Author: Edited by Liz Enright and Sage Coffey Cover illustration by Chris Brunner Moonflower font by Denise Bentulan
Publish Date: Fall, 2016
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-0-692-79302-2
Guest Book Review by Katie Avila
Sweaty Palms: The Anthology About Anxiety was developed and co-edited by Liz Enright and Sage Coffey with two things in mind: “to start a positive conversation about mental health” and “to create a safe space for artists to express themselves.” To accomplish this, they assembled over 50 comic artists to share their experiences with anxiety and related mental health issues, with Enright and Coffey contributing their own comics as well. After a successful Kickstarter campaign for the book, the anthology was independently published and boasted a hefty 374 pages. All of the artwork is in black and white and even with so many different artistic styles, it helps keep a visual cohesiveness from beginning to end.
Being such heavy material because of the varied experiences within mental illness, depression, and suicidal thoughts, this book is suggested for mature readers. If you’re in a headspace where this could be triggering, I’d suggest coming to it when you’re able to take it in. Do note, though, that this book is pretty even handed in its entirety and has a healthy dose of hope within it, too.
This anthology is not intended as a medical explainer on the subject, but rather a first-hand account from each writer/artist. Each writer/artist shares their incredibly vulnerable experience and often fraught relationship with anxiety. It gives an empathetic and compassionate view into these issues. The authors are letting the reader into their world and what’s really going on in their minds. Even if this isn’t something you can relate to, it’s still an opportunity to see and hear others’ struggles.
The simple act of acknowledging ones anxiety can be validating to those who struggle with this. For others, such as myself who have dealt with anxiety since childhood, it’s all too relatable; at times, uncomfortably so. If you’re coming from that personal perspective, too, you may need moments to pause because a scene will hit too close to home. But you’ll also laugh in an understanding way when levity is infused. It’ll be a journey that lets the artists and readers be seen and heard, to connect over shared lived experience. Whether or not you deal with anxiety to these varying degrees, one can appreciate that, collectively, these stories let you know that you are not alone.
Here, artist Claudia E. Berger’s “Its Kinda Funny” (137-144) shows the internal spiraling dialogue that can happen with anxiety in a humorous way: deciding what movie to watch. The paralysis of choosing what to watch on any streaming platform is something anyone can relate to. What I like about this particular bit is that it’s a prime example of what happens when spiraling thoughts escalate and pick away at you, bit by bit.
This same internal thinking is displayed in a more dire way from artist Mike Freiheit in The Beast (27-33). Here, the thoughts are shown in an abstract way as thought bubbles quickly overwhelming the narrator.
In Monica Gallagher’s Shadow Companion (251-255), we see the abstraction of anxiety, a common visual theme across several stories, represented as hands grabbing at a character who is trying to resist. When that resistance fails, anxiety hangs over them, inches away from fully taking over. Even without the text from this specific page, it still successfully conveys the full emotional impact.
Each artist’ story is unique to them, but the reader will notice commonalities throughout the entire anthology. Many artists wrote of their anxiety, depression, need to isolate, intrusive thoughts, feeling overwhelmed, social anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
A common visualization through the book is the overwhelming feelings consuming the artist. What was once a defined person is reduced to an instinct, almost nothingness.
Not all hope is lost, though. Sarah Simes artwork in Sum of Parts (350-357) shows how talking directly to anxiety is a powerful and healing confrontation. When the anxiety given its own voice, its own place to speak, it can help to ease that tension. It will never fully go away, but at least there is a language between the two now. Simes depicts this conversation beautifully and brings empathy to the anxiety and depression which leaves the character with more compassion and empowerment for themselves.
It can be easy to dismiss someone’s internal anxiety as “you’re just stressed” which is really being told “Just don’t be stressed!” which pushes blame and responsibility back on the one suffering, whether this is happening within a doctor’s office or from an uncle at a family dinner. But when the needle is skipping and you become fixated, then overwhelmed, then finally exhausted, you can internalize that dismissiveness while still fully aware of the turmoil in your head. All in all, if you have experience with anxiety and depression Sweaty Palms will resonate in a very visceral way. It should also remind you that you are not alone in what you’re feeling and going through.
In painful stories, there can be comfort. If this isn’t your lived experience, hopefully it can open your perspective a bit further to what we can’t always see. Sweaty Palms can be an informative tool to help reframe your thinking. I’ve been told my entire life “you’re so chill” when in reality my internal life often feels like a churning storm of thoughts that isn’t completely destructive but doesn’t get peaceful. To have someone understanding that even though they don’t see how I feel, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. More awareness to this notion of what’s really going on with our inside selves is helpful to yourself and those around you.
The primary benefit of the anthology format is that it provides a platform to discover so many different artists. There’s no way to get through this book without finding artwork that pulls you in or stories that personally resonates. You’ll have a new list of artists to follow and new batches of comics to read; at the end of the book is a listing of each contributor along with a picture, website and short bio.
The contributors to Sweaty Palms had the immensely difficult task of making an immediate impact with authenticity, while having to find a sense of closure all within 3-7 pages. I can say there’s not a weak story in the bunch. Some take a broader perspective of anxiety, while others zero in on casual conversation they’re having with friends as, on the inside, their minds race and jump to conclusions that are only logical in an anxiety induced brain. These are moments that I can relate to and have to ask myself “Is this me or my anxiety brain talking?” With such a heavy subject matter I’d recommend taking your time with this book to take each story in. Let a story settle in and give yourself a moment to reset before moving onto the next one.
Katie Avila is an illustrator and works as a Project Manager in marketing. She is an avid reader of graphic novels, particularly memoirs about mental illness and trauma, and firmly believes that everyone has an interesting story to tell. You can view her work at KatieAvila.com