Standing in Sunlight

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Having attended my very first Comics and Medicine Conference in order to present One of Those People with John, I feel obliged to report on the experience. The short version is that it was Amazing.

The longer version is that it was an incredible experience, both from a personal perspective, but also from a public health perspective. The breadth of topics that were covered: medical memoir from both the doctor and the patient’s perspective, both patient narrative and narratives from caregivers, using comics for public health campaigns from Fairfax, VA to Mumbai, India, academics analyzing medical narrative in the comics medium through the lens of literary theory, the creative process as both a vehicle for healing and for change… I could go on and on but you get the idea. The opportunity to be surrounded by people who radiate creative energy and intellectual exploration like electricity (I know, horribly clichéd but true) although packed into two and a half very short days, was just terrific and I am so grateful I got to be a part of it.

It’s still hard, even a few days later, to organize my thoughts coherently just because there was such a volume of information and the entire event was so energizing, but I think because this event had such a particularly personal aspect for me I will focus on that.

John and I did a “lightening talk” which consisted of 20 slides and six minutes to speak about them. Since the project has been collaborative from the start, it seemed to make sense that we collaborate on the presentation as well, and we alternated speaking about the various slides which were illustrations from the project.

Certainly for me, simply standing up in front of a small auditorium of people and speaking honestly about my experiences, however briefly, was a very poignant moment. And certainly too, there is a tremendous amount of power contained in that small action of standing up and speaking your truth, especially after being so private and having so many secrets for so long. Someone asked me what it was like in that moment and the only thing I could think of is the feeling of standing in sunlight.

Listening to other people’s presentations, and just listening to other people over the two days in general I started to think more about what else I wanted to say with this narrative. As I said in the presentation, it’s not enough to say: “these bad things happened to me”. What I’d really like is for stories like mine to be catalysts for change. And I don’t think that is too lofty a goal.

One thing I heard over and over during the conference is that is that the graphics return the humanity to the medical experience. And not just for patient narratives – one of the most moving pieces I saw was a short animation of a junior doctor’s first experience with a patient dying. Frequently in medical situations, especially when a patient is frustrated or unhappy with the treatment, the language and the viewpoint used to narrate the situation becomes polarized, and using graphics affords the opportunity to return the humanity to both sides of equation.

The question now is where to go from here. Both John and I received some very positive feedback on the project, and while there is a lot more work to do I am optimistic that the work will have a wider audience at some point.

One of Those Sketchbooks

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Here’s a brief slideshow of pages from one of my One of Those People sketchbooks, with roughs for some of the images we showed at the Comic & Medicine conference in Baltimore.  Just thought it might be interesting to see how some of the images developed.

What Next?

Comics & Medicine 2014, June 26-28.
Comics & Medicine 2014, June 26-28.

A big thank you to everyone we talked to at the conference today about our presentation. Thanks for all your comments and suggestions – it’s given us a lot to think about and absorb.

It’s been an overwhelmingly positive day, and it begs the question: what next for our project? Originally, we thought this work would really only be of interest to ourselves, and perhaps friends, family and a small circle of other readers.

But now we realise that we should probably think about trying to reach a somewhat wider audience. We’ve thought about doing it as a web-comic, or an online part-work of some kind, but we’re thinking now about approaching publishers to see about doing it in print.

Just what we do next is still up in the air, but it’s certain to be a big step – and we’ll keep you posted!

Who am I?

Page from "One of Those People" - art by John G. Swogger
Page from “One of Those People” – art by John G. Swogger

One of the problems with choosing an allegorical or metaphorical approach to the artwork is trying to decide how to depict Liesl. Initially, I drew her as a recognisable comic-book version of herself – looking (more or less!) like she does. My model for this was, once again, Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, where Alice is just about the only character who looks as she does in “real” life.

But I couldn’t quite make this work. Partly I think this is because Liesl and Alice are not the same kind of character: Alice is separate from the strange creatures of Wonderland and finds her way out of the rabbit hole essentially the same person as when she went in; Liesl’s story is in great part the story of her transformation from one kind of person to another.

As such, I think her character will need to change through the course of the work. In these initial pages, she’s suggested rather than depicted – a presence; in her own words, “a half-person”, reflecting the fact that she’s not in control of her own experiences.

Telling a Conversation

Page from One of Those People - art by John G. Swogger
Page from One of Those People – art by John G. Swogger

One of the reasons I wanted to keep the original form of our conversation was because I felt it was important for Liesl’s voice to be  very clearly and distinctively heard in the work – that to create an edited narrative and to give it a structure that “suited” being turned into a graphic novel wasn’t right.

A lot of what Liesl has to say is about issues of control – about not being in control, and about others telling her she wasn’t capable of being in control and actively taking control away from her. For me (a man, a member of her family, etc. – all issues which to some extent colour these issues of control in her story) to come along and actively edit what she was saying felt entirely wrong. A collaboration such as this is inevitably a compromise, and even with the best will in the world, my art is an interpretation, changing and shaping her words by juxtaposing them against my visuals.

But I wanted as far as possible for what I did to contribute to her story, not take charge of it.

Location, location, location

Page from "One of Those People" - art by John G. Swogger
Page from “One of Those People” – art by John G. Swogger

I’ve extended my use of metaphor in the visuals for One of Those People from people and characters, to environment and landscape, to specific locations. My background is in a much more technical and specific form of illustration – archaeological illustration – so I’m used to embedding a visual narrative within a very well-defined setting: Pompeii, Old Kingdom Egypt, the island of Peleliu, etc. So thinking metaphorically about location doesn’t necessarily come easily to me.

For inspiration, I turned back to Lewis Carroll and Tenniel. They both make great use of “archetypal” locations as a way of emphasising and reinforcing the strangeness of Alice’s adventures. Chess-boards, court-rooms, woodland cottages, tea parties, railway carriages – all these familiar locations are given new meaning for Alice.

In the pages I’ve put together for the Comics & Medicine conference, I have been inspired partly by 1920s photographs of Coney Island, as well as other early-twentieth century photographic collections of circuses, side-shows and carnivals. Hardly “familiar locations”, perhaps, but familiar enough to allow me to use them to play around with some ideas about performance, appearance, and perception and interpretation of social norms – all things which Liesl touched on in our conversations from time to time.

Where Am I?

Page from "One of Those People" - art by John G. Swogger
Page from “One of Those People” – art by John G. Swogger

I’ve talked a bit about how I’ve been trying to use personification to create a sense that some of Liesl’s experiences have a real and solid physical presence in her life – that they can act and interact with her almost as if they were living characters.

I’ve also tried to pay close attention to the sense of atmosphere that came across in our conversations – and personify that atmosphere as a distinct location and environment. Rain, snow, forests, deserts, underground, underwater – I’m using all these different environmental and landscape cues to try and match the sense of isolation and loneliness that came across so clearly as Liesl and I talked. Such a use of metaphor might be slightly crude or heavy-handed, but it’s really worked as a narrative tool, and has allowed me to do things with the visuals I don’t think I would have been able to do if I’d confined myself to a stricter representation of the “historical” context and location of Liesl’s story. It also helps to establish thematic continuity between parts of her story that jump around chronologically and geographically: one moment she’s talking about it being Easter in New Hampshire, then next winter in Maryland; but she’s still talking about feeling isolated and confused.

creating a comic about illness and recovery

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