Comics and Medicine

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I have always been an avid reader of comics, from classics such as Calvin and Hobbes, to the wonderfully nerdy webcomic xkcd. Comics are fantastically versatile, capable of appealing to broad audiences, and have the ability to address both humorous and serious subjects.

Comic theorist and cartoonist Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, provides insight as to why comics are such a compelling medium capable of diverse storytelling: “...when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself.” In other words, we are drawn to cartoony faces because of their ability to amplify through simplification. Furthermore, as characters become more abstract, they become more universal, which allows the reader to project themselves more readily into the world of the character.

The ability for readers to connect with and empathize with comics has powerful implications. Comics can be a useful medium to discuss sophisticated narratives, such as those found in the ever-present and urgent issue of healthcare.

One online community, known as Graphic Medicine seeks to deliver the vision that comics provide in a friendly and approachable way to elucidate the complexities of the illness experience for both patients and healthcare professionals.

cancer vixen comic

As Dr. Ian McWilliams (one of the co-founders of Graphic Medicine) points out, comics give an insider’s look on the emotional, sociological, and day-to-day details of daily life of the ill that medical textbooks provide no insight on.

The comic Cancer Vixen, is an autobiography of a New York cartoonist who suffered from breast cancer. As seen on the left, the artist illustrates how she felt when she was first diagnosed with cancer. The doctor appears to be giving the diagnosis, but the patient can only grab a few words such as “cancer” and “lymph nodes." The majority of the speech bubble contains incomprehensible scribbles. The patient implies that she should have brought a tape recorder, since she couldn’t process all of the information in the moment.

When a patient’s confusion and emotions are unrealized, a physician’s requests may go unpracticed simply because a patient is paralyzed by the sudden influx of information. Although the drawings are simple, the artist successfully conveys the tensions and feelings of this doctor-patient encounter with just a 2x2 inch panel.

Not only can comics help patients, but they also help physicians illustrate their experiences as well. One such example comes from a course at Penn State Medical School called “Comics and Medicine”, taught by Michael Green, M.D. The class aims to help medical students depict their own struggles and journeys as aspiring physicians, as well as the stories of the patients they encounter. Dr. Green has also published his own comic in a special article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, detailing challenges he faced as a medical intern.

Aside from helping physicians and patients bring anecdotal experiences to life, comics also serve as an illustrative and engaging way to deliver important health messages to educate the public.

The Survive! Inside the Human Body series does a fantastic job at using a quirky adventure story to present scientific facts in a fun way. The series features Dr. Brain, a frazzled grey-haired scientist who invents a ship in the shape of a virus that can be miniaturized to explore the body. In the first volume, Geo, the main character, is shrunk and accidentally eaten by his friend Phoebe. The comic details Geo’s adventure inside Phoebe’s digestive system in a manner that is reminiscent of The Magic School Bus adventures. The first volume is 12 chapters, which include nutrition, digestion in the mouth, life in the pharynx, stomach, and beyond. The art is clean with simple explanations and well-seasoned humor. Finally, the colorful drawings are informative and scientifically-accurate.

Regardless of how old you are, comics are an illustrative way to emotionally connect with readers of all kinds of content.

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