Those who suffer from mental illness might feel haunted, but what if you actually were? This is the premise of Oni Press' newest graphic novel Archival Quality. Written by Ivy Noelle Weir and drawn by Steenz, the graphic novel tells the story of Celeste Walden, a young woman who is trying to get back on her feet after a breakdown causes her to lose her job at the library. After becoming an archivist at the Logan Museum, Celeste finds herself having mysterious encounters with a ghost girl whose personal history is eerily similar to her own.
One of the best things about this book is the heartwarming cast of characters. Starting with Celeste, we have a relatable main lead that will speak to those suffering from mental illness or anyone struggling to get their life together. Then there's Abayomi "Abe" Abiola and Holly Park, who also work at the Logan Museum. As the chief curator, Abe initially comes across as stoic and rude, but his character softens as the story develops. Meanwhile, Holly Park is the cheerful and friendly head librarian who serves as Cel's boss and confidant alongside her girlfriend Gwen.
Although the ghost is a secondary character, she is just as compelling as the others. Not only does the ghost serve as commentary about mental health treatments in the past, but she also serves as a metaphor for how Cel is haunted by her own mental health struggles. As more details about the ghost and the reason for her existence are revealed, the lines between Cel's reality and the ghost's personal history blur. Not only does this make the reader consider how to treat those with mental illness better, but it also urges them to take care of their own mental health.
While the ghosts reflects the attitudes towards mental health in the past, the other characters represent how people think about mental health in the present. Celeste, the main lead, often calls herself "crazy" and is scared of being put away because of her mental illness. As a result, she pushes her boyfriend and co-workers away and keeps telling herself that she doesn't need help even though it is clear she does. Celeste's character demonstrates how the mentally ill are affected when mental illness is stigmatized by others.
Meanwhile, Cel's boyfriend Kyle and the head curator Abe are people who unintentionally perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental illness by making quick judgments and not attempting to understand the needs of the mentally ill. Kyle is a nice boyfriend who assumes that all Celeste needs is to know how great she is, how her mental health affects her, and that she is cared for. It's only when Cel's mental health worsens later on that he suggests she gets help.
Meanwhile, Abe denies her experiences with the ghost for a while and outright states that maybe her mental health struggles make her unfit to work at the archive. By denying Celeste's experiences and making assumptions about her ability to work, this only agitates Celeste and makes her feel isolated from her co-workers. Kyle's statements do the exact same thing despite their good intentions, causing his relationship with Celeste to be strained.
If Kyle and Abe show how people stigmatize those with mental illness, then Holly shows what happens when people try to understand them. Holly never puts Celeste down for her mental illness or her experience with the ghost and is willing to lend an ear whenever she needs someone to talk to. One of the most memorable conversations occurs when Celeste says she wishes she knew how to be happy and Holly simply replies that there is no magic solution to doing so. She says the best way to start is by caring for yourself.
Despite the heavy topic of mental health, the book manages to be a welcoming read for all ages due to Steenz's cartoonish artwork. Warm colors are accented with a splash of bright colors to make the characters and background visually appealing without being jarring on the eyes. Steenz also does an excellent job at using duller colors to represent the bleakness of the ghost's personal history and brighter colors for warm and vulnerable moments with Celeste.
All in all, Archival Quality shows how you can help yourself by learning to help and reach out to others. The grounded characters, the sensitive portrayal of mental illness, and the upbeat artwork make this an emotionally affecting graphic novel. If you love ghostly mysteries or need a mental health pick-me-up, then you should definitely read this book!
Archival Quality is on shelves now! You can purchase a copy of your own here!