One Panel at a Time: Illustrating Mental Illness at Depression Comix

Comic (from #182) by Clay Jonathan, Depression Comix.

Clay Jonathan, an artist based in Japan, has been drawing webcomics since 1997. At Depression Comix, he illustrates the feelings of depression in bite-size strips. Here, he talks about the challenges of making comics, the power of visual art, and sharing his work far and wide.


Everyone’s experiences are different — your comics aren’t meant to speak for all. But has there been a comic that’s been especially resonant to readers?

Clay publishes Depression Comix on two WordPress sites: his WordPress.com site and his self-hosted WordPress home, which includes a blog.

One of the most popular strips is #183, which received around 10,000 likes and reblogs on Tumblr. Getting help for depression is necessary, but one of the more unique problems with depression is that it demotivates sufferers from seeking help. Depression takes the energy from you to see a doctor; it tricks you into thinking that nothing is wrong, or that your problem is unworthy of medical attention.

Getting help is not as easy as some think it is.

In this comic, the character tries to get help, but is weighed down by depression in a symbolic way. Her mother is unaware of the struggle and tells her that if she was really suffering, she’d pick up that phone and get help.

Comic (from #183) by Clay Jonathan, Depression Comix.
From comic #183 at Depression Comix.

I think a lot of people feel this way. They suffer in ways their friends and family can’t see or understand, but are treated like they aren’t trying. This is really frustrating and demotivates you further. Getting help is not as easy as some think it is.

What is it about visuals that makes it easier to express ourselves?

With visuals, it takes the artist a long time to express something but only a minute for a reader to digest it.

I don’t know if I agree that visuals make it easier to express ourselves. I’ve been trying to make comics about depression for a very long time, since 1997. My first webcomic, A Heart Made of Glasswas autobiographical and supposed to explain my depression, but I got caught up in the details of explaining my life and trying to justify the illness. With visuals, it takes the artist a long time to express something but only a minute for a reader to digest it. It’s simpler to write it out, but that’s not visually appealing.

Our interview with Danielle Hark of Broken Light Collective explores dealing with depression through another visual form: photography.

A typical Depression Comix strip may take five to eight hours to draw and color, but about 30 seconds to read. That’s a huge gap between production and consumption. So I’d say, visuals make it harder. I think there are many written blogs on depression, but so few purely visual ones. One of the most popular posts ever written on depression, “Adventures in Depression” by Allie Brosh, is very effective, because Allie uses a hybrid of comics and blocks of text to describe her feelings.

On the flip side, is there more room for misinterpretation?

Naturally, especially if the art uses symbolism. The comic has used these frequently, such as the black depression ball weight, the smile card, the black hole, and the Nope Door. These symbols only work if the reader understands immediately what they represent — otherwise, it’s confusing.

Comic (from #249) by Clay Jonathan.
From comic #249 at Depression Comix.

So symbolism is a gamble, but it pays off when it works.

It’s difficult to know how exactly a reader will interpret these, as I’m too close to the material. And if I take time to explain what these metaphors mean, it ruins the experience. So symbolism is a gamble, but it pays off when it works. When it doesn’t, it’s a bit embarrassing and I’m back to the drawing board.

What has been the most challenging comic to create thus far?

The most difficult strip I’ve done is #228. It was a sketch for a long time, and occasionally I’d redo it. I wanted to depict that feeling of dread that one gets for no reason at all, and how terrible it feels when you’re in the middle of being social. All of a sudden, the wave hits and you feel like you’ve been sucker punched, but to the people around you, nothing has happened. You can have an episode anywhere, anytime.

Comic (from #228) by Clay Jonathan, Depression Comix.
From comic #228 on Depression Comix.

I wanted to depict this in four panels, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I tried different characters and different sequencing, and I finally told myself to just do the strip. Since they don’t follow a specific narrative, I can revisit the comics once I understand things more clearly. For this one, the second panel turned out well. But ultimately, it was a difficult strip to create.

All of a sudden, the wave hits and you feel like you’ve been sucker punched, but to the people around you, nothing has happened.

Can you tell us about your artistic process, from idea to finished comic?

