Negative Space, by Ryan K. Lindsay, with artwork by Owen Gieni, started out with a suicide attempt. It then followed our hero, Guy, through some therapy, some revelations about the nature of the world, and now, in the fourth and final issue, it ends much as it began. Depression, at first the comic’s villain, has, to coin a phrase, lived long enough to become the hero. Without spoiling plot specifics, it’s interesting to consider what the thesis of this comic has been about depression and the forces of despair that so many of us entangle with on a daily basis.
The conceit of the series is that there are weird, threatening, plantlike aliens (the Evorah) living on the bottom of the ocean who literally feed on negative emotions. Years ago, a group of humans called Kindred worked out a deal with them to create a steady stream of negativity, in return for the safety of the human race. At the start of the series, Kindred were basically the “bad guys”, because, so the thinking goes, who would want to deliberately make people feel bad about themselves and the world? The problem was that the people fighting to destroy Kindred and bring happiness to the earth (this includes Guy’s best friend and coffee vendor, Woody) forgot the second part of the equation. The steady stream of bad feelings is the only thing preventing the Evoarh from rising up and simply killing everyone, feeding off of their terror and desperation as if it were candy.
Guy has been our “fish out of water” guide through this world, and as a sensitive and telepathic person with profound depression, he’s been a great asset to Kindred without even knowing it. Recruited by the opposition to destroy the Evorah, he came very close in the previous issue by exploding a “happiness bomb” near the centre of the Evorah colony. As this issue opens, it seems as if that didn’t quite do the trick. The Evorah are attacking humanity full-out and only now, at the end, do we comprehend how important Kindred has been all along.
Obviously depression has both internal and external causes. Circumstances can make anyone, no matter how disposed they are to be positive, sink into despair. That external force was the only weapon Kindred had to keep the Evorah satisfied with human misery. They could take away jobs, cause natural disasters, build economic uncertainty, ensure movies are dark and joyless: just some of the many circumstances that contribute to depression. That they can’t do is alter the brain chemistry, genetics and physiology that makes depression a more serious risk for some than for others. On that basis, they are playing the genetic lottery and hoping that even a happy person will be brought down if surrounded by sadness.
Negative Space has essentially been one long exercise in re-framing. In the end, it doesn’t suggest that depression is fleeting, or easily beat, or even finally “bad” in the larger sense. Indeed: it argues that depression is a weapon, and when deployed correctly, it can save people from even bigger monsters. It’s a daring choice, and one that most writers would have avoided in the interests of offering a “solution” to depression. This book offers none of those. Simply acceptance, and constant re-framing. The depression is still there, and it will always be. We can explode the odd happiness bomb from time to time, but it’s the happiness that’s fleeting, and finally an illusion. Depression is real for many people, and those who suffer from it, in some cosmic way, carry the burden and create a safer world for those whose lives it doesn’t touch as often.
In the comic’s final moments, Guy contemplates suicide once again, and I hope it’s not a big spoiler to reveal that he makes a very heroic choice. Every day that someone with serious depression makes it to the next sunrise is a victory (there’s more re-framing). Though it has a big scope (there are scenes here of destruction akin to anything in a superhero book), it’s the simple and quiet actions of a sad, lonely and deeply sympathetic character at its center that give the comic its lasting power. It does what not enough comics do: it leaves you thinking.