With over sixty-seven thousand followers on Facebook, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that Chuck Mullin’s quirky pigeon comics are beloved by the masses. Chuck uses drawings of pigeons as projections of herself to depict what it’s like to live with mental illness. Her comics receive thousands of views, and people from different parts of the world express their familiarity with the experiences portrayed in Chuck’s work.
Taliha Quadri (TQ): Mental health and pigeons. You wouldn’t expect to see the two mentioned in the same sentence, and yet here we are. Can you tell me about your choice to express yourself through drawings of pigeons in particular?
Chuck Mullin (CM): Pigeons have always been my favourite animal because they’re so quirky and funny to watch, and I can also weirdly identify with them. Whatever your experience with mental illness is, you pretty much always have endured horrible thoughts about yourself that, logically, you know aren’t true, and I feel like there’s a connection between this and society’s view of pigeons. They get a bad reputation as dirty and disease-ridden, but there’s actually no scientific evidence that they spread illness any more than any other animal. They receive a lot of negativity that they don’t deserve. I can relate to that, and that’s why I decided to use them as an emblem to project my experience with mental health onto.
Whatever your experience with mental illness is, you pretty much always have endured horrible thoughts about yourself that, logically, you know aren’t true, and I feel like there’s a connection between this and society’s view of pigeons.
TQ: Where does the inspiration for each comic come from?
CM: Every comic comes from some thought or experience that I’ve had, or some comment about mental health that I overhear. The root of the inspiration itself is sometimes very minimal and fleeting, but I tend to dwell on things so I like to channel even the most marginal of my dwellings on my mental health into something creative.
TQ: You keep your comics simple and to the point, but you manage to convey a lot through them. How do you go about condensing your ideas into short sentences or phrases for your comics?
CM: This might sound weird, but once I have an idea in my head, I just sort of fixate on it until I can compact it into an easily readable comic format. I spend a lot of nights taking hours to get to sleep because of this. In a way, I guess it’s another coping mechanism – trying to condense what I’m feeling into something easily understandable. It helps the healing process!
TQ: A lot of artists and authors find their creative work to be a means of catharsis, do you relate to this? Has your creative work had an impact on your mental health?
CM: Absolutely! I’ve found that drawing and my mental health both have positive influences on each other. Making comics is a great way for me to express myself that I can’t quite manage in real life, to help filter out any negativity I’m feeling. At the same time, as my mental health improves, I feel my comics do as well. Medication helps me become more stable and more able to rationally comprehend whatever feelings I’m having, which helps in the actual creative process as well.
Making comics is a great way for me to express myself that I can’t quite manage in real life, to help filter out any negativity I’m feeling.
TQ: What do you think of the way in which mental health is portrayed in Western media today?
CM: I’ve definitely seen a lot of improvement in recent years, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Despite the increasing prominence of things like trigger warnings, to show consideration for those with trauma, there is still a concerning amount of glorification and trivialisation in the presentation of mental illness in television and film, in which it’s used as a plot point to increase drama or shock value. In news reports of crimes such as school shootings, mental illness is often used as a scapegoat to justify or excuse the actions of the criminal. I think all of this creates a very disorienting perception of mental health – it’s simultaneously considered edgy and cool, yet also dangerous and incomprehensible. I think there’s a pervasive inability for people to comprehend that mentally ill people are fully-rounded, complex people, and that mental illness isn’t a blanket experience for everyone but differs drastically across those who live it.
However, on a positive note, there are several pieces of media that do a fantastic job of portraying mental illness. Bojack Horseman and Jessica Jones, in particular, are some of the most amazing representatives of what it’s like to live with trauma. Social media has also been fantastic in terms of providing me with a support network and a sense of unity alongside others with mental illness. All in all, it’s a very mixed bag – there’s definitely room for improvement in Western media’s depiction of mental illness, but I have noticed it progressing for the better!
I think there’s a pervasive inability for people to comprehend that mentally ill people are fully-rounded, complex people, and that mental illness isn’t a blanket experience for everyone but differs drastically across those who live it.
TQ: Whether it’s due to misinformation, close-mindedness, or fear of approaching a taboo subject, a lot of people tend to stay quiet about their experience of mental illness, some don’t even seek help. What is it like for you to share your experience of living with anxiety and depression with the world?
