The Dark Matter of Mona Starr

Author: Laura Lee Gulledge
Publisher: Abrams

In The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, the eponymous character faces the darkness within and comes out the other side with a better understanding of herself, as well as how she relates to other people.

The narrative itself is a sort of coming-of-age story. It begins when Mona’s best friend moves to Hawaii, and Mona finds her best support system reduced from in-person to video chat and text messages. She becomes more mindful of her emotions during a family trip, but while she may be more aware of her feelings and how they affect her behavior, it is only the first step on her journey.

As she begins navigating school without the benefit of her best friend by her side, she faces a plethora of challenges, even in conjunction with her favorite teachers, and building on the foundations of a new friendship proves more difficult that Mona imagined. Meanwhile, she visits a series of medical professionals, some of which offer advice that helps Mona get a better handle on her mental health.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr

While the supporting characters are reasonably well developed, this is Mona’s story. A considerable portion of the story takes place in her mind, as she explores and catalogs the darkness she has inside and better understands how she can use that darkness for more constructive ends. While the climax does involve an outside event, the core of the story is about how Mona is able to navigate the darkness within herself, emerging with a better understanding of herself, how her feelings work, and how to use those feelings in order to create something positive that connects with other people.

Gulledge has a singular art style that utilizes minimal color and meticulous shading. The art never shies away from more impressionistic images when the story calls for them, particularly as the story advances and Mona finds herself facing greater internal challenges.

When Mona struggles with the encroaching darkness or being drowned in her own tears, the images on the page reflect these challenges (sometimes having her face off against a literal version of the darkness she faces within). Giving the darkness Mona faces within visual representation helps underscore the tangible threat Mona faces as she learns to better process her emotions. Plus, by using cute little artistic flourishes as shorthand (like a computer window-style gauge showing that Mona’s brain is at capacity), the comic can communicate some of the more abstract aspects of living with mental illness.

Meanwhile, other pages are designed to resemble Mona’s drawing notebooks, with the grid lines and spiral binding plainly visible on the page. This gives the reader a sense of peeking into Mona’s personal notebooks, fostering familiarity with the character (no doubt this technique will also prove helpful in allowing certain readers to see themselves – and perhaps their own drawing-filled notebooks – reflected in Mona).

Given that, this comic would be ideal for teens that are dealing with depression themselves but are unable to articulate their experience. For one thing, this story can help individuals who find themselves in that particular situation feel less alone. For another, seeing how Mona identifies and processes her emotions, eventually learning to articulate them, could prove to be invaluable.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr

The back matter in The Dark Matter of Mona Starr will be especially helpful to readers in this situation. In addition to a personal letter from Gulledge and lists for further reading and listening, there is also a pair of pages with “Self Care Plans.” The first is labeled “Laura Lee’s” and includes the author’s personal list of physical, emotional, and mental needs, along with lists of daily supplements, support systems, and stress warning signs. On the opposite page is a blank version of the same page, so that readers can fill out their own personal “Self Care Plan.”

In addition to proving helpful for those who might find themselves facing similar challenges as Mona, this book could also prove helpful for those who know someone facing similar challenges as Mona, offering an opportunity to better understand what someone in a similar experience might be going through.

On the last page of the book is Gulledge’s “About the Author” and “Author’s Note” sections, which provide details regarding which parts of the story are fabricated and which parts are taken directly from the author’s experiences. The page even includes some of the artwork that Gulledge herself created while in high school. While many stories about high school-aged characters are based on the creator’s personal experiences, it’s nice to have such a specific discussion of how the creator’s life informed the story, particularly in a graphic novel that is as personal as The Dark Matter of Mona Starr.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr is available today wherever books are sold.