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.

 

 

Learning Storytelling

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

Pictures by themselves are not a narrative; a selection of images is not a story. Up until now, I’ve been mostly focused on getting the look and feel of the artwork – the style of drawing, the texture of the ink washes, the flow of panels and the relationship between images and the text – right. Primarily that has meant working at the level of an individual page, sometimes a spread. What I have not been overly concerned about is the actual process of visual storytelling – creating a narrative flow between multiple images.

I’ve been quite keen to work at getting the artwork “right”. Fixing the style and look of the visuals at this stage makes it a lot easier to figure out how the overall work should be structured. And the feedback I’ve had from people – most recently at Laydeez in both London and Leeds – has convinced me that the visuals are, indeed, “right”.

The challenge now is to take this visual style and start to tell a story with it.

Thank you Laydeez

laydeez_1A big, big thank you from both of us to everyone at Laydeez do Comics in both London and Leeds. Your support and enthusiasm have meant a lot to us. It’s given us the boost we’ve needed to buckle down and see this book through to publication.

And yes, in answer to all the questions: we are talking to a couple of publishers right now, working out some of the practical and editorial details. Once we get those sorted out, then it’ll be time for me to put my nose to the grindstone. I’ll keep everyone posted on progress!

Anthropology Poster

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

I’ve just returned from the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in Washington D.C. This is one of – if not the – largest conferences in anthropology anywhere in the world, with thousands of archaeologists and cultural, linguistic, visual and medical anthropologists attending from all across the world.

I was invited to give a poster presentation as part of a session entitled: Graphic Medicine: A new potential for medical anthropology, organised by Juliet McMullin and Dana Walrath – both published medical anthropologists and anthropology professors, and enthusiastic supporters of graphic medicine. I first met them both at the Comics & Medicine conference in Brighton in 2013. At the time, Dana Walrath was working on her book Aliceheimers, a graphic novel about her mother’s dementia and family connections to Armenia.

My poster was about the process of capturing the narrative of personal experience by using comics (you can read the whole poster here, on my own blog). It talked about the decisions I had made on ways to do the artwork in One of Those People, and the way that has shaped the story. The session was a great success. Not only did I receive a huge number of compliments on the artwork and the project in general – which helps to convince me that the decisions Liesl and I have made about our approach are definitely working – but I got to talk to a lot of people in great depth about the use of graphic narrative as a tool in medical anthropology. If the discussions I had were any indication, it’s not just a tool that medical anthropologists are willing to use – it’s a tool that addresses long-standing issues in anthropology about the presentation and recording of anthropological information.

This coming July, Juliet is organising the Comics & Medicine conference at University of California Riverside. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to attend (it clashes with another conference), but I know Liesl is going to give another “lightning presentation” update on how our book is coming along. Hopefully, this AAA session and Juliet’s involvement in the 2015 conference will attract many more medical and visual anthropologists. The feedback from the session – plus the discussion on Twitter – has suggested that this could develop into an important anthropological tool.

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!

creating a comic about illness and recovery

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