The second annual Comics & Medicine conference took place the weekend of June 9-11 in Chicago, bringing together a host of speakers and cartoonists, among them Scott McCloud, John Porcellino, David Small and Hillary Chute, on the beautiful and historic campus of Northwestern University to focus on the conferences theme of “The Sequential Art of Illness.” The lectures and panels focused on the melding of graphic illustration in the field of healthcare both as a teaching tool and as a means of healing.
Penn State professor and physician Michael Green led the panel “The Use of Comics in Medical Education.” One of the organizers of the Comics & Medicine Conference, Green teaches a course at Penn State called “Graphic Storytelling and Medical Narratives” in which his students work on creating comics that help bridge the gap between doctors and patients. Some of the cartoons are humorous, some are packed with information, but all convey a message that is much easier to understand with the addition of illustration. He admitted that it has been an uphill battle with the establishment to teach a class like this, but the benefits are undeniable.
Green says in the early days of the class “there was this bias of comics being frivolous and irrelevant.” He notes that by the time a student graduates med school they will have added approximately 10,000 new words into their vocabulary. Many of which are words that the public won't be familiar with, comics can bridge that gap, thus making them extremely relevant. Stuart Copans the author of Loosening the Grip: Use of Cartoons in a Medical Textbook, also on the panel, noted that “Cartoons can present complex ideas simply...compare two pages of storytelling to one simple cartoon”.
The blending of comics and medicine is not necessarily a new thing. EC Comics featured a pulp comic series called Psychoanalysis way back in 1955. Hillary Chute, author of Graphic Women, spoke about Justin Green's 1972 autobiographical comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (McSweeney’s). This was the first comic in which mental illness was the focal point. Binky Brown portrays a young man’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder and all the problems that come with it. Binky is not for the faint of heart. The comic graphically depicts Binky's teenage struggle with the constant fear that his penis emits rays that could potentially harm the Virgin Mary. The 44 page comic tells a complex tale that would have taken hundreds if not thousands of pages to tell had he not used graphic imagery to help convey his story.
The conference wasn’t all doctors and physicians, there were several familiar faces to the comics community as well. John Porcellino, creator of King Cat Comics, spoke about his newest project called “The Next Day.” The graphic novel is based on a series of interviews with four people that all unsuccessfully attempted near fatal suicide. “The Next Day” takes an intimate look at the survivors’ lives before and after that fateful day. Porcellino notes that he himself has suffered for years with depression as well as a mild case of obsessive compulsive disorder. He notes the value of comics as part of the healing process. Not only can art be used as an escape it can be used to describe what one is feeling and cannot convey with words.
New York Times bestselling author David Small, spoke about his autobiographical work Stitches: A Memoir (W.W. Norton) during a forum called “The Voice of the Eye.” As a teenager David went in for what he believed was a basic surgery to remove a lump from his neck. Unknown to him at the time, the lump was actually cancer and the surgery to remove it would cause David to become a virtual mute for nearly 10 years. After the surgery David spent many years in psychoanalysis. He praised his psychoanalyst (who is portrayed as the White Rabbit in Stitches) for having such an fundamental role in his youth saying “He was the most important figure in my young life...somebody once said to me psychoanalysis, at its best, is the process of reliving your life with a perfect parent” and he was to me a perfect parent.”
David's love affair with drawing started long before his cancer scare and psychoanalysis sessions, as a child David would often lose himself in his drawings as an escape from his difficult life at home. David spoke candidly about the process of creating Stitches and the stresses, joys and lost memories that followed.
The conference ended with a lecture from Scott McCloud entitled “Comics as Visual Communication.” Scott focused on the importance of imagery as a learning tool. Giving countless examples, one of the most memorable was that of a radiation dose chart. The chart took something as complex and confusing as deciphering the radiation levels given off by hundreds of random items, from bananas to cell phones to Chernobyl, and turned it into something anyone could understand and understand easily. Scott praised this sort of graphic work noting “information is beautiful”.
While the panels and guests at the Comics and Medicine Conference were interesting and the lectures were all well executed the conference remains one of the smallest around, with only about 100 attendees. Nevertheless, if the organizers continue securing such a talented and diverse group of speakers there is no doubt that this conference will only get bigger and better as time goes on. The juxtaposition of the seriousness of healthcare and the lightheartedness of comics blends beautifully, making for a very interesting and enjoyable comic conference experience.