Alice Chipkin and Jessica Tavassoli’s graphic memoir takes an insightful look at big issues such as clinical depression and sexuality – but at its heart it’s also just an intimate portrait of long-time friends. By Ronnie Scott.

Alice Chipkin and Jessica Tavassoli find comic relief

Alice Chipkin (left) and Jessica Tavassoli.
Alice Chipkin (left) and Jessica Tavassoli.

“This story is always accompanied with a sigh of shame,” says Alice Chipkin. Chipkin is one half of the creative team behind Eyes Too Dry, a collaborative comic about what the authors call “heavy feelings”: their preferred term for clinical depression. I have just asked her how she met Jessica “Tava” Tavassoli, her best friend and co-author of the book.

A sigh of shame is not an unusual response to the question of how you met a person you’ve known since you were teens; at least one person always looks bad, and most of the time it’s both. But it is an unusual response from either of these artists, because Eyes Too Dry is a tender, questing and introspective comic that makes both of them vulnerable, all of the time.

This particular story turns out not to be so shameful, except in that maybe all year 11 “booze trips” to Byron Bay are shameful, especially when both participants grow up to be artists who make intelligent interventions in things such as medical discourse – which is not the whole purpose of Eyes Too Dry, but it is part of it. From there, with Alice in Sydney and Tava in Melbourne, the duo stayed in contact until they both had finished high school and “had an opportunity to become best friends”, Alice says.

Actually, Eyes Too Dry is not the first comic they’ve made. Before they both lived in Melbourne, Tava studying medicine and Alice literature, Tava sent Alice a mini-comic “about identity and family” with a Post-It on the last page that said only: “Your turn now.”

“It was an opportunity to create something about anything,” says Alice, who used it as an invitation to explore the death of her grandfather, her relationship to her grandmother, and her grandmother’s wider identity. It was more like “a very basic picture book”, she hastens to add, “but I remember that feeling of electricity happening between us. Of each of us being very keen to enable the other person to create stuff. So in a way, our friendship was set up for that. But it had never been on this scale.”

Eyes Too Dry ended up as a 200-page comic that’s both a work with social purpose and an intimate double memoir, but it began life simply as a processing tool. “It was a way for us to kind of sift through the events of 2015,” Alice says.

“I think the project arose because I had withdrawn so much and that was quite atypical for our dynamic,” says Tava. The two had been living together on the northern side of Melbourne, through a year in which Tava had experienced her “heaviest period to date”. As the year turned, Tava had moved briefly to Canada, away from Alice and other support networks. Being overseas made it easy to control contact with friends.

As Alice submitted an honours thesis analysing the comics of Alison Bechdel, the author of two graphic memoirs exploring queerness and family, she was also growing increasingly concerned about her friend. “It was clear that the mental health stuff was still very much happening in Canada,” she says. “It wasn’t this thing that was relegated to 2015.” To Tava, she adds, “You weren’t in a great place, and I was very far away. So the comics thing was just really clutching at straws and trying to bridge a very physical distance.”

Tava agrees. “And so it arose from a fractioning.”

Alice decided to initiate what she calls a “penpal project” that involved writing and drawing together, “just to be able to reflect on the year we’d had”.

“Ali,” interjects Tava, “please correct me if I’m wrong, but initially you presented it as sexuality and family – and I was like, ‘No. You mean depression.’ ” They entertained exploring other topics for “a microsecond, before it was obvious that we would be doing this”.

“This” is a work that begins with Tava in a Melbourne cafe, revealing to her parents that she’s taking antidepressants. This scene is followed by a striking depiction of a nude form, Tava’s, dragging a limp version of her own body back and forth across the page, shadowed by a darkness, fluid and inscrutable.

“We have gone on many walks together,” she writes, “and will probably go on many more.”

She then offers a taxonomy of what depression feels like. There’s the “my body feels so heavy it’s light” feeling, the “please excuse me I’m just leaking and can’t seem to stop” feeling, the “gripping-neck-clutching-chest-breath-choking-panic-increasing” feeling, and more. In the midst of all these feelings she then moves overseas, and now we shuttle forward into the “present day” of the book, with Tava and Alice living together again, home in Melbourne, and trying to make decisions about where the book should begin. We know how it did begin – we’ve just experienced it – but now we also know what kind of book we’re really reading: one in which two people argue about what the story is, always thinking through the things they’re living, even as they live them.

If comics are processing tools, Eyes Too Dry falls within the loose, recent category of graphic medicine. The term is lovely and visceral: it connotes the opposite of medicine that’s modern, sterile and, well, medical. According to physician, comics artist and writer Ian Williams, who came up with the term, it refers to “the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare”. In turn, it belongs in the wider and also-newish area of medicine that uses literature to explore illness – courses in which medical students are assigned classic novels and required to think deeply about the human experience.

