Monsters & Mental Illness: Negative Space #1-3

NEGATIVE SPACEReading Negative Space feels deeply weird and deeply familiar all at the same time, in all the right ways.

I was instantly sucked in, right from the first issue. Scary squishy aliens, existential dread, grand conspiracies, and pink tentacle monsters in ugly orange sweaters? I loved it. And I loved how the art was somehow sketchily impressionistic and horrifically detailed at the same time. Owen Gieni’s pretty colors and artful composition are always walking that uncanny line, whether he’s drawing adorably gangly bodies or weird, disgusting gore.

And I loved Guy, the protagonist, right from first sight. Fat, self-depreciating, tender Guy, with his big nose and small, sad eyes. In just the first few pages, Guy is a complete person who it seems like I know intimately: a frustrated writer, disabled, lonely, brave and suicidal and in love with a barista named Woody.

Guy’s name seems to indicate that he’s a stereotypical “everyman” kind of hero–you know, just a “guy.” But Guy isn’t the bland, unremarkable kind of everyman who usually appears in this kind of story. He certainly doesn’t look like everyone else: he’s big, he’s Native, and he’s gay. He’s idiosyncratic, but deeply relatable at the same time. He’s not special in spite of being normal–he’s relatable because he’s so vividly unique.

I also really loved that from the first issue, Guy’s supernatural powers and existential weaknesses are all wrapped up in the same big package. The same capacity for feeling and understanding that make him a writer are inherently linked to his illness, and to his supernatural, maybe-messianic empathy.

Guy’s depression is the catalyst for the entire story. He’s not just sad and desperate before he gets whisked away on a grand adventure. Negative Space is a story about mental illness on a grand, cosmic scale–and it’s not a symbolic story about mental illness, either.

Negative Space #2You know that mad feeling that the entire universe is being engineered just to fuck with you personally? Well, in Guy’s case, it’s actually true. A shadowy organization called the Kindred Corporation is monitoring and manipulating his life, making sure that it sucks as much as humanly (or inhumanly possible), because they’re working in collaboration with the Evorah, an alien race that feeds on negative emotions.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about making illness into monsters. In the wrong hands, fiction that externalizes disability into something that can be fought and destroyed can be deeply unhelpful or even harmful to neurodivergent people.

But it can also be extremely comforting. In a recent episode of This American Life, a guy named Paul Ford describes how he programmed an “Anxiety Bot” to send him nasty emails about himself. This certainly isn’t the kind of thing that’d work for me, but it worked for Ford–by creating an artificial voice that mirrored and replicated his anxiety, he was able to recognize how “stupid” and alien and robotic that voice really was. The terrible thoughts he was having about his life? Those thoughts weren’t really him–they were his anxiety talking.

In my experience, being able to externalize my disability was a crucial step in learning to live with it. That’s not me–that’s the illness trying to get me is something I had to tell myself hourly and then daily and weekly to survive. A lot of people find it very helpful to imagine their illness as something other than or outside of themselves–as alien or “mean” or “stupid” or monstrous or evil, or whatever else works for them.

But, paradoxically, surviving with a mental disability is also about acceptance. I’m more than my illness, but I am also chronically, permanently, inherently ill. I’m disabled. As much as I’m able to convince myself that That’s not me, that alien thing is definitely here to stay.

So, basically, my personal strategy for coping with and recovering from mental illness has been a paradoxical balancing act between externalization and acceptance. It’s confusing and contradictory, but the important thing is that it’s a trick that works (for me, at least). So who cares if it doesn’t make a lick of sense?

In Negative Space #2, Guy sets off on a grand adventure. He teams up with a group of resistance fighters, including Woody and a turncoat alien named Beta, to arm and detonate an “emotion bomb” that might harm Kindred Corp. and the Evorah. Guy also finds out that he’s a powerful empath who could play a crucial role in both the resistance and the Evorah’s global takeover.

But it’s in Negative Space #3 that Guy starts to make his first big stand against humanity’s oppressors. And it’s also in Negative Space #3 that Gieni and writer Ryan K. Lindsay pull off their big emotional and artistic masterstroke.

As Guy takes command of his newfound powers, it doesn’t mean shedding his depression, or no longer feeling suicidal, or by suddenly becoming happy. He does it by feeling sad. In one hazy, beautiful, purple-pink splash page, Guy remembers his father; he feels angry and deeply sad, and that’s what fuels his big, badass moment against earth’s alien enemies.

I’ve never really seen anything like this. I’ve lived with mental illness for years (pretty satisfactorily, I might add!) by tricking myself into accepting that awkward paradox between externalization and… well, acceptance. But Negative Space #3 pulls off a weird magic trick: making that paradox seem effortless and honest to me for the first time.

It sounds false and cheesy when you write it out: Guy uses The Power of Feelings to fight his internal (and external) demons. But it sure doesn’t feel false on the page.

Story: Ryan K. Lindsay Art: Owen Gieni
Story: 9 Art: 8.5 Overall: 8.3 Recommendation: Buy