I love receiving post, especially when you get something you weren't entirely expecting. When Ian Williams (a.k.a Thom Ferrier) asked me to review his mini-comic Fear Of Failure, little did I know that I'd get another one of his comics thrown into the bargain. It is actually this added extra that impressed me more than the original comic sent for review (not that I didn't like it, but I'll get to that later). It's always nice to see real love and craftsmanship go into a comic, ingenuity, and a clever creative twist are always welcome in eyes, and Disrepute (the name of the bonus comic in question) certainly pulls out all the stops. Handmade, hand numbered, bound with string instead of staples, and printed on lovely pulpy paper, the cover of the comic has rather cleverly been made to look like the folder for a patients medical notes. The end pages of the comic contain stories that fold outwards to reveal more, and there is a nice mix of stories that are read horizontally and ones that have to be read vertically. The whole design feel of this comic, as well as the fact that at times Williams will try and fit as many panels into a page as possible, cause me to liken this comic to Chris Ware (especially his Acme Novelty books). So even before I get into the content of the comic I'm smiling. Luckily the stories within this comic do the layout justice. Although the small print tells us that these are fictional tales of fictional people you can tell that William's own experiences have seeped through into these pages. It is easy to see how William's can call himself an authority on Graphic Medicine (the whole site/idea of Graphic Medicine was William's conception).
It is refreshing to see things from a Doctor's eye view rather than from the side of the patient for a change. In medical narrative graphic novels the doctors have often been background figures, simply there to represent the treatment taking place (although notably Pekar's doctor in Our Cancer Year does take an interest in the whole comics process and forms a closer than usual doctor patient bond). But this is slowly changing, there are now a small rash of comics coming out that are telling us that even the health care professional who is supposed to be unbiased, unemotional, and unbreakable, can be vulnerable, judgemental, and shockingly, human. Williams does this perfectly by showing how his alter ego's childhood anxieties follow him into his adult and professional life (it seems weird to think of a doctor who grows faint at the sight of blood, but I'm sure they're out there). Elsewhere we see how Dr Ferrier maintains his sanity when faced with particularly troublesome patients, and how sometimes his desire to care is outweighed by his desire to be left alone. He addresses questionable ethical practices, is honest about some of his less favourable motives for becoming a doctor, and shows us that in order to be doctor you have to appear tough and emotionless on the outside but on the inside this isn't always that case. This comic would probably be a breath air to any medical student or indeed any health care professional right now, it might let them know they are not alone.
Fear of Failure is more like a doctor themed soap opera except it replaces the unlikely story lines and melodrama (save for the reappearance of Lois's mother who looks slightly vampish, like camp goth icon El Vira) with a distinctly British dry sardonic wit and a slightly wishful cool (a female doctor who wears a Sonic Youth t-shirt is a bit of a fantasy/wet dream for certain hipster types out there no doubt). This time around there is even less in depth focus on the patients (except for a patient with some unsettling yet amusing anecdotes about his neighbours cats, apparently inspired by a real life encounter) but at the same time there isn't a huge focus on the life as a doctor side of things either. Instead we get treated to the personal life of Dr Lois Pritchard, her ex-coal miner father, feelings of childhood guilt, and the soul crushing world of office politics that she must contend with in order to maintain a level of professionalism. It is clear also that the job does affect her, from the small snippets we get of her diary, and from the persistence of surreal nightmares. We get more subtle hints of her day to day strain through a secession of small restrictive silent panels inter splicing close ups of various patients ills with her reactions. There is subtle comedy at work too, for example when she leaves her Dictaphone on when interrupted mid dictation and bitches about a work colleague, her secetary finds the message later when she dictates it. Little clues are dotted throughout the comic as to the conclusion of the issue, and similar to a soap opera or a murder mystery program on television we start at the end with the vital facts omitted until the full extent of the facts are revealed again at the end (although of course we are left with a cliff hanger). All these are quite interesting and well executed storytelling techniques to employ in a comic. With Fear Of Failure it took me a couple of re-reads to appreciate the various nuances, although the feeling of it being a bit like a soap opera was still nagging away in the background. The character of Lois Pritchard is essentially cut from the same cloth as William's alter ego Dr.Ferrier: cold, distant, angry, yet anxious and vulnerable, and I'm sure both of them are characters that actual doctors can easily relate to. However, there was something much more real about the stories in Disrepute, maybe because it seemed like thinly veiled autobiography, and autobiography can be a useful, even life-affirming, tool in the right hands.
I see this as a very minor bone of contention and think that Ian Williams has really got his eye on the ball when it comes to the marriage of medicine and comics and I hope that he continues to produce comics, as well run his fantastic site Graphic Medicine, far into the future.