and a new character is standing in a swimming pool in their trunks, hands to their face.  ‘… The water looked so inviting. I wanted to dive to the bottom and never come back up.’ A big sign, cut off by the frame, says, ‘SHALL’ and a foot is disappearing out of the picture as if its owner can sense the character’s distress. That ‘SHALL’ is clever – it’s obviously the first syllable of ‘SHALLOW’ but its imperative, Biblical sounding command is part of the atmosphere of foreboding that fills the page.

Cartoon of a man sitting on a step watching fireworksOne of the most haunting images is of a figure sitting in front of some french doors, beer can in hand, zoned out. Fireworks are reflected in the plates of glass against the dark sky. The text beside this says, ‘That autumn my schizophrenia got really bad. My interest in Ufology became an obsession – and my thoughts were like a dozen radio stations not quite tuned in. I would sit in the garden waiting for the aliens to land.’

The episodic nature of the book – each page has a different character – chimes with the ‘episodes’ those of who’ve been equally zoned out have experienced. There’s also an unsettling aspect to this approach that mirrors the disintegration of personality that can come with ‘breakdowns’, a constant derangement that can lead to mild confusion in the reader. But this seems part of the plan. This isn’t a memoir in the conventional sense, but a parade of characters who tell of their most intimate, most private secrets.

I was disappointed with this at first reading. I wanted to know about Barrell’s own experiences, and was confused: was the text about him, or about those who he had met along in the way, on the psychiatric merry-go-round?

But then I realised that this actually resonated with my own story, of a very communal process that led me out of madness through association with others, not isolation from them.

Nightmare Scenarios, then, is a timely addition to the small shelf of graphic memoirs that have been published over the past twenty years or so. Barrell’s graphic style is deliberately ‘naïve’, full of the everyday – Aldi shopping bags, graffiti, pool tables – but his texts undermine this sense of the familiar being a safe place, one we all know and are comfortable with. The nightmare of madness is not that it’s so strange, but that it can be so common. And it’s this that Barrell conveys so well.

Nightmare Scenarios by Matt Barrell is available from Menard Press for £6.