Books·How I Wrote It

How Elaine M. Will's own mental health journey inspired her new graphic novel

The comic book artist and author tells CBC Books how she wrote Look Straight Ahead.
Elaine M. Will is an illustrator and writer. (Renegade Arts Entertainment/Heather Fritz)

Elaine M. Will is a graphic novel artist and author based in Sasktoon. Her graphic novel Look Straight Ahead is about Jeremy Knowles, a 17-year-old student who dreams of being a great artist and suffers a mental breakdown brought on by bullying and other pressures at his school. 

In her own words, Will explains how she developed Look Straight Ahead.

A personal perspective

"The book is semi-autobiographical. I had a mental breakdown in 2002 while in my last year of high school, so I had a lot of personal experience to draw from. It originally began as a novel and it was more of a science fiction story. I got about 40 pages into that version before I realized that it wasn't working.

"I wanted something a bit more grounded in reality, but blurred the line between fantasy and reality. I always loved comics and have been self-publishing comics for a while now. There are quite a few things about the story that I could only convey in images — the ways my mental breakdown felt for me." 

A difficult, yet important story to tell

"My actual writing process is a bit chaotic. I wrote with images as much as I did with words. I started with a basic outline, wrote a chapter, then illustrated it. Then I would start the next chapter with the same process. Writing doesn't come as easily to me as drawing. I take a lot of inspiration from indie graphic novels.

"I made the lead a male protagonist as I wanted to distance myself a bit from the story. Even doing that, it was still hard creating this story. There were a couple of times I had to step away and take a break. But it was an important story, so I had to see it through to the end."

Pages from the Elaine M. Will graphic novel, Look Straight Ahead (Courtesy of Elaine M. Will/Renegade Arts Entertainment)

Drawing inspiration

"My drafting table is in the middle of my living room. It probably shouldn't be, but I live in a small place at the moment! I mostly draw on paper and then I scan it into the computer. Then I do the lettering and the colouring or toning. The entire book took about four years to create. 

"Although I was I was thinking about it for a long time before I started to write it, so maybe it was more like 10 years. I originally posted it as a web comic in 2013 before now becoming a published book. I got a lot of great feedback from readers who were also struggling with their mental health issues and that the book was so helpful for them." 

Elaine M. Will's comments have been edited and condensed.