As the graphic-novels editor at Booklist, I’m already a little biased about the format’s ability to communicate complicated subject matter in a compelling, tidy way. Sometimes artwork just does it better than words, and that’s especially true of Iasmin Omar Ata’s Mis(h)adra, a semi-autobiographical comic about Arab American Isaac, who suffers from epilepsy. I bet you’re curious about that title—it’s “formed from the Arabic words for ‘seizure’ and ‘cannot,’” which captures not only the trauma of Isaac’s seizures but the daily struggle to function with epilepsy.
Isaac is in college and trying very hard to keep up with his classes, but stress, fatigue, and anxiety are all triggers for his seizures. If there’s anything that characterizes college, it’s stress, fatigue, and anxiety—none of which are helped by Isaac’s use of alcohol and drugs—and the threat of a seizure constantly looms in an aura, depicted in glowing green daggers that hover around him at the least convenient moments.
The pressures of school and managing his epilepsy aside, Isaac has a really hard time letting people in or communicating what he really needs. He’s reluctant to seem like a burden or a weirdo, so he tries to hide it as much as he can. Even when Jo, a friend of his roommate’s, makes a concerted effort to be kind and understanding, Isaac manages to push her away. A flurry of terrible doctors who don’t listen to him only make matters worse, suggesting that he’s merely suffering from panic attacks instead of severe, frequent seizures.
Gradually, the daggers become more and more insistent and menacing, and when Isaac does fall into a seizure they chop and slice at his limbs and face, gouging out an eye. Ata’s visualization of the seizures is fascinating. In jarring combinations of bright colors that seem to pulse against each other, the lines and figures shatter into messy, jostling compositions before settling into pages of blackness. When Isaac begins experiencing a new kind of seizure, which leaves him in an almost catatonic stupor, he exists in a world of black and red with only brief windows into the soft yellow-and-purple, manga-style real world, a place he can only reach by tentatively reaching through those gaps.
Thankfully, Isaac’s spiraling depression and isolation eventually comes to an end, and with the solidarity of good friends and the careful attention of capable neurologist, he begins to get back on his feet. Those hopeful closing moments are a real relief after his dreadful experiences, and they provide a heartening message for readers who might suffer from chronic illnesses or disorders. But it’s Ata’s arresting images of seizures, full of juddering motion, angry color, and disorienting perspective, that linger. Ata recently posted the final chapter of Mis(h)adra, so the story is currently available in its entirety.