Removing The Stigma – Talking Mental Health and The Wasp with Jeremy Whitley
The Unstoppable Wasp #5 shocked us all with the revelation that Nadia has inherited her father’s bipolar disorder. The topic of superheroes and their mental health is often a controversial one, but writer Jeremy Whitley is committed to telling the most honest narrative he can to help remove the controversy and stigma.
Mary Swangin: Unstoppable Wasp issues 4 and 5 brought a new dynamic to the series. You revealed that Nadia has inherited her father’s bipolar disorder. What was the motivation for this reveal?
Jeremy Whitley: It is something myself and my editor, Alanna Smith, had discussed from the early days of the first volume. Being as Nadia’s father, Hank Pym, has bipolar disorder and there is a genetic component to bipolar, it was always a door that was open for us, but not one we wanted to walk through unless we felt like we could create a that we felt could do something important. But the thing is, there are so few stories dealing with actual mental disorders around superheroes that are unambiguously heroic, not to mention ones that are young. A lot of mental disorders first show up during people’s teenage years. We didn’t want it to be the first story we told about Nadia, but we did want it to be a story that had a real impact on the character and how mental illness is discussed in comics. Hank’s original stories around his illness are very much a product of their time and by that same token, we wanted to tell a twenty-first-century story about mental illness and superheroes in a way we felt hadn’t been done.
MS: With regard to the Agents of GIRL: we saw a full range of emotional responses to Nadia’s episode. Why did you feel it was so important to experience the entirety of reactions rather than just blind acceptance from the girls? And what sort of division are we going to see going forward now that Nadia has unintentionally broken some levels of trust between the members of GIRL?
JW: What we’re struggling for is good and accurate representation, not just of physical appearance, but of experience. To imply that a person could go through an episode like this and that all the people around them would blindly accept it and move on is doing a disservice both to the characters in the story and the real people who have to struggle with that a situation like this does to the lives of themselves and the people around them. Real people often know how they should react to other people’s hardship, but they rarely do it. Add to that the fact that Nadia both physically and emotionally hurt several members of her team and it seemed inconceivable that we wouldn’t see a diversity of reactions. I also wanted every one of those reactions to stem from where those characters come from and who they are. Shay just wants to help her friend. Ying wants to protect her girlfriend. Taina is hurt by the way she feels Nadia and treated her. Priya, however, has a history and trauma of her own that she is carrying around that make it impossible for her to turn her back on her friend. I feel like Priya’s staying is just as inevitable as Taina’s walking away. And to make myself perfectly clear, I don’t think any of them were wrong. Priya put her life in danger by stealing and using technology she didn’t understand, but she’s acting heroically. Taina is turning her back on her friend, but she’s also taking care of her injured sister and standing up for herself against somebody who has terribly mistreated her.
MS: I want to touch on Janet a bit. She has dealt with this kind of thing in the past. Having Nadia ask for help to deal with the fact that she believes she has bipolar disorder comes with a panel showing utter relief of Janet’s face, followed by her assurance that Nadia doesn’t need to “deal with this” alone. Why was it so important to you to give Janet the autonomy and strength to help Nadia however she is able?
JW: To Janet, Nadia’s downward spiral in these issues is the reliving of a nightmare that has haunted her for years. She watched her husband go through this and ultimately got divorced because Hank was unable to ask for the help that he needed and unwilling to put mental health before ego. Janet and Hank’s relationship in those early days is complicated, but for me, it ultimately comes down to the fact that, even after the issues with abuse, Hank continued to be unable to accept help. Janet is in a unique position to be able to offer the support to Nadia that she was never able to offer to Hank and hopefully support Nadia through the hardest moments of her life. For me, the most heroic thing Nadia can do is what she does, reaching out for help. For Janet, it’s a chance to help somebody in a way she couldn’t before and it’s never a question for her. She loves Nadia and she’s going to do whatever she can to make sure that she doesn’t go through the years of struggle that Hank did.
MS: Nadia makes the difficult choice to ask for help in the face of discovering she may have bipolar disorder. Allowing her to ask for help, and having the guarantee that she doesn’t have to face this alone, is a big step in removing the stigma surrounding individuals who suffer from mental health disorders. Was this the ultimate goal with this issue? Why is it additionally important to you to show that asking for help is important in dealing with mental health issues?
JW: It was always my goal. Like Nadia says, for her, superhero stuff is easy. Punching bad guys, saving the world, doing what’s right – these are all ideals that are simple for her. It’s the Marvel superhero tradition to lift the heavy thing off your back because you have to save the people. The thing with mental health is that you can’t punch it into submission. You can’t beat mental illness through [the] use of force and you can’t beat it by being clever. It doesn’t matter how forthright your morals and how strong your back or how giant you can grow – the only way to combat mental illness is by establishing a support network, undergoing treatment, and remaining vigilant. Nadia is a person who has confidence in herself and her own abilities, even if that confidence was fostered by an evil underground organization. Hard work and determination come easily to her. Reaching out for help is not something we traditionally think of as heroic, but for somebody like Nadia, admitting your own inadequacy and asking for help is the hardest thing to do. I think asking for help is incredibly heroic.
