Jul 17, 201403:02 PMPoint of View

Recap: This Year's Graphic Medicine Conference

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“I believe this medium is the new literacy in this country. Words themselves are not able to keep up with the speed of information. This combination of words and images will continue to grow and it will dominate.”  

                      —Will Eisner, father of the modern graphic novel 

What do comics have to do with medicine, you ask?

The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Art as Applied to Medicine in Baltimore, MD, in collaboration with Graphic Medicine recently hosted the 5th annual Graphic Medicine conference. The conference was, in a word, revelatory. Events were tightly organized. Participants were reeling from back-to-back sessions dense with information and insight.

Prof. Jared Gardner (English & Film Studies/Director, Popular Culture Studies) from Ohio State University, put his finger on something that ran through the entire conference. Gardner described how patients and their families are thrust out of our synchronized, clock-based universe. Life in extremis, whether for patients or family members, is cut off from the bustle outside the hospital in the World of Wellness.

“Inside Out”                                                                                                         

Joseph G. Brin ©2014

Perhaps you have been there, looking plaintively at the outside world as if from a glass cage. Time in a hospital sets you adrift. Your privacy is invaded day and night as you slip into a waking state that resembles “The Twilight Zone.” Yet comics naturally traverse both the World of Wellness and the World of Illness, mediating through a visual language of memory and malleable time.

“One of the things we know to be true about comics is that, unlike film or novels," Gardner says, they force us to confront past, present and future in a single glance. Try as we might to focus on one single panel, we will always see the previous and the following panels—or moments in time—in our peripheral vision. This experience of time as outside the illusion of linear clock time within which we live our daily lives (necessary to keep this complex society functional) is closely related to how the patient and family experience illness, treatment, recovery.

Doctors depend on a recovery narrative, one that closely resembles the structure of the classical Hollywood screenplay: normal, illness, healing (i.e., return to “normal”)—past, present, and imagined future. But the patient experiences time in much more complex, fractured, overlapping ways, often leading to misunderstanding and frustration between patient and doctor. Comics offer a way for the doctor to understand (even experience) time outside the forward-moving recovery narrative upon which the medical establishment necessarily depends.”

Dr. Michael Green, professor of Humanities and Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and conference speaker this year concurs, "Life in the ICU does not seem linear. Patients often become confused and disoriented there. I think comics can be similarly vertiginous.” Green has been teaching courses on comics and medicine to medical students since 2009, and is a founding organizer of Graphic Medicine, an interdisciplinary community of scholars, artists, health care workers and others who focus on the interplay between comics and medicine.

“Mom's Cancer”                                                                                                   

©Brian Fies 2006

Brian Fies, author of the award-winning book Mom's Cancer, gives us a clear analysis of his eloquent, gridded image (above) saying, “This page depicts a day of testing at a university teaching hospital. My mother saw doctors, nurses, assistants, specialists, all of them ordering, poking and prodding. Aside from being graphically interesting, the checkerboard pattern suggests changes of place and time: some rooms are white, some gray, some black. Early in the day, in the panels at the top of the page, body parts are recognizable: hands, feet, an elbow. As the day goes on, orders and exams blur together until by its end, at the bottom of the page, body parts are nothing more than disconnected, unidentifiable, abstract shapes. Instructed to “feel,” my mother has no energy left to feel anything at all.”

Fies led a “See One, Do One, Teach One” conference workshop that had the room extracting comics potential out of the most mundane occurrences in our daily lives. People who couldn't draw had an advantage, their minds unencumbered with the imperative to draw something carefully,“the right way.” With only 4 minutes to write an original story and 2 minutes to draw it, much hilarity ensued.

As the finished drawings were projected on the wall, Fies kindly assessed their beginners' virtues from a comics language viewpoint. The personalities and humor revealed by the drawings of each new comics artist provided instant communality, bypassing awkward introductions. Plain and simple, it was fun!

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