By Lorenzo Servitje
As I sat and typed my notes on a presentation at the 6th International Comics and Medicine Conference, I looked around to observe other attendees’ note-taking. What is perhaps most striking about attending this conference as contrasted with most other academic and professional conferences, is how people are taking notes.
Alex Thomas generously provides his notes from presentations @BoosterShotCMx
“Fantastic Keynote by @guttergeek” @ComicNurse
“Comics and medicine is like mustard and chocolate pudding. They don’t naturally go together,” says Steven Keewatin Sanderson, one of the keynote speakers. Sanderson’s gustatory simile is indicative of what many medical professionals reading this blog might be thinking: How are comics related to medical research or practice?
What began as physician Ian Williams’ MA thesis and grew into a shared interest between a doctor, a nurse, and a professor of English has rapidly become an expanding field of study and practice. It might not be easy to take this intersection of comics and medicine seriously in terms of academic study or medical practice, but the work’s rise in status is evident in the publication of graphic medicine comics in the Annals of Internal Medicine and the fact that Michael Green and Kimberly Myers’ essay in the BMJ on the use of comics and patient care has been cited 55 times in the past six years.
During that time, a growing group has met annually to discuss what has come to be known as “graphic medicine,” or the role comics can play in the study and delivery of health care. Williams writes that comics and graphic novels are useful for medical practitioners by “reflecting or changing cultural perceptions of medicine; relating the subjective patient/carer/provider experience; enabling discussion of difficult subjects; helping other sufferers or carers.” Williams and MK Czerwiec host the Graphic Medicine Website to chronicle these events, post links to relevant academic publications, and cultivate a database of wide variety of texts that fall under the graphic medicine rubric.
Led by Juliet McMullin, PhD, associate professor of anthropology and director of healthy community engagement at UC Riverside’s medical school, this year’s conference was themed around the broadly-defined “spaces of care.” Presentations explored how receiving treatment affects our relations to each other and our environments. Panelists, keynotes, and workshop leaders spoke to how comics visualize space beyond the strict settings of clinical space to include “the geographic, physical, ideological, imaginative, temporal, and social space.”
Lydia Gregg’s image of “Spaces of Care”
Entering the the Culver Arts Center, attendees in the main keynote hall watched as a TweetBeam wall projected the conversations about #graphmed15 occurring on Twitter in real time. These tweets have since been complied into a chronological narrative via Storify (thank you, MK). The conference kicked off with a typically pleasant opening reception and a welcoming talk by Brian Fies, author of the well-known Mom’s Cancer. Editor-in-chief of Penn State University Press Kendra Boileau shared the vision of the press’s series on graphic medicine and spoke on the success of first titles The Graphic Medicine Manifesto and The Bad Doctor. I don’t hesitate to call these works “pioneering,” following the laudatory review in The New York Times.
How to Do Things with Graphic Medicine
Having just got off a plane where I had been hacking away at a dissertation chapter on the mid-19th century cholera epidemic in England, it was no surprise that the first talk on the program that grabbed my attention was by a group from UC Irvine that discussed comics where John Snow (the real John Snow) and other historical figures in public health are represented as superheroes. Superheroes, one might expect from comic books and graphic novels. But what’s unique about this conference is the range of topics and presenters, from Jared Gardner’s keynote on the metaphors (e.g. war and balance) we use to describe health/sickness within the context of the history of early American comics; to Tyler Paige’s talk on to the process of making comics as treatment for his ADHD.
For those who wonder what kind of “traditional” medical research one finds at this conference, I would point you to Michael Green’s talk on the repeated appearance of the zombie trope in comics written by medical students about residency; to Alex Thomas and Gary Ashwal from Booster Shot Comics, who presented on using the comic form to reinvent the pain scale; to Lydia Gregg’s presentation where she articulated a methodology to make health-related comics; or to Rose Anderson’s piece, where she presented on the efficacy and ethics of using a graphic narrative to simplify the concept of consent for patients considering biobank enrollment. Medical pedagogy, patient education, and bioethics—still, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I felt like a zombie,” from a medical student’s comic on his residency. @kilojoule
Beyond traditional panel presentations, the conference featured roundtables (I happened to attend the highly informative discussion on woman’s bodies and political frames, giving me insight into an entire history of women’s comics I was unaware of) that involved the audience members in discussions on graphic medicine; and workshops that taught some of the writing and drawing skills conducive to graphic medicine. Most provocative, perhaps, were the results of Kriota Willberg’s session, Visualizing Anatomy: Intimate Architecture—“drawing on a live body as a way to better understand anatomy.”
Juliet McMullin tweets graphic medicine in action (@julietm16)
Breaking through the Medical and Academic Gaze
Every panel I attended was intellectually stimulating, but it was the closing keynote by Carol Tyler that struck a chord I had not been expecting.
“The room is silent listening to Carol Tyler’s tragic and inspirational journey,” tweeted Katia Borg.
With five years of graduate training in reading textual signs and deciphering their culture work, it has been easy for me to fall into the same criticism that medical humanities scholars, patients, and advocates have lobbed at physicians for some time: that doctors objectify people and their narratives into objects of knowledge—that proverbial medical (or in my case “academic”) gaze.
I reflected on Tyler’s three-volume graphic novel You’ll Never Know and her use of yellow coloring (this reminds me of an old chemo agent, Mustargen, and its origins in gas warfare) to articulate the connections between the carcinogenic chemicals her father kept in his shed (eg. As, Hg, Benzene, DDT) and the chemotherapy he had been receiving.
“Telling his story was growing in all directions. How to give it shape. Start w/what u know,” says Carol Tyler @lldiedrich
Tyler and her graphic novel did the kind of work graphic medicine does; for me, this occurred in a manner I have written about in an academic way but never really experienced. She conveyed how her graphic novel was not only a powerful reflection of her father’s PTSD and her family members’ terminal illness but also how it became a process and medium to work through varying iterations of illness affecting her loved ones.
But this is just a brief glimpse into the graphic medicine universe, or perhaps better said, the field. There is more work to be done, more conversations to continue, many more panels to be drawn.
I know that I am not alone waiting in anticipation for the 2016 conference in Dundee, Scotland.