MS: Removing the stigma surrounding mental health especially in young people. Nadia asks for help, in the end, it is known that asking for help in the face of mental illness is one of the most difficult things to do by having Nadia verbalize her need for help. This shows a level of self-awareness not seen in her father and is so important to show in media to destigmatize mental health issues.
JW: Agreed. Even to today, it’s a level of self-awareness not shown by Hank. As recently as Avengers AI he was shown understanding his own bipolar disorder but still attempting to grapple with it through experimentation and gadgetry. This is something we’ll discuss a little bit in issue 6, but I feel like there is nothing that so clearly reads as bipolar disorder as experimenting on yourself to try and take care of your own bipolar disorder. One of the most distinctive things about bipolar mania is that it makes you over-confident and it makes you believe you can do anything. So if somebody was already convinced of their own genius and saw their own mental illness as a problem to fix, the worst thing they could do is keep it to themselves. That’s Hank’s history and that is the history that Nadia and Janet are working together to keep from repeating. I mean, this is why the Avengers exist, right? Because there are some problems so big that no superhero can handle them on their own.
MS: I feel Gurihiru deserves special credit for the art in these issues. Nadia’s body language is such a telling factor during the progression of her episode and the art drives it home. How much of the art direction was organic, and how much of it did you workshop?
JW: I made several notes about wanting to show how Nadia deteriorated throughout the issue. It was important to me that the progression be that both the audience and Nadia think that she can solve all of the problems, then for it to slowly become obvious to the audience that she was deteriorating, even while what Nadia is actually saying in the book still feels positive. Gurihiru’s art was critical to pulling that off and I can not say enough about what a fantastic job they did on these issues. Without their showing the slow deterioration of Nadia throughout that two-page spread in four, the ghostly pale and dark under-eyes that she exhibits after coming out of the crystal, and then her absolute lack of hope inside the crystal in issue 5, I don’t think any of the story works. I could have written the best dialog in the world, but if you can’t see the way Nadia is changing throughout, none of it matters. There’s a particular panel when Nadia is standing on the edge of her crystal castle where she turns back and gives us this look of utter hopelessness that to this day haunts me. That is the look of a person who has absolutely given over to depression and is on the edge of giving up on everything and I can’t tell you how they did it, but gosh do I know it when I see it.
MS: The subtle changes to Nadia’s appearance as she descends further and further into the episode is phenomenal and helps pull us into the feeling that “something is not OK.” Do you feel this subtle attention to detail helps tell a fuller story? Body language is such a major factor
JW: Absolutely. I may have answered this to some extent in the previous question, but let me expound a bit. I think there are very talented artists who can draw bodies and explosions and machines with skill and precision I will never have that don’t have the ability to tell a story through a character’s posture and body language and facial expression anywhere near as clearly as Gurihiru do. I got these pages in my inbox and I knew that we didn’t even need text. It was so obvious on the page what was happening that it was heartbreaking without a word of text on the page. These ladies really deserve an award for these issues.
MS: You worked with a number of mental health professionals and spoke to individuals who live daily with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. How did this refine the way that you presented this story? Why did you choose to do as much research as you did?
JW: The “why” is absolutely because “representation matters” and I think the more specific representation is, the more it matters. The things that I remember most from stories where I saw myself aren’t broad generalizations, they are small important moments, specific dialog, or just the nailing of how something feels rather than how it is. I didn’t want Nadia’s mental illness to just be a sideshow for people to gawk at, I wanted it to be something that felt real and accurate to the actual disorder and the experience of going through what Nadia is going through. So, it was important for me not just to get the facts straight, but to get the feelings right and to be able to talk about it in a way that was both real to the people reading it and not offensive to the people experiencing what Nadia is experiencing. A lot of the changes that I took from readers were changes in wording or timing. If I was going to do something that dealt with a real mental disorder, I wanted to generalize as little as possible. I wanted every moment to feel lived in. I’ve used this comparison before, but if you were setting a story in World War II you wouldn’t put your soldiers in t-shirts and jeans and give them modern pistols and call it a day. Questions of race, culture, and mental health are no less deserving of the same consideration and research.
The Unstoppable Wasp #5 is currently available at your local comic shop and on Comixology here.
If you want to keep following Nadia and the other Agents of G.I.R.L., The Unstoppable Wasp #6 releases April 10th, 2019.