When you create a biography of a real-life individual, does that make it impenetrable to criticism? This is not a tale of fiction after all, this is a tale that actually happened with characters who actually existed. If so, this very review of SelfMadeHero’s Hysteria may be somewhat redundant, but if not, where does one locate criticism? Arguably, the best method is to examine the execution of thse real-world events and characters, how they are presented in their respective medium, in this case a graphic novel.
We’ve previously covered another of SelfMadeHero’s biographies, Gonzo, an account of journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Where that graphic novel did a fine job in exuding the dark, dank world Thompson immersed himself in, Hysteria, a biography of Sigmund Freud‘s early career, pulls a similar trick, but arguably, it’s less effective. The murky artwork, the prolonged accounts of Freud’s cases, and the medical jargon that fills just about every speech bubble may make for tiresome reading, but Hysteria still has its moments of elegance.
As mentioned, Hysteria follows the life and times of Sigmund Freud and his early experiments in the field of neurology. Spanning a ten-year period between 1882 and 1892, the highs and lows of Freud’s career are illuminated in a sketchy, chalk-like appearance that lends an authentic atmosphere to the novel, yet it’s murkiness renders its own appearance difficult to digest at times. Nevertheless, there’s a definite chemistry between Oscar Zarate artwork and Richard Appignanesi‘s script certainly helped by Hysteria being their fourth book together, and their second Freud book for SelfMadeHero’s second after The Wolf Man. Both flow in and out of each other with a soft ease.
Hysteria‘s story itself has no fear in showing the struggles Freud encountered in this period of his life, both professional and personal. Piecing together a stronger understanding of the mind through case after case that would become a commonplace in the world of psychology whilst balancing a difficult romance drive the novel in a scattershot manner. We jump from case to case, year after year, intently following Freud from afar as he immerses himself in the world of hysteria-affected women. The unfortunate problem with Hysteria however is a near-total lack of emotive connection that runs throughout the book.
Freud’s seemingly miserable personal life, his self-destructive patients, the constant psychological lingo that feels like led after reading it for too long, and the rough, black-and-white artwork make Hysteria a tough book to love on an aesthetic level. As an historical account of a ground-breaking period of medical knowledge, it’s somewhat indispensable, and bears a striking, idiosyncratic appearance. It’s bleak atmosphere however can’t be ignored, and ultimately results in a bitter after-taste once you reach the last page.
Hysteria is an engaging portrait of a remarkable man developing his craft, and a well-executed account of history. But as a form of entertainment, it doesn’t deliver. But as I’ve mentioned, are my criticisms redundant? This is, after all, a slice of real life, away from SelfMadeHero’s tales of doomed romance, the lengths we go to to achieve our dreams, Monty Python-esque horror stories and head-spinning science fiction. Does real life warrant the need for an entertainment factor to keep the audience hooked? It would be crass to think so, but Hysteria is perhaps an argument for the reverse.