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!