Things aren’t going well for the cartoon fox. When first meet the critter, named Fox, doubt, anxiety, and general lethargy have Fox hiding in a bathroom from jellyfish boss lady.
"Crazy Like a Fox" is an installment of a comic book memoir series by Minnesota artist Christi Furnas. The simply drawn — but excellently expressive — characters are a visual adaption of her experience dealing with mental illness.
Furnas, who had been painting and doodling since age 14, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 24. Telling her story via a comic book made sense.
"I’ve always doodled," she said. "The way I communicate is through visual art."
The panels are little more than doodles. The characters — most of them animals — are rendered in simple line drawings. That simplicity belies a complicated story of hallucinations, anxiety, and self-doubt, populated by a cast of clueless, but mostly well meaning friends and associates.
The clear simplicity of the drawing makes the book easy to follow through a complicated set of scenarios and experiences. The clean drawings help express each moment and Fox’s reactions seem more poignant. Readers will find it easy to empathize with Fox and therefore gain a bit of understanding of Furnas’ experiences.
Although those experiences are conveyed via cartoon animals, Furnas’ struggle with mental illness and her diagnosis was real and frightening. So are moments in the book.
"I found it hard at times to write it down," Furnas said.
There are scenes where the world and reason seem to melt away from Fox. Furnas’ drawing and composition convincingly convey the confusion Fox feels as those moments creep up. The reader can imagine the confusion and panic as the floor melts away from under Fox in a scene recounting a suicide attempt.
However, Furnas finds humor in these moments. But that’s not to say what she went through was full of laughs. Some of her story didn’t make it into the books.
"I left parts out if I couldn’t find humor in them," Furnas said.
Furnas has been open about her mental illness but said she refuses to let it dominate her life. The book was a way for her to reflect and understand her experiences, and create a medium for people to begin to understand what people dealing with mental illness go through.
It was still somewhat scary to put that story out there, she added.
"It’s in the hands of people (and) I have no idea who they are and what their reactions to it will be," Furnas said.
A 2016 recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant financed software, scanner, pens and the drawing table that made the work possible.
Original work from the comic series is on display at the Rochester Art Center through September 10 as part of the Mental Health:Mind Matters exhibit. The books are available at the RAC gift shop and at www.christifurnas.com.