In 2008, Toronto-based artist Sarafin was a patient at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street West in Toronto. While her treatment continued, she resurrected a comics idea about superheroes living with mental illness and began working on new strips. Upon her discharge about a year later, she’d produced 44 comics, the bulk of which are collected in her first graphic novel, Asylum Squad Side Story: The Psychosis Diaries. (The follow-up to this collection, Asylum Squad: Monster Hospital, was released this July.)
Asylum Squad features four lead characters: Sarah Loveheart, Cath Schneider, Henry Chan and Liz Madder. All the characters are dealing with some colourful situations — Sarah is so obsessed with an old crush that she’s transferred his presence into a cactus; Henry is a cross-dressing man who believes he’s the Jewish messiah and converses regularly with an Egyptian god; Cath is a burlesque dancer and BDSM switch who gets advice from alien beings; and Liz is a college dropout who gets haunted by a horse demon named Armananstantanu whenever she goes off her medication. Asylum Squad follows a series of events in each character’s life leading up to their admittance to St. Dymphna’s, a psychiatric hospital. Each strip is devoted to a different character and the stories are ordered in sequence. (There are also pages devoted to Sarfin’s stay at CAMH, and these are definitely worth a read too – the stories are enlightening, fascinating and enervating.)
As you may have gathered, Asylum Squad is…intense. Sarafin has an evocative style — her drawings are expertly inked and do a great job of bringing the reader into this bizarre landscape, whether she’s depicting the dark bleakness of a prison cell or a hallucinogenic scene where Sarah engages in a physical and metaphorical struggle with Armananstantanu.
Each character’s story begins as an almost humourous series of quirks, but quickly takes a dark turn, with each member of the Squad fighting to keep their respective demons from taking over. It’s heavy stuff, and it needs to be — Sarafin is taking us into a world that most of us rarely see, and it’s important for the reader to be reminded that these realities can and do exist for many people who live with psychosis.
The strips are occasionally overwhelming — text gobbles the page, and the onslaught of exchanges, whether real or imagined, can be difficult to follow. But I get the sense that they’re meant to be this way, and may sometimes be reflective of the author’s own mindset while she was at CAMH.
With this book, Sarafin has made a powerful contribution to the Mad Pride movement, sharing a world that is heady, occasionally nightmarish, but also strangely beautiful and above all, human.
Asylum Squad Side Story: The Psychosis Diaries, Sarafin, self-published, asylumsquad.com