Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar may be the most famous evocation of depression in fiction. The fullness of Esther Greenwood’s mental illness is slow to reveal itself, to the characters and to the reader, masked in part by her intellect and caustic wit, as well as her deceptive ability to move through life while not taking part or pleasure in it. “I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself,” Esther says. “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
After a stint in the New York publishing world, Esther returns home to Massachusetts for a summer in the “escape-proof cage” of suburbia. She spies on a neighbor from the window of her bedroom one morning and then hides, in a minor paranoid fit, when she thinks the neighbor might see her: “I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.” This scene lasts a moment, but imagine Esther spending almost the entirety of the novel brooding peevishly in her bedroom and you have some sense of what it feels like to spend time with Simon Hanselmann’s comics.
The inertia and stagnation Esther feels and the increasingly circumscribed life she leads before treatment are common territory for Megg, the primary character in Hanselmann’s ongoing Megg and Mogg series, begun in 2009 and comprising four book-length collections to date.1 In Hanselmann’s telling, depression hits a low register and stays there, both ambient drone and narrative pulse. Megg spends most of her time inside and relies on welfare to get by. She takes antidepressants and sees a therapist, but these measures barely keep her afloat in a sea of unhappiness.
In all other ways, the Megg and Mogg comics, set in a nondescript, working-class suburbia, couldn’t be more different from Plath’s middle-class New England novel. For starters, Megg is a witch—the green-skinned, pointy-hat type (though in keeping with the comic’s theme of mundanity, she does not practice magic). Mogg, her roommate and boyfriend, is a Garfield-shaped black cat (the joke is that if Mogg is Megg’s familiar, it is in the sexual sense, rather than the pagan one). These characters, friends from high school who are now in their twenties, are loosely based on a series of children’s books from the 1970s written by Helen Nicoll and illustrated by Jan Pieńkowski, called Meg and Mog, which Hanselmann read as a child. The series…
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