Let’s Talk about Nadia Van Dyne
Unstoppable Wasp #4 came out this last week, and reading this issue breaks my heart.
The series is one of the only comics I keep up with anymore, written by one of my favorite writers, Jeremy Whitley (@Jrome58 on twitter), and drawn by one of my favorite artists, Gurihiru (@Gurihiru on twitter, technically a group of artists but whatever). It follows the life of the indomitably cheerful Nadia Van Dyne as she immigrates to America, meets Janet Van Dyne (ex-wife to Nadia’s father, Hank Pym), and (with the current run) follows Nadia’s life after she has obtained citizenship. It’s a comic book, so naturally she’s also a skilled assassin/scientist who’s one of the most intelligent people on earth and has size-changing powers, but the focus of the narrative is more about her life than the super-hero shenanigans.
And the latest issue documents Nadia experiencing a manic episode, revealing that she has inherited her father’s bipolar disorder.
There’s a lot to talk about here, but before we get to that I want to talk a little about Hank Pym, both as a character and his publication history as representation of someone with bipolar disorder. As a character, Hank Pym is famously written as a genius with a chip on his shoulder, constantly fighting and arguing with other genius characters to prove his own superiority. He’s responsible for the creation and personality of Ultron, and he beat his wife, Janet. Those are his two most famous ‘exploits’, and none of them are very good. In the 2000s, his character would self-diagnose as bipolar, and since then that has been used as an excuse/reason for his issues.
Let’s get one thing straight: Hank Pym is a garbage excuse for bipolar representation. It was written into his character as an excuse for his shortcomings years after the fact, and has been used for nothing but sympathy for the character since it’s inception. Even when they introduce the idea, it is handled in the most ham-fisted manner imaginable: Hank decides for himself that he has this illness, and rather than seeking help for his issue through medication or counseling, he just sadly mewls out something about brain management as the author and artist attempt to milk it as some sort of sob story. As someone who lives with bipolar disorder, Hank Pym insults me. He is everything wrong with mainstream representation of Bipolar disorder, where writers will attempt to use it as some excuse for a character being an asshole.
So now that we have a metric for a terrible representation of Bipolar disorder, let’s talk about Nadia, and Jeremy Whitley.
Nadia’s character was introduced by Mark Waid, but has really come into her own as a character through Jeremy Whitley. Whitley wrote her initial solo series, also called The Unstoppable Wasp, in which much of the groundwork for her character was set. She immigrates to America, she fights for citizenship, fights to save her longtime friend Ying, and founds the Agents of G.I.R.L, an all-girl research lab. At the climax of the story, she is sucker-punched with the knowledge that Hank Pym, the father she idolized, beat Janet, whom she has come to love as if she were her own mother. It’s a heart-wrenching moment as the character comes to grips with the reality of her father, as well as learning that she may have to deal with the same illness he had. It’s one of the few times the reader ever sees Nadia break down into tears.
Whitley’s work in this first run does more to humanize a character than any other comic I’ve ever read. In this run, Nadia is established with clear, reachable goals (claim citizenship, save friend, find smart women), she’s given a personal role model (Mockingbird/Bobbi Morse), she and Janet organically fall into their surrogate mother/daughter roles, she’s given a close-knit group of friends (a diverse and colorful group of friends at that), and most importantly, clear and apparent weaknesses. Nadia may be intelligent and powerful, but she can’t solve everything on her own, and every aspect of the comic reinforces this idea as a very clear theme. She can’t claim citizenship without Janet, she can’t save her friend Ying without the help of the intelligent women she’s come across throughout the story, and she couldn’t have found those women without help from Jarvis (the avenger’s butler, also strongly characterized in this series).
Throughout all of this, there have been subtle hints that Nadia is a little volatile. She’s shown starting numerous projects but not finishing them, she throws herself into her passions with reckless abandon, she makes impulsive decisions on a whim, in situations of stress she becomes overtly aggressive… on their own, these can all be seen as character quirks. After all, she never hurts anyone she knows, and its always aimed at villains, so she can’t be too out of control. But in this new run, we start to see things spiral out of control, culminating in the devastating issue #4.
