Comics, Critical analysis and reviews

Into the depths of madness – thoughts on Polarity #1

Stepping out from his apartment building, the first thing you notice about Timothy Woods is his gauntness, then you see the stains and cigarette burns on his shirt and a chillingly, a-typical, wild look in his eyes. In that first panel, you know Timothy’s either lost it or stepped into a zombie apocalypse. He is so dishevelled, the captions only serve to confirm the lack of undead. It’s not until the second page that you realise he’s half naked and going off the deep end in a big way as a car smashes into him, spraying bits of blood and bone onto the bonnet.

This is not a regular “powers” comic

“Well, that’s how I found out I was bipolar,” greets Tim as we catch up with him standing in an art gallery, fully dressed, some time later. Within the first four pages if Polarity #1, writer Max Bemis (of the band Say Anything) and artist Jorge Coelho have vividly shown how very different Tim is when he’s not suffering from a manic phase. And unless you’ve read the write-up for the comic, you wouldn’t know that it has anything to do with having super powers, because it starts off so different to a regular people-with-powers comic.

Polarity art panel

Mental illness and superheroes are two themes that rarely fit together or rather…. It’s not very often that any writers are brave enough to combine the two and far to often we’re greeted by a character like Marvel’s Legion – in that instance, a character with dissociative personality disorder (multiple personalities) who’s being an Omega level mutant makes his mental health play second fiddle, most of the time. But here, in the first issue of Polarity, Bemis presents a character, Timothy Woods, who’s very different, who’s human first. At least for now.

Handling the norm

Tim, as he’s known to his friends, is almost the perfect picture of the tortured artist, who can produce fantastic works of art only when he’s going through a manic phase. This would seem cliché and exploitative if were not for Bemis having experienced similar mental health issues himself. Tim suffers from bipolar depression, lives in Brooklyn, and has unwittingly found himself surrounded by the local art scene’s hipster collective. From the beginning your asking yourself, “How the hell does he get from a to z and take a detour through Neptune?”

Polarity 1 Hipsters

At this stage, I’m unsure if the art style used by Coelho is mean to be ironic or not, but it almost deftly mirrors styles used by certain crowds of illustrators that the comic partially offers a critique on. Let’s be clear: hipster culture in this comic is not shown in its best light, with pastiche everywhere and apparently being the cause of meaningless relationships.

Into the depths of madness

Perhaps the most sorrowful part of the comic is the point where Timothy realises that his illness has defined him in the eyes of others, that most of them prefer the work that he produces when he is manic. Their selfishness is cruel and alarming at the same time and raises questions about the perception of creative people with mental health problems and the whole “tortured artist” stereotype.

Once Bemis has signposted Tim’s path to relapse, you really feel the full impact with Coelho’s amazing two page spread that documents Tim’s latest breakdown over several weeks. Meanwhile there is but a hint of how Tim’s condition and the connection with him being something more than he seems, until the last two pages. Where the car scene at the beginning was brutal, the finale comes down to downright gore.

I heartily recommend checking out the first of this four issue mini series. Also, you’re given a download code for a free song called “Polarity”, created by Bemis.

Polarity #1 is out now in stores and via Comixology, published by BOOM! Studios. Issue 2 is due for release in May.

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