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Comics and Medicine: A Conference…or a Movement?

Comics and Medicine: A Conference…or a Movement?

Illustration by Peaco Todd. Copyright © Dany Adams and Peaco Todd, 201...

In these days of iPhones, Androids, and apps, it is easier than ever to keep current with psychopharmacology. Signing up for e-mail alerts ensures multiple daily electronic updates by journals, listservs, and infomercials. If we click on the links, we come away with the latest data.

Learning about changing trends in culture in general—and how those trends affect treatment—is more challenging, especially when we are busy with patient care. Penn State med students can take courses on comics and medicine, but such cutting-edge courses are usually out of reach for the rest of us.

Until I attended the recent Graphic Medicine conference at Johns Hopkins, I did not appreciate the skyrocketing popularity of “graphic novels” as “illness narratives.” That is in spite of the fact that I reviewed Hillary Chute’s academic book Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics1 just a few years ago.

On my return, I learned that some of my patients knew more about this topic than I. After hearing that I spent a few days at a comics and medicine conference, an ordinarily taciturn patient with autism spectrum disorder revealed that he enjoyed Japanese manga comics. It was unexpected to see him smile or show such enthusiasm, although I wondered if manga’s many sexually exploitative themes kindled his intrigue. Discussing comics in session seemed like a good way to open closed doors and circumvent his limited communications skills.

A transgendered patient seemed equally thrilled to tell me of her affection for artist/author Alison Bechdel. In one day, I felt confident that I had stumbled upon an unexplored but promising clinical tool. A few mental health–related graphic novels left in the waiting room can accomplish a lot, especially when dwindling appointment times leave less and less time for psychotherapy.

Apparently, The New York Times writers sensed this shift in literary sensibilities a decade ago. In 2004, the magazine section declared comics and graphic novels to be the “major medium of our times.” Five years ago, in 2009, the Times Sunday Book Review added a special section for graphic novels. That section tracks sales of paperback and hardcover graphic novels (previously known as comic books) and manga. As might be expected, Batman-themed books are overrepresented, but illness memoirs surface with regularity and sometimes soar to the top of the list.

In the years since Professor Chute published her anthology and saluted the significance of graphic novels, comic book–style pathographies have attracted larger and larger audiences. (A pathography is a biography that uses pathology—or psychopathology—as its unifying theme.) The successes of artist/authors such as Alison Bechdel and Ellen Forney attest to this shift.

At the Graphic Medicine conference, Forney’s workshop on Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir2 filled every seat in an expansive auditorium. Long lines snaked around her corner of the cafeteria, which housed a Comic-Con–style display of artworks and books. Forney sought treatment for mood swings but fretted that treatment would interrupt her creative career. Copies of her award-winning book sold out while the lines formed. To many people’s surprise, Forney’s light-hearted approach to her bipolar disorder (her “Club Van Gogh”) was more informative than irreverent. Her illustrations of a bespectacled psychiatrist struck a chord.

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