Facing the Challenge Offered by Graphic Medicine

Guest Post by Susan Squier and J. Ryan Marks

Since its beginning, the journal Configurations has fostered “the multi-disciplinary study of the relations among literature and language, the arts, science, medicine, and technology.” Those are the words of editors Melissa Littlefield and Rajani Sudan when they assumed the editorship two years ago. The pair promised the journal would stretch to include work that brings together “colleagues of different disciplines who may debate principal methodologies or ideas, but who also work to exceed their disciplinary boundaries.” Well, comics and medicine make a pretty volatile mixture, so the special issue we recently edited on graphic medicine fits right in with the original mission and the intent of the editors.

configurations_frontGraphic medicine may not be a familiar term, but readers of Configurations will find recognizable and engaging the heady mixture of art and literature, scholarship and practice that characterizes this field devoted to “the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” As scholars have begun to write about graphic medicine, their transdisciplinary work offers acute new perspectives on the core fields that have made the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) such a high-voltage organization since its inception.

Consider some of these new perspectives. The literary understanding of memoir and life writing is now taking account of the disruptive urgency of graphic memoirs and underground comics like Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles, and Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary. Comics written from the perspective of patients and family members, such as Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year and David B’s Epileptic, are calling into question the epistemological authority of the medical profession. Comics created by physicians and psychiatric nurses, such as Ian Williams’s Bad Doctor and Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, are puncturing the myth of Dr. Kildare and uncovering the personal vulnerability of healthcare workers, as well as their struggles with institutional medicine. And graphic pathographies like Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer and David Small’s Stitches show us biomedical technology from a different light, revealing that procedures, scans, tests, and new drugs can offer stressed healthcare providers an easy alternative to confronting the actual emotional and physical vulnerability and pain of their patients.

Indeed, the field of graphic medicine challenges our very notions of what art, medicine, literature, and scholarship should look like. We use the visual term here advisedly, for graphic medicine is, above all else, a visual medium. “Juxtaposing words and images in deliberate sequence”—the phrase is Scott McCloud’s, from his iconic Understanding Comics—works of graphic medicine both tell and show us how it feels to be sick, to undergo medical treatment, to practice healthcare, or to engage in the work of caregiving.

As the essays in the special issue demonstrate, the stakes of engaging in this transdisciplinary field are multiple: aesthetic and pragmatic, ethical and practical, analytic and emotional—frequently, all at once. Using juxtaposed words and images in a sequence to express an experience that is at once quite specifically embodied and yet universal, indeed inevitable, complicates productively the ways one can write about, visualize, understand, and feel the impact of medical treatment, illness, disability, and caregiving. How a scene is drawn will shape how it is framed and perceived: the images may expand, explode, or even contradict a narrative, enrich characterization, and control the pacing, mood, and import of a series of events.

As with many new enterprises, there is a temptation toward the exclamatory, even the evangelistic: comics can produce better doctors and better patients! Comics can enable a therapeutic expression of difficult experiences! Comics can reach broader audiences! All of these statements are true, and yet, as we selected works for this special issue, we wanted to move beyond that initial celebratory impulse to demonstrate that graphic medicine—as art, scholarship, and something combining both—is subtle, analytic, and complex.

We selected works, then, that exemplify some of the major strands of graphic medicine as a mode of scholarly inquiry, a genre of comics, and a form of science studies. We wanted to include works by people in a number of different disciplines and lines of work, and we are happy to say that we were successful in this goal, as a glance at the contributors list will indicate. We also wanted to show the field as practiced by those new to it (after years as senior scholars or as newly minted junior scholars), as well as the work of some of its major voices. We have chosen comics that give visual access to an experience beyond the grasp of written narrative, and we have chosen essays that push beyond even the formal conventions of the scholarly enterprise. Finally, we looked for work that would speak to the Configurations reader/viewer—aesthetically, emotionally, politically, intellectually.

In our compilation of the special issue, we dismissed the customary practice of grouping different genres together in the table of contents, instead opting for an arrangement that reflects the leveling of disciplinary hierarchies that is the essence of graphic medicine, hoping to honor the joint endeavor and creative encounter that is its essence: the incitement to conversation and collaboration between people who are differently positioned, in disciplines, in modes of work, and in embodiment.

Susan Squier teaches comics in her Women’s Studies and English seminars at Pennsylvania State University. A past president of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts and one of the organizers of the graphic medicine conferences, she coedits the Penn State Press book series Graphic Medicine and is coauthor of the forthcoming Graphic Medicine Manifesto.

J. Ryan Marks is a PhD candidate in English literature at Pennsylvania State University whose research interests include the politics and aesthetics of ranting in twentieth-century American fiction.