Medicine is a visual discipline and so it is perhaps unsurprising that comics about illness and its treatment are increasingly popular. Comic art is creating new ways of seeing illness. Images of disease, signs and pathology have traditionally been determined largely by doctors and scientists – now comic and graphic artists are challenging ways in which illness is understood.
Ian Williams and Emily Haworth-Booth are two artists working in graphic medicine. While Williams is a doctor whose work focuses on the clinician’s perspective, Haworth-Booth’s work is based on her experiences of being a patient.
“The great thing about comics is that the medium itself is shot through with irony and self-reflexivity, so you can make a serious point, but then immediately undercut any suggestion of earnestness,” Williams told me.
For Haworth-Booth there is therapeutic value in the comic that is due, in part, to the form as much as the content. She said:
There’s also an implication (and I think, a truth), that the process of both creating and reading such works can be medicine in itself. Stories have always been society’s way of understanding and dealing with change, so telling and reading stories about our medical predicaments is a way of understanding.
Haworth-Booth also sees drawing one’s story as opposed to simply writing about it as “an almost medieval purging of unpleasant, painful emotions.”
There’s a drawing of me, on the page, there’s a drawing of my pain – it’s outside me now, it’s small, it’s manageable, and perhaps I feel as though I’m in control of it now, or at least it doesn’t have the same power it did. It’s really a form of naming, which we know is powerful as a way of containing and controlling things. But through drawing we can name the unnameable, the pain and confusion that are beyond language, but no less real.
You can also manipulate and change something on the page, more easily than something that’s inside your own body. You can draw the pain, as a big black cloud perhaps, and then you can draw it again, but smaller, and smaller again, until it’s gone.
The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo made art about her pain, from the numerous complications she had following a horrific bus accident in which she broke her spine, pelvis, and other bones. She also suffered polio as a child and experienced infertility.
Haworth-Booth began to draw so she had a space to reflect on the experience of living with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also known as ME or chronic fatigue syndrome. Her drawings were an intensely personal response.
At the beginning I found it so tiring sitting at a desk drawing that I could only manage 15 minutes a day. Gradually 15 minutes turned into two or three hours, and the pile of pages now fills a shoebox.
Haworth-Booth’s work was a “thank you” to her father, she says, but also a way of explaining to her family what she was going through – “a way of sharing an experience that felt more thorough, more tangible, than just talking it through over the phone”. While it initially made her feel less lonely, she noticed another emotion: anger.
The drawings and captions were full of rage, frustration and irritation, about the disease, about other people’s reactions and misunderstandings, and my consequent feelings of loneliness, and my fears.
The personal made powerful
Williams also believes that comics have a unique facility to enable both artist and reader to explore the difficult or painful aspects of illness and its treatment. Although he writes primarily from the point of view of the doctor, he too is concerned with the human experience.
His work considers the effects of working in healthcare and explores his own vulnerabilities. In his most recent book, The Bad Doctor, Williams uses his own experience of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:
Through comics I have found the ‘voice’ to talk about these things. As a doctor, one doesn’t tend to talk with one’s peers about one’s own problems. You are not supposed to HAVE problems. When I was in medical school, physical, and especially mental problems were seen as a weakness and were stigmatised and gossiped about. It seemed an unforgiving environment at a time when I was very vulnerable and I did my best to hide my anxiety and my OCD.
I never talked about these things to anyone before I started making comics, then I realised that the personal made powerful stories, and that failure and weakness can be currency in autobiographical comics, so I dipped my toe into those waters, in a tentative and self-mocking way, and people seemed to like it.
The pen is mightier than the scalpel
Sometimes the arts are described as creating more compassion in medicine. But Haworth-Booth and Williams prefer to emphasise a more critical perspective. Whoever holds the pen, redrawing the boundaries of health and illness has its own value.
In exploring diverse experiences, we can recognise our shared humanity while questioning the assumptions and limitations of healthcare. That is not to say that graphic medicine is an earnest endeavour.
As Haworth-Booth points out comics are “brilliant for comedy because the sequential form allows for great agility in terms of comic timing, and because the interplay of words and pictures allows for almost constant set-ups and pay-offs”.
Likewise, she says, treating serious subject matter (such as the medical) through a visual medium means it can be treated light-heartedly and this means that it can appeal to audiences who might otherwise think “I don’t want to read a book about that”.
Both Haworth-Booth and Williams recommend Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan” as influential. For Haworth-Booth, his work epitomises the capacity of comics to “build a seemingly inconsequential moment into something unforgettably grand, or lyrical, or sad, through the addition of panel upon panel, well past what seems strictly necessary to tell the story”.
Silent sequences, she says, without the interjection of a narrative voice “make it easier for the reader to step inside the creator’s world … This is a huge gift to the creator in medical comics particularly, as all illnesses come laden with preconceptions and expectations.”
She sees it as part of the artist’s role is subvert these: “By inviting the reader to step directly into an unfamiliar world without being told what to think, comics artists can facilitate an experience that feels direct and true.”“
If you’re interested in drawing on your own health experiences, other influential names include Miriam Engleberg, Darryl Cunningham, Glyn Dillon, Bobby Baker and Nicola Streeten. For those interested in the role of comics in health education, Ethan Persoff’s site "Comic with Problems” is a gem. And Simon Moreton invites people with long-term mental health or physical problems to submit and share their own comics on Better, Drawn.