Graphic Novels to Watch Out For: “Marbles” by Ellen Forney

Alongside the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center’s current exhibition, The First Woman Graphic Novelist: Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, the library’s display shelves currently feature fantastic contemporary graphic novels by women. Last month on NMWA’s blog, we recommended Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and now we’re back to highlight another great graphic novel and the woman author responsible for its creation.

MarblesMarbles, by cartoonist Ellen Forney, is a memoir of her diagnosis with bipolar disorder right before her 30th birthday. Forney depicts the years that follow, highlighting her struggle to find a balance between mental stability and her creativity. Throughout the novel Forney explores the concept of “the crazy artist” and finds inspiration from the lives of other artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Vincent van Gogh, who also suffered from mood disorders. The questions Forney ultimately wants to answer are: is there is a correlation between an artist’s creativity and mood disorder, and what are the strengths and limitations of medication on her passion and work?

In addition to being New York Times Bestseller, Marbles was named Best Graphic Novel of 2012 by the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Entertainment Weekly. Forney was also the recipient of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis 2013 Gradiva Award.

Forney uses the graphic form to create a deeply personal and dynamic memoir. The combination of the panel-style comics, realistic drawings of photographs, and scans from her personal sketchbook lend an insight into how Forney’s mood disorder affects her creative process as well as the differing artistic styles produced during her periods of mental stability on and off medication. Marbles is an intimate exploration of the effects of a mood disorder and the personal struggle of therapy and medication. Forney is able to make the reader feel in the moment when reading her recounts of manic episodes as they follow her journey of ultimately coming to terms with her own identity of the “crazy artist.”

Ellen Forney’s website

Ellen Forney’s website

Ellen Forney’s Marbles and many other excellent graphic novels are waiting on the shelves for visitors’ viewing and reading pleasure in the library! Visit the museum, view the works on display, and stop by the library to learn more about Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová and the work of female graphic novelists.

—Molly Krost is an intern in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Images that Tell a Story: The First Woman Graphic Novelist

The Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) at NMWA currently features an exhibition of work showcasing a female voice in a field that many associate with men. Five novels created by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová are featured in the exhibition The First Woman Graphic Novelist: Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, on view through November 14.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, woodcut print from Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), Prague: Orbis, 1929; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, woodcut print from Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), Prague: Orbis, 1929; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

The artist’s novel Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), published in 1929, is believed to be the first wordless novel written by a woman. The exhibition hopes to foster discussion about her important contributions to this under-explored genre.

Bochořáková-Dittrichová most likely encountered the popular wordless novels of Belgian artist Frans Masereel while in Paris, where she had received a grant to study printmaking. Masereel focused his novels on socialist themes, such as the working class and the downtrodden. By contrast, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s wordless novel From My Childhood is about her middle-class upbringing, following her into her adult life. Similarly, other works focus on her life experiences. A 52-woodcut manuscript, which remains unpublished, called Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), features a woman who receives an award to study art in Paris, drawing on the artist’s experience in the city where she became familiar with wordless novels.

Though the novels of Masereel are better known, and are more numerous today, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s less-polished woodcuts distinguish her. While Masereel’s style features stolid blocks of black and white space that sit against each other, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s prints are richer in tone, line, and shade. Her figures emerge with a series of small white lines from the expanse of black ink on the page, relying more on hatching and texture to give the appearance of shadow and form. Areas of greater light tones—an open window, for example, or a blouse—seem luminous by comparison.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, untitled print from Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), n.d.; Woodcut, 4 1/4 x 3 1⁄8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, untitled print from Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), n.d.; Woodcut, 4 1/4 x 3 1⁄8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s other works housed and on view in the LRC depict scenes that depart from her personal experiences. Her work explored religion, travel, and history. The library also houses novels by Bochořáková-Dittrichová that feature interplay of image and written narrative. Dojmy Z SSSR (Impressions from the USSR, 1934) features both text and illustration by the artist. However, even when the image is of a historical figure, or a cityscape, her style still features careful slivers of white paper through black ink.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s legacy remains to be firmly cemented within our modern understanding of the woodcut. However, with this exhibition, her prints are presented as a tool to help viewers understand her distinct place in the history of the graphic novel.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.