3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
My introduction to Mirion Malle began with a slim neon yellow book with cartoon superheroes on the cover. It was The League Of Super Feminists (Drawn & Quarterly, 2020), Malle’s overview of feminism in a few jam-packed pages. A nonfiction primer for young readers, The League Of Super Feminists runs counter to her recent graphic novel, This Is How I Disappear (Drawn & Quarterly, translated by Aleshia Jensen and Bronwyn Haslam, 2021). In the latter, the black-and-white story rightfully leaves metaphorical areas of gray in its depiction of depression stemming from overwork, exhaustion, heartbreak, and trauma from a past sexual assault.
This is How I Disappear follows the life of Clara, a 20-something writer, and it begins with a conversation. “The first time I felt like I wanted to die, I was probably, like, twelve? But that time doesn’t really count,” Clara says to her therapist. Clara believes these ideations about death don’t matter because she wasn’t traumatized when she first had them and because her life became much more complicated later. It’s a thought-provoking encounter. Are our thoughts, especially the ones that trend toward harm, only legitimized when our experiences somehow explain or support those thoughts?
This is How I Disappear further explores what’s inside Clara’s mind while navigating her complex friendships and unraveling the root of her debilitating depression. The graphic novel’s title is a reference to the band My Chemical Romance. While the graphic novel doesn’t give a punk rock vibe, Malle certainly does. Even on Zoom, she exudes the kind of infectious enthusiasm and ardent spirit necessary to disrupting the one-sided narratives we’ve come to adopt as “normal.” With two books under her belt, she’s already rewriting narratives about inclusion and mental health. Given the versatility of her storytelling, we should all look forward to seeing what she creates next.
In our interview, Malle and I spoke about male critics, the importance of trigger warnings, and manga. And because of the topics depicted in her graphic novel, we also talk briefly about how sexual assault is presented in the media.
Trigger Warning: Mention of sexual assault
In This is How I Disappear, you de-romanticize therapy and how even our conversations with our therapists don’t always go as expected. I was curious, why did you choose to open with Clara at the therapist?
Something that I really wanted to get through with this book was that it’s very hard to access mental health systems. I didn’t want to write a story about like, ‘Oh, therapy is bad.’ Of course, it’s not. I’m so happy to have a therapist myself. I’m always telling people that they should go see a therapist if they can. But you know, there’s no one style. It’s not one size fits all. And I want to show that you can meet the wrong therapist at the wrong time. And then it’s not a help at all. And I really wanted to show it’s so difficult to take care of yourself because it costs money and it’s a very long process, and then maybe you will find a bad therapist and be completely discouraged.
From a narrative point of view, it was important for me that the reader is always with Clara. We don’t have access to a scene where she’s not in it or to thoughts she doesn’t have herself. But [the opening scene] was kind of an easy way to introduce the starting point of her story. We don’t see what happened to her. We don’t see the starting point of her depressive episode. She’s already there.
Also, something that I find not funny but kind of ironic is that a lot of people, especially men, [male] critics, for example, talk about the book like the ending is a plot twist because it mentioned more clearly the sexual assault that she lived with when she was younger. I think that it’s not a coincidence if more women understand that when reading it at the beginning. Because it’s implicit for us, even if you did not live through [an assault]. Because you grew up in a world where you know that it’s a possibility. And, well, a lot of women go through that.
We understand that something happened. I also appreciate your forethought in making it less triggering for people who’ve gone through those experiences.
It’s so important for me to take care of my reader. I feel like this when you talk a lot about minority issues especially. When you’re not a white, cisgender male with quite a lot of money, the story is not made for you, but for them. So, when you tell a story of a rape, for example, it has to be very shocking and very surprising. And it’s awful because if it’s something that triggers you, you’re going to feel very, very bad or worse, like, maybe you’re going to have a panic attack. And since my book was about a difficult topic, I really wanted to not make it difficult to read. This is a complicated story. So, if you are not feeling that you can read that, maybe just put the book back, but I hope that it’s told in a delicate way.
People always talk about the word trigger and how it’s overused. But I think your book shows how anything can be a trigger. It’s a cascading effect where you remember a word or a vocal tone or a sound or whatever and it really changes your whole mood.
Yeah, I really agree. I’m not going to say it’s an activist word, but political lingo is most of the time tainted. I blame capitalism for that. Most of the time the word has become like a kind of brand and it lessens the political aspect of it. It’s sad that today it sometimes means nothing because it has been taken out of its original significance. Triggers are very real. One trauma can be added to another existing trauma. Like a text message, an Instagram notification. Social media is a very easy way to be triggered because you cannot control everything on them.
When I was reading, I saw some anime and manga influences. Is that right?
Yeah, I am heavily influenced by shōjo manga. I’ve watched a lot of anime in my life, just a rotation of good shows that I like. And it’s funny because today I got a tattoo, and I was talking to the artist, and we talked about how we read a lot of manga and what anime we like. And I think that’s amazing. But of course, you know, old men are like, ‘Oh, no, that’s the end of the culture.’
I hope [the book] showed that I am heavily influenced by shōjo manga. I read that from 10 years old to right now. I re-read two of my favorite manga before doing the comics because I knew I wanted to show expression and emotion in the faces. And I think there is no better art than manga to do that. It’s the kind of expressive drawing that I wanted to tend towards.
Before This is How I Disappear, you wrote The League Of Super Feminists. How does that book inform your graphic novel, if it informs it at all?
I’m very proud of Super Feminists. I think it was a good work of art; I hope it was. I did my best and I hope it’s clear, and I’m proud of that. I thought it was time for me to do other stuff, but it taught me a lot. It also taught me how to change your drawing for what you are telling.
I think that fiction is very political also. It’s kind of funny that sometimes readers come to me and are like, ‘Oh, are you going to do another feminist book?’ I think fiction is very powerful, and that we don’t really have a lot of fiction where you can be safe, and that’s what I’m trying to do. You’re not actually afraid of something in the back of your mind [while reading]. I think it’s important to have those stories.