Author: Chuck Mullin
Publish Date: November 2019
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1524854584
Author website: https://www.gocomics.com/chuck-draws-things/
Guest Review by Kristina Bowers
Bird Brain: Comics About Mental Health, Starring Pigeons, published in 2019, is illustrator and comic artist Chuck Mullin’s debut book. This collection of personal essays and short comics features pigeons and other birds as anthropomorphic stand-ins for Mullin and the people around her. The comics explore the author’s own experiences with anxiety and depression as well as communicate relatable experiences with mental health and socializing many of us encounter in our day-to-day lives. The World Health Organization estimates that 5% of the global adult population have depression, a great deal of whom face barriers to treatment or understanding due to social stigma (“Depression,” 2022, cited at end of review). Mental health has become prominent in the global conversations regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic as more and more people are learning about and dealing with such conditions. With Bird Brain, Mullin offers an accessible and humorous look at how to cope with the experience of living with mental illness.
The book is divided into three sections, “Bad Times”, “Relationships”, and “Positivity” which represent major periods of the author’s life and perspective and present lessons the average reader can appreciate. Mullin seeks to use the funny, relatable pigeon (the star of most of her comic work) to let the reader know that “no matter what you’re going through, you’re not alone” (page 6). The bright, pastel background colors and accents in many of the panels contrasts with the sometimes raw and negative emotions expressed in the dialogue and thoughts of the pigeon and other characters. Along with this mismatch between visuals and text (a few examples provided), Mullins’ often negative inner voice is represented by an all-black bird with red eyes that bears down on her in panels in which the background is often dark purple or black to match her changing mood.
Mullin’s pigeon persona many times reveals her true, internal thoughts and feelings while presenting a composed demeanor to those around her. This ironic presentation highlights the stark contrast between Mullin’s, and many others’, public and private personas so often put upon to navigate a world that often dismisses mental health as illegitimate.
The pigeon often feels that her sadness, anxiety, or negativity are tangible substances that mediate her interactions between her body/mind and those around her. The two examples below reveal her mental distress as contagious and alternatively, a shield blocking her out from the rest of the world.
In a similar vein to Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, Mullin’s comics both reveal her individual struggles while writing primarily for an audience that shares similar struggles with mental health. Struggling with thoughts of self-hate and sometimes overwhelming anxiety, Mullin’s choice to represent herself through a pigeon, creatures that, she writes, are “generally disdained,” (page 5) garnered positive feedback from an online community that boosted her confidence and encouraged her to work towards creating this book. Our star pigeon handles anxiety and others’ misunderstanding of her struggles with self-aware humor while still being honest about the despair and loneliness such conditions can bring. As we move from the first section, “Bad Times”, through “Relationships” and “Positivity”, we see a support system form around Mullin’s pigeon and witness her life become happier with tools and treatment options suited to her needs. Mullin makes the point that treatment for mental health conditions is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that these comics, while meant to connect and relate to a wide range of people, are ultimately, a reflection of her personal journey.
World Health Organization. “Depression.” 2022, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression.
Kristina Bowers is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina Greensboro pursuing a Master of Arts in English, concentrating in Rhetoric and Composition. With plans to pursue a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition starting Fall 2022, Kristina is exploring their academic interests in fields such as the rhetoric of health and medicine and feminist rhetoric through research and online writing. In their free time, Kristina enjoys hiking, playing board games, and traveling with their wife.