Ian Williams: Comics and medicine

Ian WilliamsI have just returned from five days in Chicago, from a  conference organised by myself and four American colleagues. Entitled Comics and Medicine: The Sequential Art of Illness, the event took place at the Freiburg School of Medicine from 9 to 12 June 2011 and kicked off with an exhibition of comics art, the idea of lead organiser MK Czerwiec, aka “Comic Nurse,” who teaches a drawing medicine course to students at the university.

Michael Green of Penn State University Medical School, who runs a graphic storytelling course for his students, welcomed the delegates. The British comics historian, writer, and broadcaster Paul Gravett then rounded up important works within the scope of graphic medicine (a phrase I coined to denote the area of interaction between comics and medicine). Notepads and laptops were put to frantic use as the delegates struggled to take down the numerous titles flashed up on the screen as Paul sped through illustrations from a weighty list of international work relevant to the discussion – from vintage comics (Rex Morgan MD, Psychoanalysis, Teenage Dope Slaves) to contemporary graphic novels (Epileptic, Mom’s Cancer, Macula Brocoli).

The first keynote speaker, Phoebe Gloeckner, is a comics artist, medical illustrator, and author of  A Childs Life and The Diary of A Teenage Girl . She talked about her artistic development and how her twin careers in comics and medical illustration informed each other. She also showed slides from the project she is currently developing: an extraordinary book about the femicides of Ciudad Juarez on the US/Mexican border, where she has spent a lot of time over the past decade, getting to know the people of the local shanty towns and documenting their lives while the violence and terror around them escalates each year.

The conference was divided into parallel panel sessions for the delivery of scholarly papers or project reports and a series of workshops by comics artists. The latter featured Brian Fies (author of Mom’s Cancer and an organiser of the conference), Sarah Leavitt (author of Tangles), and psychiatrist and cartoonist Neil Phillips who runs the Australian publishing company Shrink Rap Press. Two more keynote addresses were also on the programme – one by David Small and a final public lecture by comic studies guru Scott McCloud.

The first of my allotted panels was entitled “Young Adult Health In Comics” and featured Susan Squier of Penn State University (another organiser) talking about Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf, a project that uses the comics form to educate young people about sexuality from a broader perspective than they may receive in a standard health or sex education class. Dr Peter Stingham, a retired family doctor and associate professor of paediatrics talked about his own comics work in which he uses spiritual resources stemming from meditation to deal with psychic and physical suffering. Andrew Rostan, talked about his beautifully conceived graphic novel An Elegy for Amelia Johnson.

My second panel, “Imagining The Body,” was a discussion of aesthetics, ethics, and horror and raised so many interesting points that the questions from the audience could have run for an hour after our allotted time finished. The presenters were comics artist Chris Lanier, Theresa Tensuan, and Northwestern University’s own Cate Belling, assistant professor of medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine. This panel covered so many areas that coincide with my own curiosity about the aesthetics of disease, deformity, and the grotesque that I almost had to gag myself from hogging the questions.

I gave a paper in the “Bearing Witness to Illness” panel, alongside Sarah Leavitt and  Shelley Wall, who talked about her graphic documentation of her husband’s Parkinson’s disease, with a presentation of her beautiful drawings. Leavitt had the audience laughing and crying during her talk on Tangles, which describes her mother’s diagnosis and decline with Alzheimer’s disease. I talked about my own work on comics, which I make under the nom de plume “Dr Thom Ferrier,” and which deals with the day to day experiences of my 15 years in general practice, questioning whether healthcare training and causes psychological damage and referencing the more dubious practices found within “normal” medical practice.

David Small gave a moving talk about Stitches, which describes his difficult upbringing as a child of distant, unaffectionate parents. His father, a radiologist, treated the young David’s asthma with x-rays, which triggered thyroid cancer. The necessary operation caused David to lose his voice for nearly 10 years. The psychological damage has lasted to this day. His address covered numerous topics including psychotherapy, veracity in autobiography (the book brought him back together with his estranged brother through its accurate portrayal of their shared childhood), and his aversion to hubris in the medical profession.

Scott McCloud took the audience on a whirlwind tour of visual research, graphic technology, and using comics in education. He thinks that comics is a sophisticated visual and textual language but is sometimes used in a patronising way. Form and content, he said, must never apologise for one another, and visual literacy isn’t a college course topic but a natural resource available to all.

I caught the end of John Swogger’s talk about his graphic novel that deals with Asperger’s syndrome: Something Different About Dad. I also met up with indy comics giant John Porcellino, creator of King Cat Comics, who has recently been working on The Next Day, a graphic novel with a separate interactive animated online documentary, both of which are constructed from interviews with survivors of suicide attempts.

We are hoping to make this conference a regular international event. In the meantime there is going to be a one day conference, Graphic Medicine: Visualizing The Stigma of Illness as part of the Thought Bubble Comics Forum in the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, this coming November.

Many medical schools now encourage the reading of classic literature to gain insight into the human condition. It seems high time that the medium of comics were treated with the same respect. Comics is beginning to attract attention from healthcare scholars, as evidenced by a growing body of literature, internet discussion, and conferences.

Judging from the electric atmosphere, the enthusiastic feedback and the positive report given by the New York Times, the conference, dubbed “The Coolest Conference on Earth” by one of the speakers, manga artist Rinko Endo, was a success. Truly interdisciplinary, relaxed, and enjoyable while maintaining high standards of academic proficiency and rigour, a meeting such as this is so much more than just the talks and papers given: its about human and intellectual interaction. We live in a world where literacy may be swinging from the textual towards the visual and exposure to alternative ways of learning, whether interactive digital tutorials, comics or video games, is becoming routine. Graphic medicine, which takes the principles of narrative medicine and adds images, is gaining momentum as a serious academic discipline, while fostering the enthusiastic camaraderie of a newly founded movement.

Ian Williams is a former principal and trainer in general practice, who creates comics under the nom de plume Thom Ferrier (www.thomferrier.com). He also writes and talks about graphic novels and comics, and reviews them for journals. He founded and edits the website www.graphicmedicine.org