I cried when I finished Katie Green’s Lighter than my Shadow. It’s a hard look at mental illness (anorexia in this case) and the recurring effects on a person’s physical and mental health. People with addictions are engaged in constant struggle against themselves, whether it’s because of an eating disorder, alcohol or substance abuse, gambling or other. It’s not simple to navigate this. Green provides a thorough look at her own life to show how this illness affected her.
I think this graphic novel meant so much to me because I’ve been struggling with depression for the last two or three years. I never quite can describe it to people who never experienced it. I’ve had similar feelings and thoughts that Green depicts here; A black cloud hovering over me, following me at every turn, sometimes growing to engulf me completely before receding and hiding until it eventually comes back. Each time I feel better and fall back down, it hurts even more. It compounds and build onto itself and it’s difficult to keep at bay no matter how hard you try. A fog dissipating, but still clearly visible on the horizon, just waiting to spread. Katie Green depicts it right, this stalking cloud, this self-loathing and repugnance at oneself’s actions and behaviour, this shame at feeling that way in the first place. I wish it weren’t this real. It’s one of the rawest, most honest depiction of depression and mental illness I’ve read in graphic novel form. I’d heard about this book upon it’s release in 2014, then published by Jonathan Cape, a sub-imprint of Penguin Random House UK and it was difficult to track it down in Canada. I’m grateful that Lion Forge has been able to republish this graphic novel and bring it to wider audience. I should also point out for the record that Lion Forge own the Comics Beat.
In Lighter Thank My Shadow, Katie Green recalls her struggle and tumultuous recovery from a serious eating disorder. It begins as Green sits at her desk, staring at a blank page while her black cloud floats around the room. It eventually gets channeled into her pen, a strong visual opening to show how personal this story will be. We follow her story from a young girl, hiding toasts behind her bookcase, to a teenager increasingly obsessed with control over food, and a young adult still struggling to get a handle on her condition. Those early signs of trouble begin to take a bigger role in her life. Her early years as a picky eater transform into anorexia and lead to hospitalization, recovery, mental health professional visits and eventually, to an abusive and quite traumatic encounter with a self-help guru. Katie Green catalogs her long road to recovery, the tumultuous ups and downs that came along the way.
This graphic novel is genuinely moving and a remarkable achievement. There’s a really strong moment early on during Katie’s childhood where she asks her mother what happens if you don’t eat. She responds quite nonchalantly “If you don’t eat, you fade into oblivion.” Which prompts young Katie to ask “What is a Blivion?” Katie adds to this innocent childhood moment on the next page as she narrates: “Years later, I would learn what oblivion meant. By then I was wishing for it.” It’s devastating, but instrumental to understand the depth to which mental health issues and eating disorder can lead to. We witness the road from a small crack widening into a bottomless chasm. Katie Green also provides a pretty clear rationale for why she thought making that book was so important.
One of the main attributes of Lighter than my Shadow is its length. Over 500 pages. This allows Green to take the time to show the symptoms and the impacts they have on her. We see the gradual shifts from being a picky eater to someone who is increasingly consumed by the consumption of food and the various unhealthy eating habits she develops. In one passage, we see her recall the ways to eat to ensure she doesn’t overeat, “Chew four times on the left… four times on the right… then two sips of water“. This becoming a ritual to be observed otherwise the world might collapse on her. It also allows to show the cyclical nature of mental illness. Too often, these types of tales focus on one specific incident and it’s recovery, but mental health is complex and doesn’t lend itself very well to simple stories. By showing not only the illness, but the recurring cycle that comes with it might give Lighter than my Shadow a grim tone, but it creates a deeply engaging story. We get to experience the multiple elements that lead to her eating disorder. The length of the graphic novel also works quite well at reinforcing the themes of the book, that illness and recovery is a long process.
Green’s use of a light coloured paper helps permeate the book with an additional layer of weight. She shifts between light beige, grey, and muted green throughout the book, each time using the coloured background to add context to events or to her moods and feelings. It’s an unusual way to proceed that occurs often, sometimes after a single page. I was struck by how these changes of colours shape the reading experience. Green’s figures are perfectly expressive, and the element of backgrounds set the stages nicely, but the colours really help to shape how readers shape the reception of each page. Even when Green depicts a nicer event, the colours remind you of this constant dreariness, that the dark cloud is never far away. Those colours are a constant reminder of the dreariness that her eating disorder is making her sick. They make her look pale and sickly. It’s a great use of coloured paper.
In the end, Lighter than my Shadow concludes in the bittersweet way. There is no miracle solution, there is only an ongoing process of healing. Green never offers a single path to become a healthy person. She suggests it might never go away, that life is a struggle that will never get any easier, that life is difficult and will only get more complicated until our final breath. But in the meantime, there can be moments of respite and happiness. There’s a path forward, but it’s up to each individual to find it. Green finishes the book by looking back at her childhood and kneeling in front of her younger self, hand extended, as if to say that all of this pain eventually led to something better. It’s too early to say it is a masterpiece, but it’s really close to one.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.