Comics & Medicine 2016

ootp_2016_coverIt’s been a while since we posted on this blog – but that’s only because lots has been happening! Most recently: another absolutely fantastic Comics & Medicine conference, this year up in Dundee.

Fascinating. Inspiring. Extraordinary. Diverse. Wonderful. Weird. It’s almost impossible to summarise a Comics & Medicine conference. It brings together academics and artists, patients and clinicians, writers and readers – all linked by a shared interest in using comics, sequential art and graphic narrative to shine light on the diversity and depth of stories around illness and medical experience.

Since 2010, the conference has become THE place for those who are both creating and critiquing to share their work as well as their experiences. As such, the range of presenters and presentations is always astonishing.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Stages and Pages” – and focused on aspects of performance in comics. DeeCAP – Dundee Comics/Art/Performance, lead by Damon “Ticking Boy” Herd – introduced the concept on the first evening of the conference, with a selection of ten comics performances, demonstrating how performance links naturally with comics, turning the conference staple of projected images on a screen and a presenter into a magic lantern slide show with a power all its own. The ten performances used sound, masks, music and even puppets to extend the comic out of the page and transform it into something else – something not quite a reading, not quite animation, not quite theatre. I’d never seen one before and it was, quite frankly, a revelation.

It’s almost a pointless exercise to pick and choose favourites from the conference, as so many of the presentations were revelatory in their own way. But there were some stand-out highlights – for me, at least. Caroline “Boon Doc” Shooner showing exactly how humour and lightness of approach can negotiate the darkness and social stigma of severe mental illness in a very small community; Kathryn Briggs on using the hyped-up emotional characterisation of superheroes in teaching emotional literacy; Yoko Yamanda on the importance of including time as a marker of what is important to patients in treatment of chronic illness; Cilein Kearns on cartoon-based apps as a learning tool in medicine; Penni Russon on advicecomics.tumblr and the creative response of comics to medical problem-solving; Amerisa Waters on using comics to teach and understand issues around expectation and practice in women’s health, particularly amongst patients without medical insurance; Bill Doan’s simply extraordinary performance based on his graphic novel and play Drifting.

Liesl and I were, of course, presenting our most recent work on One Of Those People. We showed how, over the past year, we have integrated commentary and reflection into the original narrative based on our initial conversations, and in doing so, both expanded and given new structure to the work as a whole – and are now ready to look at publishing the story as a completely-realised graphic work.

We were in a session of presentations by other artists and writers talking about recent work, all of which was truly excellent: Cynthia Clark Harvey on her graphic novel about the preventable death of her daughter while in institutional care; Rachael House’s excellent, paced comics performance on the subject of depression; Paula Knight’s long-awaited Facts of Life (out later this year from Myriad!); Zara Slattery’s beautifully-drawn comic about her own coma and loss of a leg; Evi Tampold’s wonderful illustrations for Keeper of the Clouds, also out later this year; Ian Williams demonstrating that his wicked sense of medical humour we all know from Disrepute is alive and well both in his comics for the Guardian and in his upcoming The Lady Doctor; Dana Walrath’s exceptional comic-art installation on genocide; Venus’ gentle and dark Cooking With Cancer; and Jillian Fleck’s ghostly depression cartoons. It was, without any exaggeration, a privilege to be included in a session with such thoughtful and imaginative comics creators.

And this is perhaps the most exceptional thing about Comics & Medicine. As with any comics conference, there’s a lot of talk about practice and process, about audience and impact, about the technical, theoretical and procedural realities of employing a graphic approach to medical issues. But the conference has also become a place – the place – where new writers and artists are encouraged and supported alongside those who are published and established, and where ideas and initial sketches are celebrated in the company of long-term projects and works in progress. It is, in short, a place where talent – both new and old – is nurtured and supported, in the full knowledge that this is how the genre grows and develops. It has been interesting to see how, over the years, these works reflect concerns and needs expressed by the rest of the conference – uniquely demonstrating the extent to which Graphic Medicine is both an expression of, as well as a subject of, the gathering of diverse creators, practitioners and scholars who attend each conference.

No survey of this years conference would be complete without mentioning the keynote speakers – Lynda Barry, Al Davidson and Elisabeth El Refaie. Elisabeth introduced the whole conference with a discussion of how stage and page are related, including a dissection of angles and up/down, left/right movement through panels and pages in Marbles; Al Davidson showed how comics and a life lived with illness are inextricably linked in both the creativity and the very act of living; and Lynda Barry – after some fantastic workshops with Dan Chaon – showed how she is the living embodiment of everything that graphic medicine stands for – the linking of experience and art – indeed, the shaping of experience by art, of performance and creativity, of the drawn and the lived. “Inspirational” is an over-used term, but as Lynda herself might well say: “Meh – what the hell. Use it and move on.”

Next year’s conference is a long way away, both on the map and on the calendar, but if you’re reading this blog, then you should go. We’ll see you there!


Comics & Medicine 2015

Market Place at Comics & Medicine
Market Place at Comics & Medicine

Had a phenomenal time at the Comics and Medicine Conference hosted by Graphic Medicine. There are far too many highlights to list, but I’ll try to name a couple.

