The PathoGraphics website states, “Illness and disability are very personal matters: they are located in individual bodies, connected to specific life stories, and may even be difficult to communicate, as in the cases of pain or grief.” As one way to help tell those stories, a genre of medical/health-related graphic literature, known as graphic medicine, is emerging to educate, communicate, and document the discourse of healthcare through the medium of comics.
What Is Graphic Medicine?
In 2007, physician and comics artist Ian Williams coined the phrase “graphic medicine.” He notes that it is “a handy term to denote the role that comics can play in healthcare and, over time, it has been adopted as the accepted term for this area of study and practice.” Williams and a growing number of healthcare providers, artists, authors, and academics are working together to create medical graphic literature—including graphic memoirs of illness, educational comics for patients and medical students, and graphic novels relating to health—as well as designing comics-making workshops as a therapeutic modality.
Graphic medicine materials cover themes including reproductive issues such as abortion, menopause, and pregnancy, as well as stories about illnesses such as AIDS, cancer, and COVID-19, along with mental health topics such as anxiety, dementia, and grief. Graphic medicine works can be political, presenting commentaries, frustrations, and the personal impact of healthcare policies and legislation. Additionally, often-sensitive themes such as gender identity, body dysmorphia, and sexuality are frequently explored through the comics medium. Comics and graphic representation portray feelings and emotions in a powerful, personal, yet decidedly less clinical voice, and this allows health providers, caregivers, and patients to discuss medical/health issues differently.
The Graphic Medicine International Collective
Williams started graphicmedicine.org, the website that is now home to the Graphic Medicine International Collective—today’s leading graphic medicine special interest group. “The Graphic Medicine International Collective was founded as a not-for-profit organization in 2019 by a group of the field’s strongest proponents and core organizers of the Graphic Medicine annual conferences,” according to its website. “The mission of the organization is to guide and support the use of comics in health.”
The graphic medicine community has met together at scholarly conferences since 2010. After a 2-year pandemic hiatus, the Graphic Medicine Annual Conference took place July 14–16, 2022, in hybrid format, with in-person sessions and events held on the University of Chicago campus and an option for virtual sessions. Approximately 300 academics, artists, doctors, illustrators, librarians, nurses, and medical ethicists registered for the conference, with a near equal split between on-site and virtual attendance.
The 2022 conference kicked off with an opening night reception that featured live-action cartoonists and a curator-led gallery tour of the [Re]Framing Graphic Medicine: Comics and the History of Medicine exhibition in the University of Chicago Library’s Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections gallery. The opening plenary, “Calls to Action: A Conversation on Comix, Social Justice, and Mutual Aid,” set the tone, gave focus to the meeting, and opened 2 days of conference sessions, workshops, papers, and activities.
Event workshops included Using Abstract Form and Color to Document/Understand Grief Journeys, Connecting and Trust: Community Engaged Comix Workshop, and Learning Whiteboard Animation. There were a range of panel offerings, such as Hidden Figures: Killing or Celebrating the Black Body and the Frontline Workers Discussion Panel. Paper sessions looked at topics such as COVID Comics, Health Education Comics, Caregiving & Mental Health, and Educating With Graphic Medicine. Throughout the conference, an open art therapy space offered attendees a chance to work hands-on to explore the medium.
Graphic Medicine Publishing Sessions
Leading graphic medicine publisher Penn State University Press held a book launch plenary to highlight new graphic medicine titles. The first part of the plenary discussed three new books it published: Clinical Ethics: A Graphic Medicine Casebook, Graphic Public Health: A Comics Anthology and Road Map, and Looking at Trauma: A Tool Kit for Clinicians. The second part shared three graphic medicine titles recently released by other publishers: Mom Milestones: The TRUE Story of the First Seven Years, On Rotation, and Dying for Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care. Penn State University Press has been publishing graphic medicine titles since 2015, when it released the seminal Graphic Medicine Manifesto, created by leaders of the Graphic Medicine International Collective, including Williams and nurse and comics artist MK Czerwiec.
The Graphic Medicine International Collective Award
This year, the Graphic Medicine International Collective launched its inaugural award for an outstanding health-related comics project published or completed in 2021. The Graphic Medicine International Collective Award Committee is juried by a 5-member team, each “representing one or more of these categories: cartoonist, academic, clinician, librarian, person with lived experience of illness, caregiving, and/or disability, and comics critic/reviewer.” The winning book, Parenthesis, written and illustrated by Élodie Durand, is a memoir that describes the impacts of living with a life-altering tumor. Durand won a commemorative trophy and a $1,000 cash prize. In the future, the Graphic Medicine International Collective plans to expand the award structure to include multiple award categories.
The 2020 and 2021 Graphic Medicine International Collective annual conferences were canceled in response to the pandemic, but in place of the 2020 meeting, the group launched a virtual Drawing Together event. Successful and fun, Drawing Together became a free monthly virtual meetup “to combat the social isolation of pandemic-related lockdowns, and to support and promote community,” and it continues today. Members of the global graphic medicine community meet via Zoom, where a group facilitator provides a topic and guides participants to draw, interact, and support each other.
Global Sister Organizations
An international graphic medicine community is emerging, and distinct groups outside of the Graphic Medicine International Collective are forming and articulating similar missions to support the information needs of their special interest groups.
The Japan Graphic Medicine Association is a newer organization that modeled itself after the Graphic Medicine International Collective and “aims to provide a global forum for the exchange of ideas and practical advice” relating to graphic medicine.
Medicina Gráfica is a collective of healthcare professionals who are passionate about graphic novels and comics and are dedicated to collecting Spanish-language graphic medical resources—namely books, podcasts, and films—and promoting them on the Medicina Gráfica website.
In Germany, PathoGraphics was an international research project that ran from 2016 to 2021 and exists with a robust legacy website. During its project run, PathoGraphics held graduate-level courses and public workshops and lectures that explored the history of graphic and literary illness narratives, the aesthetics of graphic medicine, the politics surrounding medical graphic works, and the epistemology of these literary and artistic works as they intersect with medicine and the social sciences.
Additional Graphic Medicine Resources
An essential graphic medicine reading list: graphicmedicine.org/essentialgm
Graphic Medicine International Collective’s reviews of new work: graphicmedicine.org/comic-reviews
Graphic Medicine International Collective’s podcasts: graphicmedicine.org/category/graphic-medicine-podcast
A list of graphic medicine in-person and digital exhibits: graphicmedicine.org/graphic-medicine-exhibits