“Graphic Medicine” Comics & Graphic Novels Explore Illness and Healthcare

In 2000, a nurse on an HIV/AIDS unit began drawing comics about her experiences on the job. Those comics launched a growing genre, graphic medicine—comics and graphic novels that portray the experience of illness and explore medicine. 

In 2000, MK Czerwiec, a nurse on an HIV/AIDS unit, began drawing comics about her experiences on the job. Those comics turned into a class project, which became a whole field of studies: graphic medicine.

Today, the term Graphic Medicine refers to graphic novels about the experience of illness, as seen by patients, caregivers, and others, a subject that includes titles as diverse as Cece Bell’s memoir El Deafo (Abrams, 2014) and Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel (Marvel, 1982), in which Captain Marvel dies of cancer. It’s part of the medical humanities field, which looks at medicine through the lens of art, literature, social science, and the other humanities in search of insights that can improve medical training and practice.

“Graphic Medicine” is also the name of a series of books from Penn State University Press, including The Graphic Medicine Manifesto (2015), a collection of essays by scholars in the field. The Graphic Medicine website is a central resource, with a news blog, book reviews, a podcast, links to other resources, and information about the annual Graphic Medicine conference.

Many of the titles in this subgenre are popular enough that they are already in libraries. Susan Brown, adult services librarian at the Ypsilanti (Michigan) District Library, was searching for graphic novel reviews when she came across the Graphic Medicine website. “Some titles identified on the site were already in our collection, but the concept of ‘graphic medicine’ was new to me and sparked my curiosity,” she says.

“I envisioned the collection being used by anyone seeking to understand the concept of empathy for the diversity of abilities and illnesses present in the human condition,” says Brown. “Health care practitioners see disease from the patient's point of view—these books provide a bridge between real people's experiences with painful conditions and the label and treatment they receive.” Brown has also created book club kits that include graphic medicine titles and general information about graphic novels.

The National Network of Libraries of Medicine, New England Region, also has graphic medicine kits that are available to organizations within New England. The kits were created by librarian Matthew Noe, who left the library earlier this year, and they are currently administered by Outreach and Education Coordinator Susan Levin-Lederer. Each kit contains six copies of a single book as well as a folder with discussion questions, material about graphic novels, and printouts of health information from trusted online sources such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. The topics include aging, grief, cancer, epilepsy, and AIDS. The most popular kit is the one about addiction, featuring Daniel D. Maurer and Spencer Amundson’s Sobriety (Hazelden, 2014), and the kits circulate to public libraries, high schools, and even hospitals, Levin-Lederer says. She hopes to add a kit about emergency preparedness to the collection.

Part of what makes graphic novels so great is how personal they are, she says. “Everybody has their own experiences—even if they have the same health condition, they may experience it differently…. You can read a textbook and you might learn something about how your heart works, but you don’t necessarily have the personal connection that reading someone else’s story does. And the art makes it easy to connect, since they are very personal topics.”

 

Graphic Medicine: Recommended Reading

By Brigid Alverson

MK Czerweic’s comics can be found at her website.


A Bubble by Geneviève Castrée (Drawn and Quarterly, 2018)

All Ages–A Bubble depicts the loving relationship between a child and her mother, who must live in a bubble (and is shown with an oxygen tube at one point). Castrée died of pancreatic cancer in 2016, and she created this delicately drawn board book as a gift to her two-year-old daughter during her final weeks.


El Deafo by Cece Bell (Abrams 2014)

Gr 3-7–In this lighthearted memoir, Bell depicts the frustrations of growing up deaf and attending hearing schools but also the humorous aspects, including her imagined secret life as a superhero.

The Truth About Stacey by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix, 2015)

Gr 5-7–In this graphic adaptation of one of Ann M. Martin’s “Baby-Sitters Club” books, newcomer Stacey copes with her diabetes and faces more mundane matters such as a rival babysitting club.


Blue Bottle Mystery: An Asperger Adventure by Kathy Hoopmann (Jessica Kingsley, 2015)

Gr 5 Up–Two boys find a blue bottle in the schoolyard and discover that it grants three wishes. The story is told through the eyes of Ben, who has Asperger syndrome. He explains what he feels and how he sees the world, and his friend Andy and his family model different ways to respond and help him deal with everyday challenges.


Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass by Dana Walrath (Penn State University, 2016)

Gr 9 Up–Walrath chronicles her daily life with her mother, Alice, who has Alzheimer’s, in a mix of words and collages of images from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


The Bride Was a Boy by Chii (Seven Seas, 2018)

Gr 10 Up–In a series of upbeat diary comics, Chii chronicles her life from the time she was a boy (her choice of words) through her gender transition and her wedding. Her story includes a discussion of why she chose to transition surgically and what that felt like, with a focus on the emotional and social aspects of transitioning.


Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green (Lion Forge, 2017)

Gr 10 Up–Green tells the story of her battle with an eating disorder from its subtle beginnings with her childhood perfectionism to its full-blown form, exacerbated by sexual abuse by a therapist.


Mis(h)adra by Iasmin Omar Ata (Gallery 13, 2017)

Gr 10 Up–Isaac, a college student, has epilepsy, and with little support from his family or his doctors, he is frustrated and increasingly cut off from others; his seizures are poorly managed and he loses an eye during one episode. His situation begins to turn around when a friend offers some hope—and assures him that he is not alone. Ata’s depiction of epilepsy as flying daggers with eyes is particularly striking.


Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies (Abrams ComicArts, 2006)

Gr 10 Up–When Fies’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, he began relating her treatment and recovery, and their effects on his family, as a webcomic, which later became this Eisner Award–winning graphic novel.


Wrinkles by Paco Roca (Fantagraphics, 2016)

Gr 10 Up–A retired banker finds himself in a nursing home, surrounded by a diverse group of characters. The plot is very slight—the climax is a slow-motion escape that barely gets off the ground—but what makes this book so compelling is how Roca slides in and out of his characters’ minds, alternating between the real world and their inner visions.


Lissa by Sherine Hamdy, Coleman Nye, Sarula Bao, & Caroline Brewer (University of Toronto, 2017)

Gr 9 Up–Anna and Layla grow up together in Cairo; Anna is American, and Layla is Egyptian, the daughter of their building’s caretaker. The two families are close, but after Anna’s mother dies of breast cancer, she moves to Chicago. Five years later, Anna learns she has the breast cancer gene and, after some struggling, gets a preventive mastectomy. Layla, meanwhile, goes to medical school and works as a street medic during the Egyptian revolution of 2010–11, while also dealing with illness and unrest within her own family. Lissa, which means “it’s not over yet,” focuses on the women’s personal struggles and the way their different backgrounds and the people in their lives influence their decisions. The book includes several scholarly essays, but those can be skipped—the story is genuine and very readable on its own.

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