Zines and the magic of stick figures: a guest blog by Tom Roberts

On 11th November 2021, Rachel Rowan-Olive, one of our MadZine collaborators, facilitated an online workshop for us. We invited one participant, Tom Roberts, to blog about it for us.


This is a brief reflection on, and celebration of, the wonderful workshop facilitated by Rachel Rowan-Olive, exploring her zine work and the magic of the stick figure. The workshop offered an opportunity to explore the use of stick figures as a form of self-representation, and more broadly the way simple line art, zines and comics can communicate identity and experience.


The best way to do this was to get stuck in with making pictures, and Rachel’s warm encouragement to wield our pens led to some interesting insights into the potential of drawing, and the revelations that can tumble forth from the act of making marks on paper. With its emphasis on simplicity, and the fostering of a friendly, co-operative atmosphere, the session was an excellent example of what can happen when people are given licence to let loose with art.


Rachel is an artist, writer, researcher and teacher whose work takes a critical perspective on ‘mental health’ and politics, often drawn from her own lived experience. The session began with a discussion of some of Rachel’s zines and art. These include darkly humorous investigations of living with distress, and a satirical dismantling of the absurdities of the mental health system. Among my favourites is the tongue-in-cheek ‘ABC’ of Madness, a good example of how the zine medium, and Rachel’s stick figures in particular, can reveal truths about the experience of distress and the things that are meant to help, but often don’t.


For instance, B is for Boredom:


Rachel captures experiences of repetition, dullness and ennui, succinctly and with powerful wit, all on a single page. Perhaps, writers of other forms of literature, deem this aspect of distress just too…boring to explore, especially when the media has a panoply of more lurid staples available for portraying madness. Yet Rachel demonstrates the potential for something like a cartoon to present repetition, the grinding unfolding of time, in a way that is immediate, clear, and funny.


The first exercise asked us to choose a feature of ourselves, or an object, that in some way represents us, or an animal or other character that captures an aspect of who we are, or who we want to be. Permission to use tick figures encouraged us to take the plunge into doing this, providing a springboard to explore the potential of drawing for sense-making and storytelling.


Meerkat (Jill); heron (Sonia); unicorn (Tamasin)


The simplicity of this unembellished approach, and how it seems to allow for the essence of a thing to be represented, proved to be inspirational, and for me at least, somewhat addictive. Having a beard, I found it easy to locate a facial feature to mess around with. Here’s the kind of fun I was having with this idea after a few goes:




A great strength of the session was the way Rachel adapted the format as we went along, encouraging an unfettered atmosphere of creativity. We all wandered off in different directions, with what I felt was a sense of delight in what we were doing – as if we were being enabled to step over some kind of boundary.


There is really something magical that happens in this process. As comics artist Lynda Barry (2008) asks, at what point in life does it become unacceptable to express oneself through drawing? How does the act of mark making become so circumscribed in adulthood, with our drawings relegated to doodles in the margins?


Encouragement to draw again not only brings the opportunity to make salient points about mental health services, but a chance to revisit a way of making meaning through praxis; one that is not made abstract by theory, but real and inky and on the page. To revert to abstract theory for a moment (please indulge me!), there is something about using art as an approach to knowing that chimes with Rosi Braidotti’s framework for a ‘critical posthumanities’, where the mind and the body are no longer separated by an unhelpful binary, but located on a continuum.


Braidotti describes this as “the embrainment of the body and embodiment of the mind” (2019:31). Perhaps this can be reconfigured as the embrainment of the hand, and the emhandment of the brain. Although, of course, there are many ways of making art. Indeed, the open nature of the session meant that people swiftly took their own directions in adding colour, using figurative art, or switching from sticks to blobs.






There are exciting possibilities here for the use of drawing, zines and comics formats as a mode of inquiry. There is the potential for presenting complex ideas in a simple and accessible way, and the form of expression is embedded in the way these ideas begin to manifest, as the pencil makes it way along the surface of the page. Perhaps most excitingly for me, as a researcher with lived experience working on participatory approaches to distress, is the way such a technology places power squarely in the clasp of the person making the art.


For me, there was a strong feeling of community being fostered during this session, of our being there to draw for the sake of each other. The sharing of our art in real time, a challenge presented by the nature of an online session, was managed well by using a messaging service on our phones. This added to the feeling of mutual discovery, and I would like to thank the other participants for making the session feel so friendly and welcoming. Some of us had little experience of drawing, and perhaps a great deal of trepidation about our skills, but there may be some sense in which this produces work of greater honesty, and I feel that it is the act of doing that is key. Whether our art was suitable for the gallery or not was far from the point.


Any yardstick of artistic success may be seen as another way of creating failure through tools of assessment that aren’t fit for purpose, something that some people who have used mental health services may recognise. In this context, the magic of stick figures offers an emancipatory critique of these systems, and a way to step beyond the restrictions, not only of discourses of distress, but of art as well. Rachel’s workshop was great encouragement, for me at least, to keep scribbling away, simply to enjoy finding out what happens.


Barry, L. (2008) What it is. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly

Braidotti, R. (2019) ‘A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities’, Theory, Culture & Society, 36:6, 31-61

Tom Roberts is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Brighton. His work focuses on co-production in mental health services, and service user and psychiatric system survivor perspectives. He is currently exploring the use of collaborative comics-making as a participatory research method. His studies are funded by the ESRC as part of the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership.

Read about our earlier MadZine workshop, with Dolly Sen


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