For adherents, the medical humanities movement is characterised by the levelling effect it achieves for patients and professionals. Williams sees comics playing a crucial role in changing the cultural perceptions of medicine, enabling discussion of hard subjects, and relating the subjective experiences of patients, carers and providers – contributing to a medical culture that’s individualised and holistic.

Outside graphic medicine, comics are democratic things – particularly self-published comics in 2017. The underground comix movement of the late 20th century, which begat comics’ position in the literary canons of today, was brilliant for its self-made, expressive, auteurish spirit, and not so great at portraying the non-straight-white-male experience. You would not know this from looking at Australian comics in 2017, a scene whose young vanguard includes Sam Wallman, Tommi PG, Lee Lai, Simon Hanselmann, HTMLflowers and too many more to list. Collectively, these comics reflect a nuanced range of individual experiences, many of which are medical, many of which are queer. All are driven by burning questions and makeshift entrepreneurialism, creating audiences for unique art where none seemed to exist.

You can see how it’s a medium especially suited to telling a collaborative story about friendship and caregiving – especially the kind of informal caregiving that takes place outside the family, in networks that are both common and underrepresented. According to Tava, heavy feelings – depression – is “a very dynamic thing. It’s not something that happens in isolation and some of its biggest impact is not necessarily on you, the person; it’s you and your relationships. And that in turn affects you as a person.” It’s a feedback loop.

When Alice and Tava were trying to understand their own shared experience, they found books about depression, and books about caregiving; but it was very rare to find anything that had the two roles in dialogue. Made together but separately, and then edited as one, their chapters reflect the dynamics of their experience. “People identify with both of us at different points as the story progresses,” says Alice.

And when people identify, they really identify. Authors from columnist Rebecca Shaw to poet Shira Erlichman have identified Eyes Too Dry as a one-of-a-kind comic. The first, self-made edition sold out within months of printing; it’s since been picked up by Echo Publishing for a wide release this month.

Alice felt the same the first time she saw Tava’s pages, the work she’d made in response to the penpal project, which eventually turned into the scene that opens the book – two pages of rough drawings she read on an iPhone screen. That’s when she decided to follow Tava to Canada, on a kind of focused holiday with the aim of collaborating. They locked themselves away on a farm for a month and decided to see what they could come up with.

The result was democratic – not automatic. “I was exceptionally selfish in the creation of this comic,” Tava says. “Yes, I will admit to it, because it is true. I went into it being like, okay, I need to nut some stuff out, because it’s been, by that stage, seven full months of me trying to encounter this in different ways, and feeling at such a loss: am I progressing? What does progress look like? So I very much went into the farm being, like, ‘Okay, Tava, we’re going to have some time together.’ And then Alice was there, too!”

It was only after two weeks of sharing space and drawing that they came to realise Alice was, in Tava’s words, “encountering her own head mess”, and that this was coming through in the comics. Even then, when it was clear their stories were one story, Alice soon decided that she would pull her chapters, telling Tava, “They don’t need to be in this.”

“And then I became the one who was like, ‘You’re not going anywhere,’ ” says Tava. “You’re crucial to this, and my work is meaningless without yours. I feel that was probably a bit of a turning point, too.”

“It’s not that your draft was self-centred,” corrects Alice. Instead, “I think that’s a really good indication of how this project was a process. In the beginning, I had no idea what my part would look like, and you had a lot of making you needed to do.” It made sense that the knowledge took time.

According to both artists, this process did not come remotely close to destroying their friendship. The farmhouse was a hothouse: an intensive month of drawing, editing and collaborating that was essentially unlike being best friends, or housemates, or penpals. “But the things that came up were to do with both of us going through our own emotional swirls,” Tava says. “We’re so familiar with it that we can cop it.” “It” was Tava being “really stubborn with receiving feedback but very generous when giving it”, she says. “Which Alice would subsequently point out to me, and we would have a little laugh about it, and then I would go and do the same thing again.”

Back home in Melbourne, the work of self-publishing supplied what Alice diplomatically calls “a different kind of intensity”: it was hard work, and they did not know it would pay off as it did.

“Quite often,” says Tava, “I’ve asked Alice if she would ever work with me again.” They will, but they also use the analogy of childbirth: “You need to have a little bit of time to forget the pain, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s appealing. I could do that again.’ ”

“It’s interesting that the book is seen as being about big issues,” says Alice. “Like capital letter mental health, sexuality, identity, all that stuff. And it very much is. We’re interested in the discourses that the book enters into. But it’s also a book about friendship. And just intimacy. And care. And love. So I think sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s not just a political project. It’s a book about two people.”

There is a long pause. “Actually, it’s funny that you feel that,” Tava says. “Everyone tells me it’s a book about friendship. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s also about the inadequacies of the public discourse on depression.’ They’re like, ‘It’s about friendship.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, sure.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2017 as "Drawn together".

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Ronnie Scott is the founder of The Lifted Brow and author of the forthcoming novel The Adversary.

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