Comics and graphic novels with a medical narrative seem to be to the best example of comics that can actually make a difference to peoples lives. I've always been a little weary that political comics while giving a useful insight into the life of someone fairly remote from us have an aspect of 'preaching to converted' about them. Reading them won't stop a war in some remote country, and it will probably won't shift perceptions too far as it's highly likely that if you've sought this particular graphic novel out you're already of a relatively liberal mindset. Whereas with medical comics the issues discussed are more personal and close to the bone. Cancer can happen to anyone, and is something that most people have had a degree of experience with. Mental health issues as well, although more stigmatised than most illness, are a lot more common than people think, being stressed and feeling a little bit down are things that happen to pretty much everyone, but when these things are left unchecked they can often lead to unchecked feelings and anxiety that can often be difficult to understand. Mental health issues are not a sign of a weak will and mind (and neither are they on the other hand an expression of complete creative genius or something to glamorise, we need to find some sort of middle ground).
As well as being reassuring things to be read by a person suffering from an illness, or a friend or relative of that person (Blue Pills by Frederik Peeters, a graphic novel about HIV immediately springs to mind, expect an indepth review soon) but the process of creating it for the artist can often bring them out of the very funk they are describing. For example in Darryl Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales it is the recognition he starts to receive for his strips that brings him out of isolation and therefore becomes part of the process of healing.
Katie Green, who I mentioned in my previous post, also mentioned in her talk that when she decided that when she wanted to be an illustrator, this was very much the fork in the road between her dying and her living.
Of course, you may complain, 'I don't have a creative bone in my body!', 'I can't draw!', but there are plenty of comic artists that tell their stories just as well with a slightly more primitive stripped down style (I'm thinking John Porcellino, and Sarah Leavitt's Tangles). Even the process of keeping a diary about your experiences is a useful one. To me the rising discipline of Medical Humanities which draws from literature and art when treating patients, is a highly important one. At it's roots, it seems to me to be about treating the patients as well as the disease, stressing the humanity in medical humanities (of course it would be fairly redundant without a certain degree of good medical care as well). But the fact that medical students are being encouraged to create their own comics in certain places about their own experiences (as well as thinking more carefully about what it might be like to be in their patients shoes) can only be a good thing. In my opinion I think that these graphic novels should be made more readily available not just to doctors, nurses, and medical students, but to the patients themselves(*1). Try to imagine for a second the conflicted emotions and guilt of a person suffering from mental health issues for the first time, and then imagine the relief they might feel knowing that they are not alone when reading something like Psychiatric Tales. The artists of these books often talk about creating the book they wish was there when they were suffering, it would be great to see that these books got into the hands of those who need them the most.
On a final note this post was inspired by the wide range of internet coverage of the recent two day Comics & Medicine Conference in Chigago organised by Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec and playing host to the likes of Scott McCloud, David Small, Brian Fies, John Porcellino, and Phoebe Gloeckner. Personally I wish I could travel back in time and attend this.
Publishers weekly coverage.
New York Times Coverage
Sarah Leavitt's blog coverage.
Brian Fies coverage
Scott McCloud coverage.
John Porcellino's coverage.
John Swogger's coverage.
Paul Gravett at last years London conference talking to Darryl Cunningham, Brian Fies, and Phillipa Perry.
(*1) I know that libaries of medical comics are starting to be made avaliable to medical proffesionals and students but I'm not sure if they are being made avaliable to patients yet.