Graphic Medicine

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I’m not a great aficionado of comics or graphic novels. I know who Alan Moore and Stan Lee are; various (male) friends and family have raised my awareness of Marvel and DC Comics; I’ve read the odd issue of Swamp Thing, but the term graphic medicine was new to me. I came across it when a list of recommendations for the Library’s Medicine & Society Collection landed on my desk. They all came from the Graphic Medicine website created by Dr Ian Williams. This excellent website identifies and reviews graphic novels relating to all aspects of health and medical culture. Since the Medicine & Society Collection is all about exploring key medical and health themes in contemporary society, graphic medicine seemed like a perfect fit.

A quick aside here: The distinction between graphic novels and comic books is imprecise, but graphic novels tend to come in bound book format and are usually a single continuous narrative, they can be fiction, biography or non-fiction. The term ‘comic books’ is generally used for single unbound pamphlets that serialise a story in weekly issues traditionally bought from newsagents. The Wellcome Library also has a selection of comic books, most of which are public health information pamphlets.

Having had a chance to examine some of the graphic novels in more detail, I’ve been impressed by the range of topics covered and by the diversity of authors working in this relatively small field:

There are patient accounts of illness and treatment, such as Cancer made me a shallower person by Miriam Engelberg and Spiral Cage, Al Davison’s autobiographical account of living with spina bifida.

There are views from inside the health care system such as Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham who worked as a health care assistant in an acute psychiatric ward, and Couch Fiction, an account of a therapy session from the points of view of both the patient and the therapist.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were quite a few accounts of carers and family members’ experiences of living with a sick person, such as Epileptic, a memoir of growing up with a brother who has epilepsy, and Blue Pills, a love story about a man’s relationship with a woman and her son, both of whom have HIV.

There are also more traditional comic formats such as the manga style Monster, a thriller about a hospital doctor tracking down a serial killer. The manga novels offer an extra challenge to readers in English because, although they are translated from the original Japanese, they still read from right to left, which can take some getting used to.

The authors are a mix of ages and sexes, and come from Japan, the United States, France and the UK, and there are almost as many different and styles and techniques as there are authors.

Medical education
Along with the development of medical humanities, literature and arts are proving to be useful tools in medical education and patient care. Patient narratives can give health care professionals a valuable insight into the patient’s point of view, but a recent BMJ article on graphic medicine suggested that by using techniques such manipulation of scale, text and image, graphic novels have “the ability to convey visceral understanding in ways that conventional texts cannot” [i].

Their ‘unreal’ quality can also make it easier for trainee health practitioners to discuss difficult or complex issues of ethics or interpersonal communication. In the increasingly global field of public health, they can be particularly useful for reaching young people or non-native speakers.

Pay attention here’s the library bit…
All the titles can be found at the same location in the Library, a specially created classification for graphic novels in the Medicine & Society Collection: HHLC. This allows readers to see the variety of themes amongst the graphic novels and directly compare their different styles. Library catalogue users can also search by genre for ‘graphic novels’ to see what is available across the collections.

As an emerging genre, graphic medicine offers a vivid representation of how illness, disability and health issues can touch people in so many different ways: personally, professionally, directly and indirectly. They are an exciting addition to the Library collections, and one that I look forward to expanding in the future.

[i] Green, Michael J. and Myers, Kimberly R.; Graphic medicine: use of comics in medical education and patient care in BMJ Vol. 340 Iss. 7746, 13 March 2010

Author: Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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