If you haven’t read this issue, please go to your local comic shop, comixology.com, marvel.com, wherever you can get a copy of this, and read it right now, before going any further into this article. It’s $3.99, and will be the best four bucks you’ll spend this week. After this point are some spoilers, so you’ve been warned.
Now that you’ve had adequate warning, let’s get into the meat of things. Issue four happens just after an A.I.M. invasion of the lab, with everyone being taken to the hospital to recover. While everyone is getting into the hospital, Nadia is seen going off on her own; still towards the hospital, but ignoring her friends who need her support. After this, you don’t see Nadia for another four pages as the story focuses on Janet dealing with the aftermath of the attack. When we do catch up with Nadia, she’s already back at the labs talking to an audio log about how she’s going to solve everything. At first this doesn’t seem so bad, but quickly the reader sees that maybe something is amiss. When she says solve everything, she doesn’t just mean the attack or the invention she has yet to come up with, she also means everyone: including all of her friends and loved ones.
From here, the writing and artwork drive home just how bad things have gotten, as Nadia lies to the security personnel for security footage, talks about invading the privacy of her friends’ rooms, begins expanding on the list of things she needs to solve (shown handily on the chalkboard she uses for notes), tracks down clues about the attack, starts tearing apart a walkie-talkie, expands on her list even more in ways that are almost nonsensical, starts tracking a zeppelin, begins calling places looking for zeppelin sightings, examines more evidence of the attack, calls a specialist about Cerebral Palsy, goes back to the walkie-talkie, then goes over the security footage again, examines more evidence, begins building a theoretical team of avengers, looks into red room facilities… all the while, her face gets visibly paler, the bags under her eyes grow, and her hair becomes more disheveled with each panel. Even the color of her hair seems a little more muted and gray as the pages progress. Eventually the reader is shown that she hasn’t slept the entire night, convinced that if she just had more time she could solve it all.
Reading and viewing this series of events kills me, because I’ve lived through that before. People talk a lot about representation in today’s media, usually in the context of race, ethnicity, or religion. That’s a fantastic thing, and we’re slowly getting better about that form of representation. But very rarely do people talk about representation when it comes to mental illness. When people do talk about it, they are usually praising representations like Hank Pym or Next to Normal; things that neurotypical people believe are accurate representations because they make for a good story, or because that’s what they want to believe those mental illnesses are like. They want these illnesses to be something that either consumes a person’s entire life, or is somehow an excuse for a person being terrible to people, but Unstoppable Wasp doesn’t cater to those wishes. Instead of reinforcing harmful ideas of what Bipolar disorder looks like, the creative team behind this story took a step back and tried to make sure that they got it right.
When attempting to accurately portray bipolar disorder, the team worked with Dr. Matthew Conner, MD, a Psychologist in North Carolina, and Chris/Cooper Ceary, MS. Both Conner and Ceary are experts in the field of Psychology, and lent their expertise to the specifics of how bipolar disorder works and what the symptoms are. But knowing the clinical information isn’t enough to accurately portray a mental illness. When trying to create a faithful representation of something as fluid as a mental illness, writers need to work closely with people who live with that illness every day. And so, the creative team also worked with Jami Jones, Keith W. Cunningham, Shiri Sondheimer, and Christine Skelly; all people who live with this disease. Being honest about how something like mental illness effects you on a daily basis can be a daunting task, especially knowing that your names are going to be associated with that illness in a popular story. If any of you read this, thank you for sharing your stories and your lives to improve this narrative. You didn’t have to, but you did, and I honestly believe that the discourse around bipolar disorder is better for it.
I can’t pretend to know what Jeremy Whitley and his team have in store for Nadia and the cast of Unstoppable Wasp. The story has been left on a pretty tense note as of now, and the fifth issue doesn’t come out until February 20th. As it stands, I can’t call this a positive portrayal of bipolar disorder just yet, because we haven’t seen all of it; but this is a promising start.