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”.

Here and Then

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

Back at Christmas I read one of the most extraordinary graphic novels I’ve ever read: Here, by Richard McGuire. It reminds me in no small way of Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage, also an extraordinary graphic novel.

Both works deal with time – the strange and cascading nature of personal time that is at once both ours and not-ours; at once intimate and part of something greater – much, much greater.

One of the extraordinary things that both these novels do is connect with a truly cosmic order of time. In Here, the whole of human history is spanned within the locus of a single room; in The Cage, the grand narrative of collapse is played out through the minutiae of strange order.

We all know that comics are supposed to access time in a way that other media do not. Both Here and The Cage demonstrate new readings of time that seem to move beyond strict linearity. These readings are quantum in nature, at once relative and absolute. There is something audacious at work here – unexpected and seductive; a materiality to the representation of time that seems to confound the assertion that temporality is best found in the invisible space of the panel gutter.

Chris Ware, in a review in The Guardian, observed that Here contains “lines and surfaces that feels in its totality like the first successful attempt to visually recreate the matrix of memory and human understanding of time.”

He’s right. We should all be taking notes: Here is an important reference point for anyone now working with graphic memoir.



creating a comic about illness and recovery


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