Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec, authors of today’s guest post, co-run the website GraphicMedicine.org. They will present “Graphic Medicine and the Multiplanar Body” at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.
In the summer of 2010 a group of scholars, health care professionals, and comics artists gathered in Senate House, London. This brutal-looking art deco building, said to have inspired George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth,” represented Gotham City Courts in the films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Those gathered, however, were not particularly interested in superheroes. They focused on graphic memoirs of illness, a modern phenomenon born of the counterculture in the 60s and 70s that has gathered momentum over the last 20 years.
Among the 75 delegates from around the world were the authors of this blog entry. The lead organizer of the conference was Ian Williams, a doctor and comics artist, creator of The Bad Doctor (2014, Myriad Editions). MK Czerwiec (pronounced sir-wick), aka Comic Nurse, has been making comics about her work in HIV/AIDS and hospice care since the late 1990s as a way of processing these caregiving experiences. We have now worked together for four years, talking and writing about the interplay between the comics and health care. We make comics, collaboratively and separately, and will give a talk on October 18th at “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” about Graphic Medicine, the field we helped pioneer.
Often when we describe Graphic Medicine, people say that comics must make an excellent educational medium for patients, especially those with poor literary skills and marginalized groups such as drug addicts, teenage mothers, or the mentally ill. While comics have certainly been used to reach these audiences, the idea behind this response is freighted with assumptions about comics, their target demographics, and the literacy skills or aesthetic proclivities of the social groups so named.
We regard comics as a sophisticated, rich, and adaptable system through which to explore the complex issues of health care. Our primary interest has been the use of graphic illness narratives to provide new knowledge about the illness experience and commentary on the pervading cultural conceptions of disease and health care. We are also interested in the psychological process of making comics. We have also been teaching using comics—both making them and reading them—in medical schools in the US and UK.
In 1972 Justin Green became the first comics artist to unburden his psychological troubles onto the page, creating Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. This inspired subsequent generations of artists to articulate their corporeal experiences in words and pictures, a process that Elisabeth El Refaie refers to as “pictorial embodiment.”1 More than 40 years later, the myriad comics titles that appear each year include stories of disease or trauma, known as “graphic pathographies,”2 in which the authors give highly subjective accounts of their own illnesses or caregiving experiences. The production of these works involves the repeated drawing of the author’s or subject’s body over a prolonged period, which may have interesting effects on how the artist perceives the body. The relentless decision-making process forces the artist to examine fears, suffering, anger, disgust, disappointment, and grief and distill the whole into a succinct series of sequential panels through which to transfer the narrative to the reader.
Since the London gathering, we have held international conferences in Chicago, Toronto, Brighton, and Baltimore. The movement is growing and what was initially viewed by some as a novelty interest is gaining respect in academia. As the nature of literacy changes, moving from the textual towards the image, comics is once again in ascendance, gaining new readers who might have previously dismissed the medium.
1. El Refaie, E. (2012). Autobiographical comics: Life writing in pictures. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
2. Green, M. J., & Myers, K. R. (2010). Graphic medicine: Use of comics in medical education and patient care. BMJ, 340, c863.