Graphic Medicine: A nod to our Sunday Keynote

Superheros, villains, and fantastical characters are all well represented in comics. But what about us regular folks, where do we show up? One of those areas of comics and graphic novels is the growing genre of graphic medicine.


First used by Dr. Ian Williams, himself a practicing physician and comic artist, in the late 2000’s, graphic medicine aims to draw back the veil at the “intersection of comics and healthcare”. It’s about you and me. More specifically it deals with the health issues we face from infertility to cancer and Parkinson’s disease. It deals with aging and having to put our parents in nursing homes, and it tells stories of nurses, doctors, and other health care providers learning how to cope with the ups and downs of taking care of others. It deals with the nitty gritty of an abusive family and sudden death of a child.

Some people mention Jack Kirby and his creation, Steve Rogers (Captain America) as planting the seed for graphic medicine. After all, Steve returned from war with what we would recognize today as PTSD. Graphic medicine is as much about what our minds go through as it is about what our bodies go through. Others point to Brian Fies’ Mom’s Cancer as jump starting readers (and publishers) interest in comics about everyday people. Fies deftly portrays what his elderly mother, he, and his adult siblings are put through when she is diagnosed with both lung and brain cancer. From unexplained symptoms, to seemingly heartless physicians and nurses, to the struggle in being a caregiver, his work is readable, important, and unforgettable.

It’s not just readers and publishers who are interested in these titles, more and more medical schools are using comics and other humanities writings to help round out health care providers training, self-awareness, and compassion. Those same students and even practicing physicians are being encouraged to tell their own stories via comics. Annals of Internal Medicine, a highly respected medical journal, publishes a monthly “graphic medicine” series with comics submitted by patients, students, and health care providers. Penn State University Press took their interest to the next level and put their money where their mouth it. As of May 2018, they have published eleven graphic medicine titles on everything from Alzheimer’s and infertility, to the HIV/AIDS picture in the 1990’s and zombies in medicine. Especially interesting for those thinking about bringing graphic medicine to their institutions, universities, or school is Graphic Medicine Manifesto, a group effort from five individuals using this format to teach or analyze this form of literature.

Medical schools aren’t alone in bringing this storytelling format and genre front and center; veterans are becoming involved as well. The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont has partnered with their local VA Medical Center to pair up comic artists with veterans to tell their stories. When I returned: a cartoonist and veterans project is their first effort.

But these comics aren’t just for health care providers; they are to let us know we’re not alone. They’re to help us cope, they’re here to help us know that someone else’s body or mind has betrayed them. Peter Dunlop Schol’s My Degeneration tells how he copes with Parkinson’s disease. Imagine if you were diagnosed with something serious and instead of handing you a 100-page book with charts and medical jargon, they handed you a comic written by someone who found themselves in the same, uncertain place. I know which I’d rather have on me nightstand.

I worked with a young college student who, after reading Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow said “Finally, a comic I can relate to.” As someone with a history of an eating disorder, that comic meant more to him than all the superhero stories in the world. If that isn’t a testament to the power of graphic medicine, I don’t know what is.

I keep up with the field via Matthew Noe’s blog “This Week in Graphic Medicine”. It’s immensely helpful for getting a handle on new works in this area. In the meantime, here are a few titles to get you started.

Mental health

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic MemoirMarbles by Ellen Forney by Ellen Forney. Forney details her struggles with mental health and wondering, on the flip side, it makes her a better artist.

Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness by Daryl Cunningham. Cunningham’s experience as a UK psychiatric nurse reads like a mental health 101 guide to conditions from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia.

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green. Green’s account of her intensely personal struggle with sexual abuse and eating disorders has been receiving award after award. She deserves them all.

When I Returned; download at Sobering, this collection of veteran and comic artist’s collaborations is an important new work in voicing contemporary veterans’ stories.

Aging, neurological disorders

Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and MeTangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me by Sarah Leavitt by Sarah Leavitt. Leavitt illustrates both the big and small ways her family copes and even finds moments of happiness after her mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast. New Yorker cartoonist Chast, portrays her aging parents with humor even while her father’s mind is slipping away from Alzheimer’s.

Things To Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park…When You’re 29 and Unemployed by Aneurin Wright. Wright, a 20-something NYC resident, moves to Florida to care for his terminally ill father and gives up glimpses of the hardship and rewards of caring for someone at the end of their life.

My Degeneration: a Journey Through Parkinson’s by Peter Dunlap-Shohl, c2015, 978-0271-071022. Political cartoonist Dunlap-Shohl’s diagnosis and management of Parkinson’s also provides panels illustrating tips for coping with this progressive illness.

Parenting, infertility

Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic MemoirRosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir by Tom Hart by Tom Hart. Eisner-nominated cartoonist Hart’s young daughter, Rosalie, suddenly passes away out of the blue and he and his wife are left wondering how and if they can go on without her.

The Facts of Life by Paula Knight. Knight explores her desire to be a woman who has it all, but does that mean having children?

Web comics

Oh joy sex toy by Erika Moen. A weekly webcomic on sex, sex toys, and lots of other sex things.

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls by Emi Gennis by Emi Gennis. A compassionate, yet stark look at the women watches painters of the early 20th century and their terrible deaths from handling radium.

Nurses, physicians

Taking turns: Stories from HIV/AIDSTaking turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 by MK Czerwiec Care Unit 371 by MK Czerwiec. Real-life nurse Czerwiec hones her nursing skills and caring presence on an HIV/AIDS unit in Chicago during the 1990’s.

The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James by Ian Williams. Williams’s semi-autobiographical contemporary tale of practicing medicine in a Welsh community.

Graphic Medicine Manifesto by MK Czerwiec, Ian Williams, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green, Kimberly R. Myers, and Scott T. Smith, c2015, 978-0271-066493. A how-to guide for those interested in teaching graphic medicine or delving into its scholarship.


StitchesStitches by David Small by David Small. Small, a well-known children’s book illustrator, tells of his childhood cancer, colored by an unsupportive family and MD father, who may have caused his cancer in the first place.

Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies. Fies portrays his mother’s double cancer diagnosis while devoting time to how it affects his family and the challenges of dealing with the medical system.

Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto. Marchetto sprinkles her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment with humor.

This blog post is adapted from Fay, B. Graphic medicine: healing through comics. Diamond Bookshelf: The Graphic Novel Resource for Educators & Librarians. 2018;(27):14-15. Available at: Accessed September 6, 2018.

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