Review: Hyperbole and a Half (book)

Book cover of Hyperbole and a HalfYou may have seen me talk about Allie Brosh before, especially if you also follow me on Tumblr or Twitter. Her work also inspired the post ‘[S]hitty drawings are funny‘ – title drawn from her FAQ page, explaining her choice of a childish style of art for her comics. She’s basically become a major hero for me, and for everyone else I know who suffers from depression. Her posts, ‘Adventures in Depression‘, ‘Depression Part Two‘, and ‘This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult‘ should be mandatory reading for anyone who has never had a mental illness trying to understand someone who has, and prescribed reading for those of us who suffer from depression.

She doesn’t solely write about her depression. Many of her stories are delightful tales of a mischievous childhood. Such as ‘Menace‘, the story of what happened when her parents gave her a dinosaur costume, or ‘The God of Cake‘, the story of the amazing cake her mother made, which Allie felt compelled to gain access to and consume. She also writes touching tales of the ‘Simple Dog‘ and the ‘Helper Dog‘ (Simple Dog pictured with her on the cover above), and her and her boyfriend’s kind, but often despairing efforts to look after them.

I care about this alot

Allie speculates that the common spelling error ‘alot’ refers to a large, confused-looking beast.

In addition to her person life stories, she also makes comics that are just plain funny. You may recognise her work from such memes as the ‘Alot‘, ‘x ALL the ys’ (based on one of the drawings in ‘This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult’), and ‘Internet Forever’ (ditto). She also collaborated on a video for ‘Sueeve Shower Products for Men‘, based on her original post ‘How to make Showering Awesome Again‘. Which you should all watch, because it is hilarious.

Clean ALL the things!

An excerpt from one of Allies comics which is frequently adapted to substitute other things for ‘clean’ and ‘things’.

All of which is to say that I’m a fan, and, actually, half the Internet is a fan, they probably just don’t realise that they’re a fan of memes that were based on her artwork. I’ve been a fan for years, and had been eagerly anticipating the release of her book. Whilst she was writing her book, Allie’s blog went silent for quite a long time. I was aware that she struggled with depression, but I nevertheless assumed that at least part of it was that the book was requiring a lot of her attention. In 2010 she made 78 posts, in 2011 she made only 5. The last of which was ‘Adventures in Depression’, followed by ‘Depression Part Two’ in 2013. Allie had been depressed for a long time, and severely so – she had contemplated suicide.

What it's like talking to non-depressed people about depression.

What it’s like talking to non-depressed people about depression.

Nevertheless, Allie had completed her book, and she could see the light at the end of the depression tunnel again. You might have thought that a two year gap in posting might obliterate your fanbase, but not so, for Allie. The Internet exploded with outpourings of shared emotion in response to ‘Depression Part Two’. She talked about aspects of depression that nobody ever talked about – and there are a LOT of people talking about depression on the Internet, these days. I’m one of them. She talked about the things I was afraid to talk about. The things my friends who are also depressed had not mentioned as a part of the experience. And she expressed it just so. And with the wit, humour, and poignancy that has made her the type of blogger who can post nothing for two years and still command the attention of the Internet.

Allie Broshon suicideI have never wanted to buy a book based solely off what I’ve seen on the Internet so badly. I wanted to have the book, and I wanted to support Allie. I wanted her to be a success because she deserves it, but I also wanted her to know how important her words are to so many people. A friend of mine asked on Twitter a while back for recommendations of things to give to mentally healthy people to explain depression to them. I said immediately ‘Allie Brosh’s Depression, parts one and two’, and he said ‘Of course! I can’t believe I didn’t think of that, that’s perfect’. Because it is. There are so many different ways to experience depression, and often that can make it difficult to explain, because one person can give their symptoms, and they won’t match those of another whose feelings are just as valid. But that’s not the case with Allie. I mean, sure, she has some symptoms I don’t and vice versa, but I don’t know anyone who has depression who has read her posts who didn’t identify strongly with the core of what she was saying, or find that she was saying something they themselves had struggled to put into words. In particular, the struggle of talking to non-depressed people about how you feel seems to have hit home. How you end up having to try to protect their emotions, because they will become distressed at hearing how you are, even though how you are is just normal for you, and their distress just becomes something extra you have to manage. And how the way everyone seems to think they can solve your problems with simple and utterly irrelevant answers.

I’ve had a hard time, lately. A financially insecure time. I wanted to buy her book, but wasn’t sure I could excuse the expense, so I asked for it for Christmas. And I got it. And I’m so glad. It has been such a comfort.

Of course, it contains many stories I have read before. It’s wonderful to own them in such a colourful, physical edition that I can just flip through whenever I need them. But it also has many that I haven’t read before: delightful, funny, witty, insightful. Sometimes, when I’ve been very low, it was all I could do to just lie there in bed, and there was Allie’s book. Within arms reach. Full of such comfort and delight. The childlike, primitive, style of her drawings is so easy to identify with. For we are all children inside – confronted constantly with the confusion and wonder of the world, at sea in a world that expects us to have found some sort of secret ‘adult’ perspective. We are brought back to the powerful and clean emotions of childhood: enthusiasm for life and despair at its challenges, and it allows us to see that those emotions are still with us, under the layers of adult behaviour and requirements. Whether you have depression and need the connection that tells you that other people feel this way, too; or you don’t, and you need to connect to loved ones who do, Allie’s unique style somehow captures a perspective that is easy for anyone to relate to.