First is the newly published Graphic Medicine Manifesto. If you’re curious about how art, science, and storytelling intersect I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Individual chapters written by pioneers in the field focus on various aspects of graphic medicine such as the iconography of illness, the use of comics in medical education and the impact of comics scholarship to name a few. You can find the Graphic Medicine Manifesto, and other books in the newly created Penn State Pres Graphic Medicine Series on the Graphic Medicine site .

John and I have been fortunate to have the comics and medicine conference to come to while creating this project. It’s a vibrant intellectual and creative community and a wonderful a place to bring ideas and learn from other people in the field. It was exciting for me to be able to come back for the second year in a row not only to report on the progression of our project, but to see and hear what everyone else has been up to over the past year as well.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the conference for me this year was to hear people discuss their creative process and how they arrived at their narrative structure since that has been the main focus of our project this past year. I repeatedly heard people refer to “creative problem solving” in their presentations, as well as the need to distance themselves somewhat from their subject matter in order to gain the perspective and ability to view their medium as a bridge to cross the gap between the story and the viewer. Eva Cardon’s presentation and gorgeous book about her father’s dementia immediately spring to mind.

The sense of the artist needing to create distance between themselves and the subject matter – despite the subject matter being so intensely personal – is interesting to me because it sounds so counter intuitive. It’s quite a different approach than I’ve heard from people who write prose memoir where the goal seems to be  to immerse yourself in the past in order to write about it. For myself, in writing the narrative for this text I certainly felt a degree of distance between myself and the events in part because I was trying to explain the events to a specific person (John) for a specific reason (so he could illustrate them). But more than that, the process of collaborating with someone else almost forces me as the author into a position of creative problem solver and creates a certain distance from the events. What’s so striking to me is that the end result isn’t a less personal or moving narrative. For me the narratives I saw and read at Comics and Medicine were many times far more moving than prose.

The conference certainly generated lots of things to think about over the coming year. We are still working away on One of Those People and look forward to finding it a home at some point in the near future.


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

What are the boundaries between comics and other forms of literature or art? Is it meaningful from the point of view of practice to interrogate those boundaries?

As I’ve been working on the artwork for One of Those People, I’ve also been reading more widely in comics and poetry – both poetry with a visual component, and comics with a poetic feel to them. It’s a borderland area I’m interested in, as I think that the approach I’ve taken with this book fits in the conjunction between the two.

I’m interested in what make a certain way of drawing or painting sequentially fit with poetry, and what makes a certain kind of poetry suitable for expression as a comic. I’m interested in the commonalities and distinctions between the two creative practices; I’m interested in the boundaries between the two, and the cross-border travel that takes place between them.

I’m interested because I think these sorts of borderlands can nurture a very particular kind of creative potential – the potential to be neither one thing, nor quite the other, but something of both.

Drawing Hope

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

Narratives like this one can be a little grim. But this is a story about recovery as well as illness. There is light at the end of this particular tunnel, and I one of the things I need to figure out is how to draw it.

I’m not used to this sort of drawing. Usually in archaeology, the tone is set and fairly consistent. Here, I’m working with a story that has a great deal of emotional texture, both dark and light. I’ve tried to balance the ups and the downs, ensure the dark and the light are equal in tone. But it’s somehow easier to draw the dark than the light; there’s always more drama in the shadows.

But I think when I’m drawing this light, I’m drawing hope. And I’m trying to find hope in the scale of these panels. Just as scale can be used to create a sense of isolation, it can also be used to create a sense of tranquility. That calmness is what I’m trying to pin down. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I’m feeling my way towards it.

Postcards of experience

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

Many years ago, I wrote a paper for a Turkish archaeological conference* which talked of the archaeological understanding of the past as incomplete, disjointed, and of our visual representations rather like a series of postcards sent home by a foreign traveller: fragmented impressions of another time.

Since then I have argued with various other archaeological illustrators who would like to think their visual representations of the past aspire to be more holistic, more complete. But I still think that the fragmented nature of our archaeological understanding of the past makes this impossible.

What has this got to do with One of Those People? I can’t help but draw parallels between an archaeologist digging into the sand and unearthing scraps of a lost civilisation with the act of memoir. A memoir is a selective and intentionally fragmented representation of a personal past – and I am being asked in this project to draw out of that fragmentation, some kind of visual whole. I’m finding it helpful to return to my idea of a series of postcards – this time sent back from a personal past, a “foreign country” where “they do things differently”.


* The infamous Çumra “Melon-posium”, for those members of the Çatalhöyük project with long memories.

Visual Writing

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

Creating a story with words is hard work – creating a story with images is just as difficult. I’ve been thinking of this in my own mind as “visual writing” – not just the illustration of a story with drawings, but the construction of a story with them.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about not just with this project, but with some of my poem comics as well. In both cases the story cannot be told simply by making drawings that match or agree with the words; the drawings have to become an extra way into the meaning of the story.

In my other life as an archaeological illustrator, my drawings have to be quite consciously literal – very much matching and agreeing with textual data, analysis and interpretation. But the kind of visual writing I’m doing on this project is very different. Even when I am drawing real places and real situations, the impact of the drawing is allegorical – an “extra way into the meaning of the story”.

creating a comic about illness and recovery