When I have an idea for a strip, it’s usually a small snippet: one or two sentences describing the point I want to make or the experience I want to share. I save them in Google Keep on my phone.

The next stage is drafting a layout. I bought a workbook from MUJI, here in Japan, that has empty four panel boxes and is great for doing a layout and a first pass at dialogue. Each strip is roughed out and I decide which character the strip is best suited for. If I’m happy with it, I’ll go on, but there are a lot of strips in this sketchbook that have never been used, or I’m waiting for inspiration to make them stronger.

Image courtesy of Clay Jonathan.
Image courtesy of Clay Jonathan.

When drawing and coloring the strip, everything is done on paper. I once had a job that required me to travel a lot, and I’d do comics during lunch or between shifts, usually at a Starbucks or a donut shop. I use Kent paper (B4 size) with the panels already printed on. I pencil in blue first, then black. After, I use Maru dip pens to ink and Copic liners for straight lines. For lettering, I use an Ames Lettering Guide and hand-letter it with Copic liners.

For coloring, I use Copic markers in grayscale tones. I do this on a photocopy of the art because Copic markers don’t like Kent paper, and if I had to use white-out I wouldn’t be able to color well over it.

At this stage, I scan it into Photoshop. I don’t do manipulation on the art, except changing the levels or cleaning up stray dirt in the text boxes to make it more readable. I then upload and publish the final strip to my WordPress sites, as well as others, like DeviantArt and Patreon.

You once wrote that one of the worst sins is a missed update. How do you motivate yourself to publish — even when you don’t want to?

That’s a good question — I’ve struggled with this. One way around it is really serendipitous — if I don’t feel like publishing a strip on depression, I ask myself why I don’t feel like it, and there’s a strip idea right there! I’ve managed to take the thing that demotivates me and turn it around to motivate me.

When I’m down, I go into my sketchbook and pull an idea to draw.

Second, I try not to come up with the idea and draw the final comic at the same time. I can usually drag myself through drawing a comic when depressed, but coming up with ideas and dialogue is tough. So in those moments I’m thinking clearly, I brainstorm strip ideas. When I’m down, I go into my sketchbook and pull an idea to draw.

The third thing is Patreon. I set up Patreon so I’d get rewards on a per-strip basis rather than a monthly-basis, which means I only receive money when I finish work. This is a great way to keep motivation high. I have to keep my supporters in mind constantly, for if I start to miss updates they’ll probably switch their support elsewhere. Since I started Patreon, I’ve never missed an update.

Depression Comix can be found in many places online, from your WordPress sites to Patreon, Facebook to Tumblr, and more. You freely share your art. What’s your philosophy behind this? What are the advantages of casting a wide social net?

Clay Jonathan.
Clay Jonathan.

A long time ago on the internet, people spent their social time on IRC or bulletin boards, and if you wanted to read content, you went to the site. Now, people spend their time on social networks where their contacts suggest content from various sources. If you’re not connected to social networks and people share your stuff, they may not link back to your site, or worse: people will strip the title, author, and URL from the content — this has happened to me many times — and post it as their own. Having a presence across social networks establishes your ownership, and allows sharing in a way that is most beneficial.

Clay on WordPress: “WordPress is a huge community. If you have a problem, members are helpful, insightful, and don’t talk down to beginners. When you get into WordPress, you join that community, and it’s a good one.”

Depression Comix is shared on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, DeviantArt, Instagram, LiveJournal, Patreon, Medium, an RSS feed, and of course, WordPress and WordPress.com. This covers a wide net, and makes it easier for you to read my comics on your favorite social network. Since people spend so much time on these networks and are less likely to go directly to a person’s site, especially when the updates are weekly, it’s important that the content comes to the reader.

I share my work freely, but also get support from PayPal donations and Patreon. My philosophy is that if you create something for people to read and share, generosity will come back to you — and it has for me. I am grateful for the support people have given me, and it motivates me to do my best for them. This system works really well.

My philosophy is that if you create something for people to read and share, generosity will come back to you — and it has for me.


Follow Clay Jonathan and Depression Comix on WordPress.com, WordPress, Tumblr, FacebookPatreon, DeviantArtPinterestInstagram, Twitter, and Medium.

April 25, 2016Comics, Interviews, Mental Health,