Asking for help isn’t always easy … and what do you do when that help causes you to develop superpowers overnight? Welcome to Hannah’s world, told in Side Effects, a graphic novel by Ted Anderson with art by Tara O’Connor.
Hannah’s in her first year of college and things just don’t feel right. She’s overwhelmed, her roommate walked in on her crying, and she feels like such a failure she’s not sure she’ll make it through the semester. She doesn’t want to disappoint her parents and the pressure is getting to be too much. Hannah meets with Dr. Jacobs, the on-campus doctor, who prescribes her medication for her mental health. Despite not being fully on board, as she believes those pills can change your personality, she decides to take them anyway, just to see if they offer any help in dealing with her anxiety and depression. Suddenly, she feels almost superhuman as she develops different superpowers with each new medication! Are the meds really causing her to read people’s minds? How will these powers affect her relationship with Iz, the cute girl she’s been seeing?
Before the story even begins, Side Effects has a content warning, a helpful tool for readers to be aware of some of the more intense parts of the story. It is never graphic or explicit and no real medications are named. Hannah’s side effects, however, can be read as exaggerated versions of those found in real life medications. Her ability to shoot electricity from her hands? Similar to brain zaps. She experiences other realistic side effects, like dissociation and drowsiness. Readers who’ve dealt with the process of finding the right medication will find themselves understanding what Hannah is going through. Framing Hannah’s side effects as superpowers makes the book accessible for readers who might be tentative regarding their own mental health care. The focus on therapy, as well as medication, is appreciated.
O’Connor’s art is expressive; the character’s faces are excellent. The coloring, also done by O’Connor, matches the changing situations dynamically. The scenes of Hannah and her superpowers are very superhero comic like, just like she feels her life is turning into when she develops them.
Side Effects is appropriate for an older teen audience and up. The book deals with some very heavy topics, including attempted and implied sexual misconduct from a professor, hence the appreciation for the content warning before the story begins. Anderson’s storytelling is easily readable, but late high school and early college readers will find more relatability to Hannah’s experiences. While it takes place in modern time, adult readers long out of college can enjoy the graphic novel, too.
Side Effects is a book about mental health acceptance and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. It wants to break the stigma of mental health medications and does a good job of showing them in a realistic but not irresponsible way. There’s always a need for stories about mental illness that still have happy endings and Side Effects is a welcome addition to that world of graphic novels.
By Ted Anderson
Art by Tara O’Connor
Seismic Press, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 13-17 years old
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Ambiguous Mental Illness
Character Representation: Lesbian, Anxiety, Depression