The Adventures of Apparently-Anyone-Can-Do-It-If-They-Just-Try Bug! (AKA The Adventures of A-Bug!) is a graphic novel that explores experiences of mental distress through the story of a Christmas beetle named Leah Onnerback, a university student at an institution predominantly for ants. Leah is labelled ‘unbalanced’ as she is constantly getting stuck on her back. This metaphor for mental distress allowed me to work through the feelings of inadequacy surrounding my mental health that stemmed from being at an unempathetic institution.
Why did I write The Adventures of A-Bug! ?
A rudimentary answer is this: I had a story that I knew others would want to hear.
That’s the most simple answer. But the real origins are a little more complicated. Another question that is often asked is, “Why insects?”.
To answer both those questions with any clarity we’ll have to go back to my fourth year art exhibition in 2017. I created insect characters in an installation titled Insects are people too (2017). I told the tragic stories of the lives of three insects through the creation of the room that each had left behind after their death. Those insects were Jet Bumble, Isabella Brown and Irene Flye. I used the metaphor of insects to talk about the way in which we can sometimes be blind to others, making them as insignificant in our lives as an insect.
[ If you'd like to find out more about this installation, go to Insects are people too ]
During that year when I was putting together the installation I met another insect, a
Christmas beetle. I found her when I came home one day. She was stuck on her back on the kitchen floor. I could tell she had been there for a while because she was barely moving. Her tired legs were just slowly moving around and around in circles, but not actually doing anything to help her turn over. It was as if she were half asleep and her legs were the only part of her that was still struggling. And, seeing her, I thought, “I know how you feel”. That was the day I met Leah Onnerback.
Leah is the protagonist of my graphic novel and kind of the fourth character of my installation. Except that the other insects in my fourth year work had died without anyone really noticing their pain and Leah was still alive. Her story hadn’t ended yet.
Why a graphic novel?
A graphic novel or comic is a form of visual storytelling and you could say that visual
storytelling is what I was doing in my installation. And so a graphic novel seemed an
appropriate next step. A lot of people think that comics are just stories about superheroes.
But they’re not. In fact, I think that comics can be used to tell the story of absolutely anyone.
But why is that important? Why should we read other people’s stories?
Well, stories are tools for teaching. They can be used to teach a life lesson or some kind of moral code as is done with parables and fables. They can be used to teach about things that have happened in human history that we would not want to happen again. And they can be metaphorical, teaching us to understand something from a different perspective. But you don’t only find stories in books or told to you by your grandparents. You also find them in everyday life - everyone tells stories. When you tell someone a story about an experience you had, you’re teaching them about yourself. And the more stories you tell, the better they get to know you and the better they would be able to understand you.
There are so many people who are going through an experience that they feel no one will
understand. I have felt like that before. And I know others who have felt like that. Mental
distress or mental health problems are notoriously difficult to explain and to understand.
Even for the person who has experienced it.
Mental distress is becoming more and more prevalent - about one in four people will at some point in their lives experience distress that is so bad that they need professional help. Everyone experiences distress, yet it is often a struggle to find people who understand. The
thing is, no one will ever understand. It is impossible to understand what an experience may
feel like if you haven't experienced it yourself. In fact, it is impossible to fully understand
anything that someone else is experiencing because you are not them. And people and lives
and contexts are so unique that it is impossible to really know any given situation. But that
doesn’t mean that you can’t try to understand and be empathetic towards someone’s situation.
In my fourth year installation, I was exploring and highlighting how humans seem to be lacking in empathy. And The Adventures of A-Bug! can be seen as an attempt to figure out how we can be more empathetic.
A concept that came out of my research is the idea of ‘creative empathy’. If all experiences are unique, then any understanding that you have of someone
else’s situation is of your mind’s creation. All we have is what we can imagine. And as children will remind you, your imagination can change the way you see the world. Imagination can change your
perspective and allow you to see through
someone else’s eyes.
What I find interesting about comics is the way that they are read. Comics artists select
moments to show the reader. The reader is then required to infer how those moments work
together to create meaning. The reader isn’t given all the information. But because we are
human, when we read stories we want to be able to identify with the characters. So we take
all the clues given by the images, text, signs, and we try to understand the experience of that
character. When we do this, we start to imagine what it might be like to be someone or
something else. Which is what we do when we empathise. We imagine.
But comics can stretch our imagination quite far. Comics artists can engage all of your
senses, showing and telling you what someone sees, smells, hears and feels. And they can
immerse you in symbolism. In this graphic novel, a Christmas beetle stuck on its back is a
metaphor for depression.
Mental distress is often explained using metaphors. And what I like about them is that they often use the physical or the material to describe something that is abstract or intangible -like how someone who is sad may be described as having a heavy heart. I like this idea of relating the tangible to the intangible. And with visual storytelling, you immediately immerse
the reader in the tangible, those things that are accessed with our senses.
In one visual image you can set a scene...
Colour and perspective can create mood...
You can create emotion with lines...
You can also evoke sound...
We understand abstract concepts through metaphors of the physical because our
experience is an interaction between the physical world and our mind, body and soul.
So I like metaphors because they can help us see something from a different perspective
and learn something new about it. So while this can be seen as just a story about a
Christmas beetle, I think that a lot of people could relate to the story of Leah’s struggle. And that’s all that symbolism is really, relating one thing to another. And when you bend down and say to a struggling soul, “I know how you feel”, you're just relating yourself to another.
. . .
Leah didn’t tell her parents that she was struggling with getting stuck on her back. She
thought that they might not understand. She knew that getting stuck on her back could be
hereditary. She didn’t like that thought, because that meant that the rest of her family just
took it in their stride. Leah didn’t even know what a stride felt like. She didn’t know how to
walk without hesitating. And so, she felt ashamed - for not being as strong or as brave as
If they didn’t share the same struggles as her, then the threat of them not understanding was still there. She thought they wouldn’t understand. She though they might tell her to try harder or pray harder... but she had been doing so much of that. And she couldn’t tell whether it was working. She was just so tired. She just wanted it all to end.
And that was the worst part of it all. She couldn’t stand the idea of telling her parents that this beautiful life that they’d given her... she didn’t want it anymore. If they didn’t understand, it might break their hearts. She couldn't do that to them.
So Leah didn’t tell her parents. I don’t want anyone to ever be in this position - where they
don’t tell someone that they’re struggling because of the threat of them not understanding.
But this happens every single day. So that’s why I wrote this graphic novel. So that someone out there may know that they’re not alone.
You can’t possibly understand exactly what someone else is going through, but you can try. So for those who are struggling, I hope you have the courage to tell whoever it is that you need to tell. And I hope for the person who is listening, that they will have the courage to understand.
. . .
Psst! You can buy a copy of The Adventures of A-Bug! >> here.