CM: It’s terrifying to expose yourself like that on social media, but it’s been an amazing way for me to vocalise what I’m feeling in a healthy, productive way. Part of my experience with anxiety and depression is that I physically struggle to express myself in real life – it’s like something is blocking me from speaking the words out loud. Making these comics allows me to channel my experience into something that I hope people can understand, that’ll make me feel less alone in what I’m going through.
TQ: What do you hope to achieve through your comics?
CM: I don’t really have a grand, overarching goal, but in general I hope to create a more nuanced understanding of mental illness, and to help people know that no matter how bad things may seem for them, they’re never really alone. If I can help create a more sympathetic view on pigeons in the process as well, then even better!
TQ: Your comics attempt to refute a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding the use of medication for mental illness. How have people responded to this?
CM: I think the response has been great! Of course, you’ll always get a few insipid comments from people who think that yoga and two litres of water is all you need to cure your mental health, but I just ignore those. I hope that, in general, my comics help to create more acceptance and understanding towards antidepressants.
I hope that, in general, my comics help to create more acceptance and understanding towards antidepressants.
TQ: Does the work behind creating more acceptance and understanding towards mental illness and antidepressants ever become a chore?
CM: Not at all! I don’t feel pressured to create my comics and ensure they all have a deep, meaningful impact. Sometimes I struggle to find a positive message in an idea, but overall I don’t really stress about it. Drawing whatever I’m feeling just feels natural!
TQ: You’re currently acquiring funding for Bird Brain through pledges on Unbound. What can you tell us about this comic? How does it differ from the comics you have shared across Tumblr and Facebook?
CM: Bird Brain will be a collection of several comics I’ve posted over the last year or so (many of which will be completely redrawn as my art style has improved since I first made them), alongside several exclusives to the book and my own writing in regards to living with mental health. There’ll be the odd bits of text about what inspired a certain comic, what my certain thoughts are on its subject, and so on. It’ll be a much more in-depth glimpse into my dumb old brain.
TQ: Are you more inclined to call yourself an artist or a writer?
CM: I would say artist, because I try and portray more through the pigeon’s expressions and actions in a comic than in the words. Makes my degree in English Literature feel a bit wasteful. I think staying up until 4 AM writing essays on postmodernism turned me off of becoming more invested in writing.
TQ: You’ve chosen negativity, relationships, and positivity as the three themes through which Bird Brain will be dealing with anxiety. What made you pick these themes in particular?
CM: I wanted to choose themes to create a more cohesive reading experience, and I chose those three in particular because I feel like they’re the most prevalent aspects of dealing with anxiety and depression. You have your ups and your downs which are both incredibly complex in their own different ways, but I feel like there’s a lack of discussion about just how severely mental health impacts your relationship with others. It affects how you communicate with people, and how you handle your platonic and romantic relationships, and I wanted to delve a bit more into that.
I feel like there’s a lack of discussion about just how severely mental health impacts your relationship with others.
TQ: Have your comics helped the people close to you understand you better?
CM: I think so, yes. It’s shown a side of me to my family that they had no idea existed, and they’ve all been incredibly supportive. I think the comics force me to communicate better with my loved ones in real life. My first instinct if I’m feeling down is to draw, not talk, about it – sometimes if my comics are fairly negative, someone will mention it to me and it’ll remind me that it’s okay to discuss how I’m feeling with them!
TQ: You recently attended Comic Con in London as a dealer for the first time. What was this experience like for you?
CM: It was amazing! It was so great to meet a lot of people who follow my stuff online, alongside people I’ve been mutually following over social media, to make plenty of new friends and discover so many amazing artists! The whole atmosphere was so positive and encouraging towards creativity. I’m definitely going to go again in October.
TQ: You started off doodling to vent and then sharing the photos on Tumblr. Now you’re producing successful comics adored by thousands, and you’re anticipating the publication of Bird Brain. How do you feel about your progress?
CM: Oh shucks! It’s all very strange, but wonderful at the same time. I don’t feel like it’s real a lot of the time – it’s so bizarre to look at figures for how many people see each comic. But I’m incredibly thankful and humbled by everyone who finds something special and relatable in what I make, who have sent such lovely messages of support. It means more to me more than I know how to say!
TQ: Where do you go from here? Do you plan on starting any other projects?
CM: I have absolutely no idea! I have no other projects in mind at the moment. I just try and take everything one day at a time, to be honest, both in terms of mental health and creating content. Who knows what’s next?