Susan Merrill Squier coedits Penn State University Press’s Graphic Medicine series, which uses comics to address a broad spectrum of medical concerns. She says she’s used to some skepticism about the initiative: One neurosurgeon, for instance, told her, “I fail to see what’s funny about illness.”
But as Squier, professor emerita at Penn State, is quick to clarify, “There’s a lot more going on here than the Sunday funnies.” The series, which launched in 2015 with Graphic Medicine Manifesto, grew out of a collaboration among scholars invested in the narrative medicine movement, which incorporates storytelling techniques into health care. They recognized the immediacy of comics for telling human stories, Squier says, and proposed the line to unite “people working in literature and history and in health humanities programs.”
Ten titles have been published to date, many of them memoirs, including Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s My Degeneration: A Journey Though Parkinson’s (2015) and Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (2017), the reflections of nurse and comics creator M.K. Czerwiec, who is also a founding editor of the series. PW’s review describes the latter book as “heart-wrenching,” adding that “Czerwiec wrings hope from the honesty of her simple, cheerful cartooning style.” The series also includes a prose collection, The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image, which analyzes comics with medical themes and whose blood-streaked cover belies the scholarly work within.
The books have gained credibility with the establishment, Squier says. “It’s been fascinating to watch a culturally disparaged form turn ‘hot’ as academics realize that these are great teaching tools.”
Harvard Medical School librarian Matthew Noe, for one, has cotaught graphic medicine in a one-week intensive for third-year medical students. “We read the comics, we talked about how they could help them connect to their patients, and then they created their own comics.”
Beyond library and academic channels, Graphic Medicine titles have found a niche in bookshops with strong comics sections. Karen Allman, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, is among those who hand-sell the series. The store has “a strong medical and health market,” she says. “We’re right by three hospital systems, and their staff comes in and shops, sometimes in their uniforms.” The books are typically shelved with other nonfiction comics in the Graphica section, but Taking Turns, for instance, was cross-displayed on the shelf that promotes books on queer issues.
Allman says that while the primary readership consists of graphic novel fans, even customers who aren’t necessarily looking for comics have been receptive. Since the breakout of the prose title The Emperor of All Maladies, she’s seen readers asking for “more like it,” no matter the format. “When customers want a book about what nurses do, I’ll pull out Taking Turns along with prose memoirs.”
Forthcoming series releases include the anthology Graphic Reproduction (May), which looks at conception, birth, and reproductive rights, and features contributions by cartoonists including Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) and Carol Tyler (Soldier’s Heart). Fall brings Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees by Olivier Kugler, a communication officer for MSF/Doctors Without Borders, and 2019’s plans include Life Support by Judith Margolis, a graphic work on family caretaking written in the form of a Jewish prayer book.