Thursday, 1 December 2011

'Depressing subject matter' (or) The stigma of graphic medicine. Leeds 17/11/11

Having read a lot about the previous two graphic medicine conferences it was very exciting for me not only to finally get to go to one, but also to be able to take part.

For some people the idea of an all day conference on stigma, which covered such potentially depressing subject matter as disability, death, illness and decline, probably sounds like the precursor to a bottle of wine and a handful of sleeping pills, but the atmosphere in Leeds on the day was fantastic.

Thriving, eclectic, warm, encouraging, inspiring, and with plenty of laughs to be had, this open discourse between artists, academics, and health care professionals is surely an optimistic sign of the times.

Comics as a medium is pretty used to being stigmatised, as sub-literate rubbish for children, as well as being a dangerous influence on children's behaviour, morals, and intellectual growth. So what better medium in which to explore the different ways in which stigma works and ways in which to overcome it?

Many of the artists/authors at the conference talked about the troubles they faced trying to tell their stories in comic book form. People often found it offensive that such serious topics were to be reduced to cartoons. Even my dad when I told him that my talk had got a lot of laughs, thought that this was a bad thing, after all, surely my work was meant to be serious? There is an assumption that no humour can be found in these situations and that medical narratives are always to be dry, bleak, and depressing. As the experiences written and drawn about in these comics are very much real, and have happened, then it is safe to assume that the humour that is found in these situations is very much real as well.

Another stigma that faces the comic artist/writer of graphic medicine (and indeed in any writer who chooses to write about such things) is this idea of catharsis. A view that a majority of the speakers shared was that labelling their work as cathartic was perhaps oversimplifying things. For example Nicola Streeton does not consider her graphic novel 'Billy, You, and Me' (written about the death of her two year old son) to be cathartic. For her the catharsis took place at the time, and she wants her work to be considered simply as art, as a story. Sixteen years has passed since her sons death and while she can never consider herself to be truly 'over it' (the heading of her talk was 'The stigma of mourning too long') she is a little taken aback when the media interest surrounding her book has people asking in depth details about her son's death.

Nicola combats all these possible misconceptions by (in my opinion) exaggerating certain aspects of her personality both in person and within the pages of her graphic novel. This helps to put us at ease, and shows us that we can laugh alongside her, we become much more empathetic because of this. Despite the 'depressing subject matter' Nicola is by no means (to quote the title of the graphic novel by cartoonist Brick) a Depresso. Her talk is a performance, her slightly eccentric, cheerful demeanour reels us in. Nicola's background may be academic (she self-referentially quotes Freud and Foucalt and talks about her and her husbands unshakable belief in 'the talking cure') but she is by no means stilted or boring. Have you ever seen anyone use a tap dance routine to make a point about stigma and memory or interview themselves using a woolly hat to distinguish themselves as interviewer and interviewee? Nicola ties academia to passion, frees it from it's cage, and makes it relevant.

Sarah Leavitt talked specifically about the stigma of the caregiver and much in the same way I am trying to approach the idea of the model illness sufferer in my own comic, she deconstructs the notion of the perfect caregiver. She is incredibly open about moments of anger and frustration, both towards her mother during her decline, her father's treatment of her mother, and even her jealous rage towards the family cat. She also talked about about her sadness at the removal of boundaries not previously crossed and intimacies previously shared between her parents when helping to clean and dress her mother. Central to Sarah's story was her finding love with her partner Donimo at such a difficult time. Now without intending to put a heteronormative spin on things and thus discredit the importance of Sarah's lesbianism to the story, I would argue that this segment of the story is still entirely relatable to a heterosexual readership. Anyone going through or having gone through similar things to Sarah with her mother would probably would have had someone close to them (a partner or a friend) on whom they could unload all their ugliness, their sadness, their weakness, and frustration, without judgment and with total support.

Sarah also made one last interesting point. As a writer/artist she found herself going through these painful experiences whilst at the same time knowing she had to record them. There is a strange doubleness going on as the person living the experience and the persona already editing it down in their minds, sometimes you forgot that it might be painful for other people close to you or the person the work concerns, to read these things at a later date.

Paula Knight talked about her graphic memoir in progress The Facts Of Life, a very refreshing look at miscarriage and the child-centric view of women's role in life. Paula is clearly a feminist pro-choice, and not a firm believer in that whole anatomy is destiny stick. However she wanted children but sadly, this was not to be. In becoming a woman without purpose (as some people might say) she began to notice even more society's attitude towards motherhood and non-motherhood.

