Graphic Medicine is the name given to a developing genre that lies both within the comics medium, as well as medical literature. It is, therefore, a conflux between visual narrative and healthcare.
Over the last 10+ years since its official inception, Graphic Medicine has found its expression through various comics categories including graphic novels, comic books, web comics, cartoon / comic strips, mini comics and Manga. What makes the genre accessible is that complex ideas and messages can be communicated via easily digestible chunks of imagery that can transcend barriers of age, gender, culture, life experience, and language.
The genre presents medical material from various narrative perspectives. In the first instance, Graphic Medicine memoirs can depict the experience of a physical or psychological illness through the eyes of a patient, family member, caregiver or health professional. This subgenre also known as “pathographies” (illness narratives) are personal and detailed life chapters of an individual or community with regard to the influence and pathway of a particular disease, condition or disorder. Thematically they can explore a patient’s failures, trials and misfortune, as well as successes or breakthrough as a result of their ailment.
An example of Graphic Medicine is the New York Times bestselling graphic novel Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, Graphic Medicine: Ill-Conceived and Well-Drawn! by Ellen Forney (Gotham Books, 2012), which presents the author’s diagnosis and experience of bi-polar disorder. The book also interweaves stories about other famous creatives such as Vincent van Gogh, George O’Keefe, and Sylvia Plath who are believed to have shared the condition.
Another example of a Graphic Medicine treatment is that of Marisa Acocella Marchetto, a US cartoonist, who received a breast cancer diagnosis a month before her wedding. Her response was to chronicle her personal medical crisis in a series of comic strips called Cancer Vixen, which were published in Glamour magazine, and then later collected in a book published by Pantheon (2009).
Graphic Medicine can also be used in an instructional and commentary capacity. Works can communicate effective treatment plans and protocols to patients including compliance issues and short- and long-term prognosis, provide diagnostic tools and impart medical knowledge to doctors and other health care professionals in health sciences education, provide insights into specific illnesses to support groups, navigate the health care system for policy makers and medical stakeholders, bring to light issues of disability justice and advocacy, present new medical technologies, showcase breakthroughs and discoveries in biomedical research, deconstruct surgical procedures, and provide social critique of the medical establishment. This wide range of subject matter suggests the enormous possibility for professional work for comics creators who take the initiative and align themselves with institutions or practitioners interested in developing Graphic Medicine publications.
The genre is highly fluid and is also the perfect vehicle for exploring innovative stories. On the local front, Briony Barr and Gregory Crocetti embarked on a Graphic Medicine project The Invisible War that fused medicine with historical fiction. Created by a team of scientists, artists, educators, writers and historians, the story is set in France, 1916, and focuses on Sister Annie Barnaby who treats a patient with dysentery and encounters a stain of lethal bacteria that travels into her gut. The resident microbes fight to survive as Annie’s life hangs in the balance. Published for the educational market as a graphic novel (Scale Free Network, 2016) to great acclaim, the book has gone on to win several major publishing awards and was also shortlisted in 2017 for a Ledger Award.
Indeed, the market for Graphic Medicine is not restricted to the medical community. The general public is embracing this genre, and readership is expanding to include filmmakers, documentarians, writers from all mediums who want to learn about the history of disease processes, educators, and those invested the most in healing—patients who want to inform themselves and become active participants in their own healing and wellness journeys.
Works that fit within the Graphic Medicine genre can be challenging, thought-provoking, touching, frustrating, compelling, heart-rending, humourous and entertaining. Indeed, no matter what emotions they evoke, they are most importantly and invariably engaging and proving to be valuable tools in communicating personal medical experiences and insights to and from patient and their medical teams, thus invoking empathy and helping to facilitate cooperation and understanding between the players.
Graphic Medicine – The Graphic Medicine community is a site that explores the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare, and includes academics, health carers, authors, artists, and fans of comics and medicine: https://www.graphicmedicine.org/
The Centre for Cartoon Studies – Comics and Medicine: The Ways We Work Conference 2018: https://www.cartoonstudies.org/programs/comicsandmedicine/
Penn State University – Graphic Medicine Book Series: http://www.psupress.org/books/series/book_SeriesGM.html
Introduction to Graphic Medicine – one hour webinar and short course: http://guides.lib.umich.edu/graphicmedicine
National Library of Medicine short course – Graphic Medicine: Ill Conceived and Well Drawn: Comics for Health and Medicine:
National Library of Medicine short course – Graphic Medicine and Mental Health: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/graphicmedicine/education-lessonplan1.html
© Julie Ditrich, 2018