Treating anxiety and depression in post-secondary school with medication doesn’t result in superhuman abilities. But freshman college student Hannah Goldenberg in the new graphic novel from Aftershock Comics’ young adult imprint Seismic Press Side Effects would tell you otherwise.
Coming to terms with her anxiety and depression brought on by stressors like being away from home, schoolwork, and socializing, Hannah goes to the school’s therapist where she’s prescribed medication with unexpected outcomes. Written by Ted Anderson, illustrated and colored by Tara O’Connor, and lettered by Dave Sharpe, Side Effects is a gem in the landscape of young adult graphic novels.
Side Effects’ story and art are overall lighthearted with an air of a cozy Saturday morning cartoon. Anderson finds comedy in awkward social interactions and stereotypical notions around mental health. O’Connor’s style emanates the cute comfort of Faith Erin Hicks with animated expressions and vibrant colors. However, the book isn’t afraid to go deeper.
The “superpower” dimension isn’t simply thrown into the story for extra pizzazz, but is used to highlight the complexities and emotions commonly felt from the side effects of medication. It explores the ordinary through the extraordinary, something that one of my favorite video game franchises Life is Strange has perfected and that this book echoes. It’s easy to harp on the tendency for modern media to rely on superpowers and superheroes to tell stories, but when used to create compelling and purposeful narratives like in Life is Strange and Side Effects that criticism holds no weight.
There’s also a bit of poking at the notion that having superpowers automatically fixes your problems in Side Effects. But like medication, superpowers can be used to aid in solving your problems but they don’t automatically fix them. The representations of different side effects of Hannah’s powers are also accurate, showing how they’re a detriment but how they can also lead to superpower-like feelings and results.
While O’Connor’s art fosters comfort, it also can portray the more complex and unpleasant emotions with ease. Panels where Hannah is using her otherworldly powers carry both fun and fear through the colors and inks. This is aided by how Sharpe highlights emotion in certain words by making them look like they’re jumping out from the speech bubbles, cartoony yet potent with emotion.
Side Effects also brings new life to the genre. It’s refreshing to see a therapist not antagonized, as they tend to be even in stories about mental health. It’s also refreshing to see mental health struggles portrayed through young adults in post-secondary school. In the general media landscape, there tends to be a focus on teen trauma which forgets that post-secondary life has just as many issues. That being said, Side Effects’ themes and messages speak universally to mental health struggles across all ages.
However, the painless accessibility of getting a good post-secondary therapist is a bit unrealistic. My school’s counseling services had such a bad reputation that I avoided them entirely; I’m sure many others are the same. It was nice that this reality was addressed in Side Effects’ afterword from a licensed professional. Even though much of the story so casually depicts marginalized identities and topics with care, knowing that there was a sensitivity reader for the therapist makes the intention all the more legitimate.
Side Effects is the kind of young adult book that I would have devoured in my adolescence, and that I still find particularly relevant. But the nuanced depiction of medication’s side effects along with universal coming-of-age conflicts makes it the perfect book for everyone to find comfort and realization in. Carefully using modern fervor for the fantasy of superheroes to tell a story as equally modern along with thoughtful art makes Side Effects not a cure-all, but something to help in the meantime.
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