Wednesday, May 1, 2013



I haven't read any WitchDoctor yet but I am curious and soooo looking forward to it!

It's complicated. If you ask an expert "What is cancer?" they might give a simple explanation, such as cancer is basically the unregulated proliferation and spread of dysfunctional cells through the body. But if they start another sentence, they are likely to tell you that within that loose definition, cancer is a number of different diseases that can happen singly or in unison(1). To me, that's just what "medicine" in comics is - pure in its own simplistic category or a mix of many types. Yeah, I know! Comics haven't been considered a "cancer" on society since The Seduction Of The Innocent, but how could I resist that analogy?

"Medicine" and "medical" have become catchall descriptors for a loosely organized pack of comics dealing with all sorts of topics about the body and mind. Lots of people include healthcare, health, pharmacology, physiology, pathology, surgery, psychiatry, psychology, mental illness, disabilities of all types, cultural perceptions of the body, multicultural medicinal models, anatomy, variations in anatomical norms, etc. etc. in the "medical comics" tent. For practical purposes, I do too.

"Medical" is a great catchall descriptor. We all know I've used it liberally in my blog, The Cinematologist and I'm not saying I won't use it again to describe my interests in comics, but the term "medical" inflates its realm and ignores the other interpretations of topics that have been shoved into the "medical bag." (Ha!) Labeling a comic's narrative as medical forces us to interpret the story through a science-based lens which may not have been the author's intention. Additionally many people including myself find medical themes in comics whose authors likely did not remotely consider such elements to be part of their stories. In these cases I think its important to read the work with a number of perspectives in mind.

All that said, I thought I would write a bit about what the phrase "medicine in comics" can indicate in terms of comics content. Although it is a small tip of the comics iceberg there's more variety in "medicine in comics" than many people are aware of. 


These are subjectively ordered by yours truly from Interesting to Most Interesting! You will probably also notice that there is a lot of overlap between categories.

1.  AUTOBIOGRAPHY - These stories are what I think of as falling under the classic Narrative Medicine moniker. As with all autobiographies they are the stories of peoples experiences with health, illness, healing, death, and often the cultural and political baggage associated with these experiences. The stories are surprisingly diverse because of the different roles people play in relationship to health and illness. Patients, family members, care-givers, medical professionals, friends, and more can experience a single person's illness in radically different ways. As with most autobiography, which is very trendy these days, these stories can be incredibly poignant or excruciatingly indulgent. 

Some of the more touching, popular, or interesting works are what I consider autopathographic comics. (Yes, I made up that word, but I like it.) Stitches: A Memoir by David Small, Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies, Cancer Vixen by Marissa Acocella Marchetto (Frankly, I can't look at this book without wincing, but lots of people love it.), Special Exits by Joyce Farmer, Our Cancer Year by Joyce Brabner, Harvey Pekar, and Frank Stack Monsters by Ken Dahl, and many more comics all provide resonant personal experiences of disease. 

Great read!

2. IN THE (BODY) BIZ - Sometimes those who know (through experience and/or education) want to write about their clinical experiences or create stories or gags based on their area of expertise. Trained as a doctor, Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack series is a glowing example of the fictional end of this group.

Here's an excellent article about Black Jack from Jog- The Blog.

More will come later about cartoonists In The Biz (nurses, doctors, et. al.), but for now go to Graphic Medicine for great resources and info on medical comics from the narrative medicine perspective. The next time they host a conference on this continent -- I'm there!

3. EDUCATIONAL - A traditional interpretation of this group is comics that were written for the express purpose of educating its readers. Narrowly defined, this is the area where there are few successes and many boring, dry tomes of comic mediocrity. However...

One of my favorite educational comics of all time is The Stuff Of Life: A Graphic Guide To Genetics and DNA written by Mark Schultz and drawn by Zandor Cannon and Kevin Cannon. This comic kicks gluteus

I recently read an article from a pharmaceutical journal touting a new series of educational comics for children and young teens called Medikidz. The author of the article, one of the Medikidz creators, was promoting the series as a way to keep children with chronic illness compliant with their medication. This is a good thing but the tone of the article implied it would be good for pharmaceutical sales. Brrrr. 
I also looked high and low for the name of the "leading graphic novel artist" these doctors have teamed up with, both in the article and on their site, but I find none. You can't get a comic without an artist. I don't know what to think of these people.

As an educator I personally find the category "Educational" so broad as to be ridiculous. I think ALL FORMS of medical comics can also provide educational opportunity with the right guidance. 

3. ENTERTAINMENT - Expose the body and/or mind to extreme physical and/or psychic elements that result in a physical and/or psychic reactions (usually) other than death, and voila! Volumes of fun and suspense await! Or perhaps someone has sustained some form of mutation that affects them on some profound level. Maybe they undergo surgery and become a cyborg. Perhaps a murderer exposes his/her victim to a pathogen, toxin, or other substance that will kill them - or will it? Maybe someone has been bit with radioactive spider venom, or exposed to cosmic rays, gamma radiation, or what have you.

You get it. This category encompasses most super-hero, science fiction, and fantasy themes.

Remember the Amazing six-armed Spider-Man? Every time I see one of those cover images, all I can do is speculate about the arrangement of 3 shoulder girdles and all their accompanying musculature on Peter Parker's torso. My anatomy students and I can spend a lot of time on this if we seriously consider muscular attachments, how to add joints to the thoracic cage, and what kind of range of motion one might get out of those two lower pairs of arms. Yes, it's a stupid mental exercise, but not a pointless one. If you are still learning about  and trying to memorize origins, insertions, and actions of the muscles of scapular stabilization it can be quite useful! We all have to start somewhere.

(Did you notice I didn't even mention the whole radioactive spider thing? If you'd like to read about inflammation, urticaria (hives), and fibroblasts, visit The Cinematologist.)

What about all those great medically-themed minis you can pick up at comiccons? What about Night Nurse and other medically themed comic books and strips? What about... etc., etc!!?!? I have left lots of materials, themes, artists, and writers out of this article but don't worry, they will show up in future posts. 

1. I hope no one from my day job reads my insanely simplistic metaphor!

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