Reading Unstoppable Wasp #5 was like a punch directly to the heart.
Here there be spoilers. ALSO here be a huge trigger warning for abuse, mental health trauma, and specifically suicidality and suicide.
Writer: Jeremy Whitley
To briefly recap: Issue #4 shows Nadia falling into a manic episode, locking herself away in her miniaturized crystal lab for an extended time (for her, for us, it’s about an hour), and at the end of the issue, throwing Shay into a blackboard, followed by a full page splash of her friend and Red Room co-captive Ying standing over Nadia, suggesting that Nadia “fight someone at her own level.”
So, a nice, cheery issue.
When I first read issue #4, I was flat out afraid that Whitley wouldn’t be able to pay off the set-up. Mental health in comics is generally written about somewhere between poorly and horribly (I’m looking at you, Heroes In Crisis, a comic I consider actually dangerous in its portrayal of mental health).
In the aftermath of issue #4, everyone is furious with Nadia. A flat-out brawl breaks out, with Nadia using the full powers of her Wasp suit to fight the rest of her team. And not just Ying, who can arguably hold her own, but the unpowered members as well (and, to be clear, beating on someone who can “take it” isn’t better or safer). Nadia says things like “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody” and “I’m not the bad guy here.” As she disappears back into her lab, she says, in words that fade and shrink, “I’m sorry.”
Everyone in the G.I.R.L. lab is *done.* They all leave, furious and hurt—except Priya, who managed (with Ying’s help) to remain untouched.
First thing I love about this issue: it is not made inappropriate for the other girls to leave. They understand that this is a mental health issue, they understand that Nadia is literally not in her right mind, but also that they are not equipped to help. Their choice to leave is valid, and nothing that comes after is their fault—period. Priya’s choice to stay is also valid. Someone does need to stay and watch the lab until Janet can get there, but Priya also has a more personal reason to stay. It’s clear that at least Shay and Ying will be back later; Shay urges Priya to text them if there’s something specific she can do. Otherwise, she’s taking care of her girlfriend (sidenote: GIRLFRIEND. EEE.).
Priya takes one of Janet’s old Wasp suits to follow Nadia into the crystal lab. This is where Whitley’s device of having time pass more quickly in the lab really serves him; by the time Priya arrives, days have passed. When someone has bipolar disorder, manic episodes generally last at least a week and can last for 3 to 6 months.
It’s not clear how much time has passed by the time Priya reaches Nadia, but Nadia has clearly slid into a serious depressive state. She’s sitting on a very high, very narrow ledge, staring out at the world around her crystal lab. Nadia tells Priya that she is now the villain in her story. The words “suicide” or “suicidality” never appear, but Nadia stands up on the ledge. She edges closer. She leans out, just a little. She says she wants to stop ruining other people’s lives.
And then I saw one of the most lovely call-backs (intentional or not) I’ve ever seen. In the original run of Unstoppable Wasp, there’s a moment when Janet grabs Nadia’s arm when Nadia is in the midst of a PTSD flashback. Nadia hits her. In this moment, Priya grabs Nadia’s arm, saying “Don’t you dare run away.” Instead of acting out of fear or rage, Nadia turns back to Priya. Priya places her foot over Nadia’s, giving her another point of contact and stability, an anchor from the idea that the world will be better without Nadia in it. Slowly, carefully, she pulls Nadia back from the edge—emotionally and physically.
The second thing I love about this story is that Nadia is not “fixed” by this. She and Priya emerge from the lab just as Bobbi and Janet arrive. Janet asks Nadia if she’s okay, and Nadia stumbles, but says that she’s not. That she can’t manage this alone. And as the four sink into a cuddle embrace of epic proportions, Janet says that she doesn’t have to.
There’s a great story that my boyfriend told me once, originally from The West Wing, I think. See, this guy falls down a hole, and he can’t get out. He sees his priest walk by and shouts, “Father, I’ve fallen down a hole, can you help?” The priest says a prayer and continues on. A minute later, he sees a police officer and shouts, “Officer, I’m stuck in this hole, can you help?” The police offer sees him and writes a ticket out, because people aren’t allowed to be in holes. He tosses that down and walks on. Then the man sees his friend Joe walking by, and he shouts, “Joe, I’m down in this hole and I can’t get out, please help!” Joe jumps down into the hole. His friend starts to yell at him, saying, “What’d you do, now we’re both down in this hole!” And Joe nods and says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Please note, I’m not med-shaming. Medication has been crucial to my recovery from mental illness, and I couldn’t stay stable without it. But when I think about what has literally saved my life, it’s the friends around me who held me up when I couldn’t stand, who asked me if I was really calling them all liars when I said they didn’t actually care about me, and who reminded me that sick brains tell lies and that what I was seeing as reality wasn’t real.
Everything about this issue is pitch perfect. Whitley consulted with several psychologists while writing it, to make sure that the details were right and the approach was accurate. The issue is fully aware that teenagers shouldn’t be dealing with this—and yet, based on my own teenage years, they are more often than adults are. The art from Gurihiru is forking incredible; the transitions for Nadia are sharp, clear, and gorgeous.
Unstoppable Wasp generally closes with an interview with a STEM professional who is also a woman. In this issue, that interview is with a female psychology professor. The interview focuses on what bipolar disorder is, how comics have handled mental health in general, and what a person should do if they suspect they are experiencing a manic or depressive episode or are contemplating suicide.
The third detail I loved about this issue: this interview could have focused on what a person should do if someone they love is suicidal, and I would have been furious. Part of what’s wrong with conversations about mental health is that those of us who are mentally ill are so rarely centered in conversations about us. We hear about how depression affects everyone in someone’s life, but so rarely what it’s like to live with and manage bipolar disorder. When creatives of any stripe take that approach, portrayals of the characters will always be second hand and unfocused. A character with a mental health issue is so often used as a prop for another character or the story—and every inch of this book was the polar opposite of that approach.
Obviously, I don’t know who specifically Whitley consulted with as he was writing this arc of Wasp, delving into this particular part of Nadia’s brain chemistry and existence. I am positive, however, that he was talking to and working with at least one person who has bipolar disorder, as well as mental health professionals—especially since his record on consulting with marginalized people when he portrays marginalized people is solid.
This is the end of the first arc of Unstoppable Wasp’s second run, and I’m so deeply in love with this story that I can’t even explain it.