Library experts explore interdisciplinary graphic medicine at VCU Libraries

March 16, 2021

Research and Education Librarian Talicia Tarver and Library Specialist for Comic Arts Cindy Jackson presented a session in the VCU Libraries Community Zooms series on Feb. 11, 2021. Titled Graphic Medicine at VCU Libraries, the session explored the burgeoning field of graphic medicine, “the intersection of the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare,” and highlighted some of the titles in the VCU Libraries collection and widely available today.

Below, find a video recording of the session and also a Q&A where Tarver and Jackson discuss graphic medicine and what makes it exciting to study.

Video Recording

Q&A with Tarver and Jackson

What are the origins of graphic medicine?

Tarver: Graphic Medicine is a relatively new term coined by Ian Williams, MD, and MK Czerweic to describe using comics to communicate health and wellness topics. However, the idea of comics or graphical representation of science and wellness goes back further than the origin of this phrase.

The world is full of memoirs, novels, poems, plays and movies that tell stories about battles with disease, caregiving, mental health issues, etc. How does graphic medicine fit into that picture?

Tarver: The great thing about graphic medicine is that it presents the protagonist’s personal experience with the illness or healthcare situation. These narratives show how the illness or disability is not what defines the person; it’s part of their whole lived experience. Graphic medicine also is a great tool for showing how patients of various ethnicities and genders experience the healthcare process.

Are personal narratives typical of graphic medicine?

Tarver: I think therein lies the appeal and usefulness of the medium. There is a personal connection between the creators and the readers. Whether it’s a healthcare provider describing their time on a particular ward, or a patient who’s just been diagnosed with cancer, there are themes that others in those situations can relate to. I know a lot of the texts I highlight in the Community Zooms session have deepened my understanding of how loved ones of mine experience healthcare.

Historically, people have brought a lot of baggage to the subject of the comic arts, and comics have been seen as meant for children. Are there still barriers that creators working in the field of graphic medicine have to overcome to get people to spend time with their work or take it seriously?

Jackson: The world of comics has changed radically in the past 20 or so years with the shift away from mainstream (superhero) comics to graphic novels and stories that are more character driven. Comics have finally come into their own as both works of literature and art. Readers are no longer resistant to the idea of reading comics, and libraries are no longer refusing to include them in their collections.

Why do you think works of graphic medicine resonate with people?

Jackson: It is one thing to read someone’s account of dealing with their illness, but it is very different to see the artistic representation of that lived experience, because sometimes there are things that words cannot adequately capture, but art can. It can evoke a feeling of shared experience or understanding between author and reader. I think that is why works of graphic medicine resonate with so many.

Tarver: What I’ve seen is how both the medium and the message have such a universal appeal. Put the two together, and it has a relatability that connects the readers and the creators with the topics. Not only does the original Graphic Medicine site cover a variety of topics; they now have Spanish and Japanese sister sites.

Are creators in the field of graphic medicine trying to bring health information to the lay person, or are there other driving factors?

Jackson: Graphic medicine narratives grew out of the explosion of autobiographical comics that began with underground comics in the 1960s and really found popularity when graphic novels became an accepted literary form. So, it is only natural that the popularity of graphic medicine narratives would lead to comics being used to convey health information to the lay person. Comics have a way of transcending education, socioeconomic factors, language and subject matter to make information accessible.

Tarver: Based on some of the narratives from the founders, it also is a way for creators to process their experiences with healthcare. It’s beginning to incorporate multidisciplinary participation as a way to study how this art form is created and used.

What are some of your favorite works of graphic medicine?

Jackson: I absolutely love Neurocomic by Farinella Maetto, Ph.D., and HanaRoš, Ph.D. Not only is it a beautiful book to look at, but it is a book about the physiology of the brain. It takes what can normally be a very dense topic and makes it accessible to readers. Another book that I cannot recommend enough is Jennifer Hayden’s graphic memoir about dealing with being diagnosed with breast cancer, The Story of My Tits. Another truly fantastic book is Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney, detailing her battle with overcoming bipolar depression with the help of her therapist. It’s honest, witty, occasionally funny and personal as she explores the differences between crazy and creative.

Are there any gaps in the field of graphic medicine?

Tarver: I think that would depend on the person searching for a particular comic. What I’ve enjoyed learning about is if creators don’t see anything describing their particular experience, then they write that comic themselves.

Jackson: It’s still a relatively new field, so there are gaps. But new narratives and informational works are being published every year. I suspect any gaps will be greatly narrowed as time goes on and the medical field finds more uses for graphic medicine.

Are there any particular trends in the field of graphic medicine that interest you?

Tarver: To piggyback off the previous answer, a lot of creators are using graphic medicine to process their experiences with the COVID pandemic. So, an interesting historical narrative is being laid down for future understanding.

Learn More

The VCU Libraries graphic medicine research guide features many resources and links to websites highlighted in the talk, as well as additional materials to help researchers and other interested readers explore this subject.

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