I’d give a copy to everyone I know if I could (and if I didn’t know some of them would be put off by the swearing). This book is just… a gift to the world.

I know I’ve mostly talked about parts of it you can already go read online, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises of the bits you can’t. And they’re just as good. Just as delightful. Just as spirit-lifting. I don’t know how else to convey how wonderful and important this book is. Go buy it. Buy it for yourself. Buy it for those you love. Everyone should read and share the experiences of this book.

‘[S]hitty drawings are funny’

I don’t often read traditional comics. I have sometimes been lent them, and I have enjoyed the odd graphic novel, but, as a rule, I don’t read them. I do read quite a few online comics. I am, in fact, an addict. Saturdays are bad for me, because not one of Darths and Droids, Dr McNinja, Piled Higher and Deeper, xkcd, or Dinosaur Comics updates on that day. I also read Hyperbole and a Half, which is a blog, not a comic, or a blog with comics… I don’t know. I guess it’s something similar, but different. It is, in any case, the place from whence the above quote hails.

It would be tempting to say: ‘Gosh, look what New Media has done for comics’, but as someone who doesn’t read paper comics, I’m not qualified to judge. I’m pretty sure there are some fairly innovative things going on in that realm that I don’t know about. However, some of the comics I read do differ markedly, and in interesting ways, from the sort of thing I associate with traditional comic book format. I do read some comics that are like the traditional form. Dr McNinja is straightforwardly an online comic, although it does make heavy use of mouseover text for comedic effect. Darths and Droids is similar, but uses movie stills in place of drawn artwork. PhD Comics tends to be more of the comic strip style, but is otherwise fairly traditional. And then there’s xkcd, Dinosaur Comics, and Hyperbole and a Half.

In her FAQ, Allie Brosh answers a comment she has evidently received a lot: ‘Your drawings suck. A five-year-old could do this’ with: ‘I know. I do that on purpose because shitty drawings are funny’. And they are. But… although her drawings are reminiscent of childish drawings, I don’t think they’re actually shitty. Take the comic (blogpost? I want to call it a comic, so I will) that first drew me in: ‘This is why I’ll never be an adult

In this comic, Allie details how she occasionally has fits of trying to act like an adult, but these always end in exhaustion, guilt spirals, and procrastination. And, yeah, she could have just described it, and that might have been witty and moving, too, but it wouldn’t have been the same. This woman living half a world away so exactly pictured my experience that I laughed louder than I had for ages, and then she made me cry, too – because I’ve been there, and it’s emotionally real.
emailbank :(grocery shoppingclean ALL the things?

Are these drawings child-like? Sure, but that’s part of their power. And it’s wonderful that she’s using a program like Paintbrush to create them, not just because it looks childish, but because for a large portion of those reading (20 or 30 somethings – people of similar age and experience to herself) programs like that (MS Paint, for me) were their early experiences of creating and viewing computer art. It gives us a child-like perspective on the subject matter, which her wonderfully exuberant prose mirrors. It says we’re all still children, really, looking out on the challenges of the grown-up world with excitement and fear, and looking back on our childhoods with joy and sadness and nostalgia.

And it’s not just that she’s using childish-looking drawings to evoke emotion. These are genuinely skilfully crafted to evoke emotions. In the ‘Go to the motherf*cking BANK like and ADULT’ panel the figure is crudely drawn, but every line speaks of the sort of decided determination that stems from working yourself up to do something you’re not normally confident about. I don’t want to spoil it by analysing every aspect of every panel, but… these are works of art, and although part of their appeal stems from the fact that they are drawn to look unskilled, they’re not shitty.

Dinosaur Comics is a different thing again. The drawings are not as basic as Hyperbole and a Half, but they’re still fairly basic, and it’s the same one every time. Who would have thought the same roughly sketched dinosaurs could be so expressive in so many ways time and time again. I love that some of the simplest comics strive to talk about some genuinely deep and important things, and do so with knowledge and humour. I’ve got quite a few Dinosaur Comics saved as favourites because they say something that people often miss about philosophy (as well as science, literary analysis, and many other awesome things). Perhaps there’s some thought here about how our seemingly unchanging lives are so full of wonderful, rich, and varied things. Or maybe it’s just funny – I don’t know.

And then, of course, there’s xkcd. I know I’m not going to say anything new. There are countless websites both attacking and defending (there were so many of the latter I honestly couldn’t pick one to link to) it. I’m overwhelmingly in the pro, camp. A lot of comics on the web start from pretty basic drawings and develop into something more skilled. It’s a sort of pleasing consequence of the fact that anyone can start a comic on the web, no matter haw inexperienced, and the only things that impact on whether it succeeds is whether people like it and whether the artist keeps at it. I quite like going back and reading through the whole archive, when I find something new. With xkcd, though, there’s very little change. The drawings are cleaned up a little, and they don’t tend to be on graph paper anymore, but they’re still stick figures.

And this is the point: it’s not so much ‘Who cares if they’re stick figures? It’s still funny!’ as ‘It’s still good because they’re stick figures’. Those clean lines are… sort of beautiful. It’s somehow right for a comic about maths and computer programming and beauty and life. It feels a bit like the clean lines of Tron – like lines on graph paper that speak of potential.

If we’re going to call them ‘shitty drawings’, OK, but then, being shitty doesn’t mean it can’t also be good. I love the shitty drawings of the Internet. I hope they never change.