Earlier this year on Free Comic Book Day at Books Kinokuniya in Sydney, I was wandering around getting overwhelmed by the sheer artistic and comic talent around me when I saw Karen Beilharz and her title Kinds of Blue. What caught my eye was that it was the first and only comic I’d seen that handled something like depression — it’s not a medium you would associate with comics, right? But Karen has made it work and she’s generously answered some questions for me about Kinds of Blue and her work.
Can you tell us a little about your career and how you got involved in comics? Have you always been a fan?
I have a background in writing, editing and publishing, and have wanted to write comics for years. When I was young, I devoured the comics liftout in the weekend paper. I grew up reading strips—like Snake, Hagar the Horrible, Ginger Meggs, Thin Ice and so on—as well as Asterix comics from the school library because my brother was into them. But it wasn’t until late university, when friends introduced me to works such as The Sandman, Blankets, Y the Last Man and the like, that I realised that comics could be so much more than strips.
However, as I’m not an artist, I wasn’t sure how to go about making them—not until I read something on Phonogram creator Kieron Gillen’s blog about he got started in the business, which was basically that he convinced artists to work on five page stories with him. I thought, “I could do that.” And that’s how Kinds of Blue was born.
Why did you choose to write about the topic of depression?
I have a long relationship with depression: my husband has it, I have it to a certain extent and many of my friends have it. In going through the process of understanding the disease—its causes, its nature, its cures—I felt like I had a lot of material I wanted to write about. At the time, I also felt that depression was something that a lot of people didn’t really understand, so I wanted to take people into the experience of what it’s like to have it so that they could see things from the other side and grasp why it’s so hard.
Why did you choose comics as the medium through which to tell these stories about depression? It’s not generally a mix that people would think of!
It was sort of a happy accident: I wanted to create comics and, at the same time, I wanted to write about depression. I think I was also quite influenced by Matthew Johnstone’s I Had a Black Dog and the way he manages to capture so much in just one image. However, since then, I’ve realised that comics is, in a sense, the perfect medium for this: in that marriage of words and pictures, comics can express the inexpressible—the things that depression sufferers find so hard to express.
When you were working with your friends to tell their stories, what did you find the hardest to convey as the writer/editor?
I had never collaborated before, so that was a learning experience: because everyone is different, the nature of the collaboration was different depending on who I was working with. I greatly enjoyed the process, however, and am keen to collaborate more because there is something magical about the way a comic comes together when there’s more than one person working on it. There’s a lot of trust involved: both parties need to make room to let the other do their thing. Letting go and relinquishing that control was probably one of the hardest things to do for me.
What do you hope readers find/see within the pages of this comic?
If they suffer from depression, I hope that they discover a kindred spirit and feel like there are people out there who understand—who have been through what they go through and know what it feels like. I also want the comics give them hope—that there is light at the end of the darkness.
If, however, they are someone who hasn’t had much experience with depression, I hope they learn something that positively changes the way they relate to depression sufferers so that they become more patient, more compassionate and more aware of the issues.
There were many artists that contributed towards the comic – how did this become such a collaborative project with these specific artists? (the art is so evocative!)
When I had the idea for the project, I asked just about every artist I knew if they wanted to collaborate. At the time, I wasn’t a part of the Australian comics community and didn’t know many people who worked in the medium. Most of the contributors were friends (and for these people, I tried to tailor my scripts to fit their style), but there were a few people I met purely through working on the project, which was very exciting. Since then, a number of them have gone on to produce their own comics: Dan Gilmore is running a strip in conjunction with Sally Browne called “LUV Comics”; Kathleen Jennings has written and drawn a few short comics for various speculative fiction anthologies, as well as being prolific as a writer and award-winning illustrator in her own right; and Paul Wong-Pan and I are currently collaborating on a science fiction graphic novel called Eternal Life, and part 1 is available now!