The subtle language pressed upon would be mothers, those who choose not to have children, and those who wait until it's 'too late' always point the finger of blame upon the woman (the word 'barren' certainly has judgement overtones). In Billy, You, and Me Nicola Streeton goes through the motions believing her sons death is her fault because she had an abortion when she was younger, and Paula too listed all the possible reasons she might be to blame for losing her child, including the fact that on a subconscious level she might not have been ready to have one.

Paula was self-conscious that he work was dressing, but many people reassured her that she had extracted humour from the situation, especially the awkward conversations with old friends who wondered, given her age, why she hadn't had any children yet. A wonderful device in comics is to be able to have more than one thing going on in a panel and both Nicola and Paula use this to humorous effect, projecting what they think people might be thinking whilst they are saying something entirely different. Paula's style is much cleaner than Nicola's (not that Nicola's scratchy style doesn't suit the story perfectly) but doesn't suffer from being boring because of this. There is some fantastic use of paint and collage and the symbolism I have seen of hers so far is inventive and funny. As what we were privy to at the conference was only the tip of the iceberg I look forward to seeing more in the future.

MK Czerwicz (a.k.a Comic Nurse) gave a talk about her ongoing graphic novel project, an oral history of the aids unit in which she worked for a number of years before it shut down. In her talk she tipped her metaphorical hat to Studs Terkel the great oral historian famous for the set text 'Working', in which he extracted a large amount of blood from a large amount of stones and painted a huge sociological landscape of race, gender, class, sexuality, and more. MK talked about her unit as one that broke all the rules when it came to patient care, by really emphasising the care part. Sitting on patients beds, visiting patients outside of hospital, forming close personal bonds with patients, all of the things that they were taught in nurses school, were a big no no. She came to write this history because her Internet searches came were fruitless, and she could not believe no one had done in before. She missed and wanted to make people aware of the 'community of crisis' that had formed in the unit at the time. Indeed even as a heterosexual male (watching documentaries like We Were Here and The Times Of Harvey Milk, I find myself getting nostalgic for what were incredibly painful times for a lot of people, purely because whist a lot protest these days seems to me to be without focus and to go nowhere, back then (and I know my vision is extremely rose-tinted) they seemed to be fighting for something worth fighting for, and they were actually making a difference. Testament to this is the fact that despite having the highest mortality rates in the country MK's unit was constantly referred to as a fun and supportive place. Like a lot of the other artists I've already discussed, MK's is a very personal history as well as being a straight up oral history, something which her simplistic cartoony style conveys brilliantly. I had more to say on MK's work, but realising that this is becoming a bit of an essay, I think it's best to let her work speak for herself. You can read the first part of her oral history online here and read an interesting article on a talk she gave on her talk to make World Aids Day here.

Also speaking at the conference was the cartoonist Brick ,Lu Miranda (who talked about the visually stunning La Parentheses, a graphic novel about epilepsy and memory loss, that sadly I think is only available in French) and Mita Mahato who talked about the use of silence in David Small's brilliant Stitches.

Finally fellow Bristol artist Katie Green (whom I spoke with at Laydeez Do Comics in June) talked in further detail about her forthcoming graphic novel about anorexia and sexual abuse Lighter than my shadow. In particular she opened up a little more about her experiences with sexual abuse and the stigmas surrounding it. She tapped into the patriarchal blame the victim mentality which she admitted was even ingrained into her brain as a young adult, a mentality that that is still very much prevalent in society today. I always admire Katie's bravery talking about such difficult subjects.

My own talk went pretty well, I had planned some humorous moments but due to nerves had sounded pretty robotic when running through it in front of friends, so I was a bit taken aback when I had to pause for the audience to stop laughing. The Q+A session at the end gave me a lot to mull over as well, which was good.

The day ended with a keynote speech by Darryl Cunningham (complete with irate accusations of exploitation during the Q+A session) and a final summary by Ian Williams before we went and gorged ourselves silly on Chinese in the evening.

The popularity of mine and Emma's moniker 'Sicker than thou' has also got us thinking about the possibility of maybe doing badges and t-shirts in the future.

Thanks to the two Ian's and Maria, and all the other speakers and people I met over the weekend. Probably the best academic conference I've been to (OK so I've only been to two, i may be a little bias) so let's hope they keep on going into the future!


  1. Sicker Than Thou teeshirts? Yes please!

  2. Thanks again Darryl I had more written on everyone's talks but feared I was blabbering on a bit

  3. Blabbering is encouraged in Graphic Medicine - in blogs, at least.

  4. Wonderful recap! Makes me ALMOST feel like I was there...(almost...not quite)

  5. Yes to t-shirts! And yes to blabbering!!

  6. thanks MK and thanks bonbon. Just realised I didn't do the hyperlinks to your work/the talk MK, will get on that tomorrow