THE ELECTRIC SUBLIME #1 Review: Mental Illness and The Tortured Artist

THE ELECTRIC SUBLIME #1 holds a lot of potential as an exploration of mental health and creativity. The visual concept works well thematically and is beautiful when it tries to be.
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The Electric Sublime #1 Cover

If you’ve studied Vincent Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath, you’ve probably come across the concept of The Tortured Artist. This archetype is pervasive throughout discussions of art history and art in general. Essentially, The Tortured Artist is a tragic hero who lets mental illness consume them in order to access creative genius. The more isolated and suicidal an artist gets, the better, since that means they are suffering in order to create a masterpiece. This archetype is the centerpiece of THE ELECTRIC SUBLIME, created by W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, and Mat Lopes.

In THE ELECTRIC SUBLIME, a new comic series from IDW Publishing, someone is changing famous works of art, causing viewers to go insane. It’s up to Art Brut, a detective with bipolar disorder and the ability to jump into paintings, and Margot Breslin, director of a government agency that investigates art-related crimes, to save the day. In Issue #1, Director Breslin pulls Brut out of a mental institution in order to tackle a case involving a winking Mona Lisa. Meanwhile, a mother drives her son, whose drawings have psychic qualities, to a children’s mental hospital.

The Electric Sublime #1 Brut

From the beginning of this story, the relationship between mental health and art is a major theme. A nurse tells Breslin that the only treatment for Art Brut that seems to be working is allowing him to paint. That makes sense, given that art can be an extremely useful therapeutic tool; it encourages self-expression, physical activity, and a sense of accomplishment. However, interviews with W. Maxwell Prince have implied that Brut’s ability to enter paintings is what led him to get institutionalized in the first place. Therefore, Brut’s character runs on the paradox that art intensifies his mental illness but also relieves his mental illness.

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It is unclear at the moment how diving into artworks has hurt him psychologically. It could be that the more time he spends in these other landscapes, the more alienated he becomes from society. That might make sense as a metaphor. In real life, manic episodes of bipolar can cause people to increase in creative energy but also isolate themselves. I can’t say from my own experience, but I have close friends with bipolar, and I have seen how it affects them. In a manic state, your thinking becomes much faster and your ideas more grandiose, and you feel like you can tackle a million projects and never have to sleep or eat again. It’s very enticing at first, but the more one stays in a state like that, the harder it gets to talk to other people and the more overwhelming the ideas get. It’s like being in a different world, lonely, beautiful, and disturbing all at once. The art worlds of the story work in the same way. Instead of the monotonous muted colors and basic panels of the regular world, the art worlds use vibrant watercolors, irregular panels, and fantastic landscapes. It’s gorgeous but unstable, and it absorbs Brut, keeping him far away from human civilization.

The Electric Sublime #1 Breslin

What I am waiting to see is how this isolation is portrayed. In the archetype of The Tortured Artist, isolation and psychological distress are essential parts of making creative magic. So far, this seems to be true for Art Brut, whose meds don’t work and has no strategies or ways of coping with his bipolar except for art. Not to mention, his art and artistic worlds are by far the most visually engaging portion of the comic, and intentionally so.

However, we have yet to see whether Brut’s status as a Tortured Artist will be romanticized or deconstructed.

Personally, I’d prefer a deconstruction. I’ve seen how this trope affects real people struggling with mental health issues, and it is not pretty. Close friends of mine have dropped out of school, ruined close relationships, and even physically harmed themselves because they thought their mental illness was the key to their talent and didn’t want to jeopardize that with treatment. With a bipolar protagonist who is hurt by the work he does, THE ELECTRIC SUBLIME has the perfect opportunity to explore the way the myth of The Tortured Artist can be just as damaging as it is empowering for those who live with mental illness. And, if not, it is still very cool to see an institutionalized bipolar character who gets to be a hero rather than a murderous villain.

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All in all, THE ELECTRIC SUBLIME #1 is a vibrant love letter to all artists who live with mental health issues, both throughout history and in the present. The plot, art, and characterization all work together to weave the relationship between creativity and mental illness throughout the comic. At the moment, it is unclear what Prince, Morazzo, and Lopes believe the nature of this relationship to be, but I am excited to find out.

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