Trigger Warning: This piece delves pretty deeply into both suicide and the after-effects that has on both the psyche of the people who survive suicide, and the people who lose loved ones to suicide.
A month ago, I wrote a piece about Unstoppable Wasp #4 (https://medium.com/@matthewscottkirkham/lets-talk-about-nadia-van-dyne-3c74c835df52), discussing the importance of accurate representation of mental illness in media. Well, as of this week, Unstoppable Wasp #5 has released, so let’s talk about this just a little bit more.
This issue deals with Nadia’s inevitable depressive episode. For the most part this is exactly what you would expect from a depressive episode: a stressed Nadia sits alone in her own little world, thinking about how awful her introduction to the world is. Its a pretty literal iteration of the concept, which is kind of amusing in it’s own way, but that’s not the focus here. This is Nadia in what is to many of us the all too familiar miasma of her depression. Self-destructive and negative thoughts, an inability to exert any real effort, a vacant expression and a desire to get away from everyone… I think everyone, and not just people with a disorder, can understand this feeling to some extent. But then there’s a panel in which Nadia stares at the viewer, her eyes cold and distant…
This moment triggered me pretty intensely, because I’ve felt the feeling that this panel is evoking. This is the face of someone who is embracing death and is prepared to die to escape their situation. This is the face of suicide. I see this expression on my own face in my nightmares, because I remember the day that I held this expression. I still think about that day, looking down at my wrists, occasionally tracing the place I intended to self-harm (now covered with a tattoo), and mentally brush up against that feeling again and again… I don’t think I’ll ever truly be rid of it. After that panel, Nadia starts to take a step off of the impossibly tall precipice she’s standing on, and is thankfully stopped by her close friend Priya, and I find myself wondering if there is any way to bring that feeling across in these comics without it coming off wrong.
Will Nadia ever look down from somewhere high up and catch herself subconsciously taking that step again, the same way I can never hold a knife without the nearly imperceptible motion towards my wrist? Will she ever look down at her feet and get momentarily lost in the memory of when she actively tried to take that plunge, the way I lose myself while I’m looking at my wrist and lightly stroking my veins? Surviving/Preventing suicide never stops at the prevention, it haunts a person for the rest of their life, but how do you write that in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re trying to be edgy?
Speaking of Suicide Prevention, let’s talk about the real hero of this issue, Priya Aggarwal. Priya is a character that was introduced in Whitley’s initial run as this sort of sassy, fashion loving young woman who had published an impressive paper on botany (under a pseudonym so that her family didn’t learn about it). She is also the only character to force her way in to Nadia’s little world and bring her back from the LITERAL brink.
When she was first introduced, Priya made mention of a brother who had been intelligent but that it hadn’t helped him, but this topic was never really touched on again. Then, while Priya was in the hospital in the recent issue #4, her mother mentioned that she couldn’t stand losing another child. In issue #5, we get the full extent of what happened: Priya’s brother was studying to be a neurosurgeon, and the pressure was causing him severe depression. No one caught on to it until he finally committed suicide. Priya didn’t know her brother was in pain until she was shown his suicide note. This moment alone is such a powerful scene in the comic, as Priya desperately tries to convey to Nadia just how much damage killing herself will do to everyone around her because she has already lived through such a tragedy before.
This set up was such a long time coming that I had forgotten all of the set up and had to go back to make sure it wasn’t pulled out of nowhere. Hell, part of this set up was done before the original run was cancelled! Let’s just take a moment to realize how much thought and attention this shows was given to a side character. This sort of attention is what makes Jeremy Whitley’s work so compelling: Every character is their own fully realized individual with their own complicated and established lives.
And this set up is what makes issue #5 so powerful. Every other character tried to help Nadia and hit a brick wall, but because Priya had lived through this before she fought on after everyone else had stopped (for admittedly valid reasons). In an interview with the New York Times, Whitley stated “ It was important to me to have this character who is not a superhero, who does not have any sort of exceptional powers, to save the day because she has the life experience to help Nadia,” and that is so important to make clear. You don’t have to be a super hero to save a life, you don’t have to have powers or be special, you just have to apply your life experiences, and you can save the day.
This issue ends with a one of the most heartwarming lines ever written, and something that I feel exemplifies the philosophy behind Unstoppable Wasp. When Nadia is asked if she is ok, she says, “No, I’m not. I think I’m bipolar, and I don’t think I can handle it alone.” She collapses into her adopted mother-figure’s arms, weeping as she pleads for help with her condition, as she’s embraced by her ‘mother’, her role model, and her best friend.
“You don’t have to. We’ve got you.”
I’m going to include the number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline here, as well as a personal plea that I’ve posted elsewhere before:
If you’re ever suffering, please contact someone; A friend, a family member, someone close to you, a professional, hell, even me if it comes to that. All of us are people who want you to be healthy and to live. Suicide is never the answer, and reaching that point is a haunting experience.
The number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1–800–273–8255
Additionally, here is the link to the New York Times article referenced earlier https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/20/arts/design/the-wasp-marvel-issue-5.html