Dispatches from the Graphic Medicine Conference: Day 1

Brigid Alverson reports from the scene of the 2018 Graphic Medicine Conference in Vermont, which is focused on graphic novels that describe the experience of illness and of being a patient.

I’m up in White River Junction, Vermont, home of the Center for Cartoon Studies and, for this weekend only, the Graphic Medicine Conference. Actually, the conference has two venues—it starts at CCS and moves to the Dartmouth medical school on Saturday.

Stephen Bissette giving the opening address at the Graphic Medicine Conference

The term “graphic medicine” may conjure up an image of a comic about healthy eating or the wonderful world of the circulatory system, but graphic medicine in this case has a more literary bent. It’s part of the field called medical humanities and focuses not on educational comics but on graphic novels that describe the experience of illness and of being a patient, embracing titles as disparate as Jennifer Hayden’s The Story Of My Tits, Ellen Forney’s Marbles and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (I wrote a short primer on the topic for School Library Journal recently.)

The first day started off with a comics market that was basically a mini–SPX, with creators tabling and selling their books. After a dinner break (and it must be said that, for a town that is downright tiny, White River Junction has a nice selection of restaurants), artist and CCS faculty member Stephen Bissette kicked things off with a talk that explored the many facets of graphic medicine, relating his own experiences, those of collaborators and, most interestingly, those of the CCS students who have chosen their own experiences with diabetes, depression and other maladies as a topic for their thesis projects. Here’s a quick look at some slides and some of the highlighted works.

Ken Dahl’s Monsters is his account of having herpes, while Sick chronicles his experience with an unknown illness and no medical care.

A spread from Annie Murphy‘s comic, also titled Sick, which deals with having an invisible illness, chronic pain.

Bissette pointed out that Sam Glanzman’s “The Fear That Crippled Andy Payne” appeared in the comic Our Army At War (later called Sgt. Rock) and unlike the underground comics that spring up around the same time (some of which covered similar ground, albeit in a very different way), it had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The story is a true one of a sailor Glanzman knew while in the Navy who had a nervous breakdown, and Bissette said Glanzman actually drew each part of it with his left hand to give it a shaky look, mirroring the way the sailor saw the world.

Bissette had a story of his own to tell. In Saga of the Swamp Thing #25-28, a creature that takes on the appearance of a person’s worst fears gets loose in a school for autistic children. Bissette drew on his wife’s experiences working with autistic children, and he also talked about how his wife shortly thereafter started experiencing repressed memories of sexual abuse, which ultimately led to the end of their marriage.

John Totleben, the inker for Saga of the Swamp Thing, was suffering at the time from an undiagnosed, progressive condition, which was eventually revealed to be retinitis pigmentosa, which narrowed his vision to a small area. Nonetheless, he continues to draw to this day.

Bissette also showed some pages from Al Davison’s Spiral Cage, a wrenching memoir of life with spina bifida, and concluded with works by eight CCS alumni:

Bird in a Cage is CCS alumna Rebecca Roher’s account of her family’s response to her grandmother’s worsening dementia; Conundrum Press has published it in print.

Jarad Greene’s Memories of a Former Porcelain Doll is a memoir of the author’s struggles with acne.

Sugar Baby, by Nomi Kane, is a memoir of growing up with Type 1 diabetes that takes devastating aim at naive edu-comics—but also depicts how a diagram of the Pink Panther helped the author understand her own condition.

Joyana McDiarmid fictionalized her experiences of suicidal ideation at the suggestion of her CCS mentor, Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole, March). Bissette pointed out that this is one of the most literally introspective graphic novels, as McDiarmid depicts the medications she is taking as they move through her body and change its systems.

Bryn Adams went through a number of different concepts for Emergency Exits, including considering drawing it in the style of Calvin & Hobbes.

Luke Howard’s Our Mother is a startlingly original memoir of his mother’s anxiety disorder, ending with a photo-comic of the author as a young boy discussing it with his mother herself.

Bissette concluded with a set of cartoons by Al B. Wesolowsky, the oldest student (so far) to attend CCS; Wesolowsky, who is in his 60s, graduated in 2009 and has recently been suffering from retinitis pigmentosa. Although his field of vision has been drastically narrowed, he has drawn a defiant set of cartoons that began in his art therapy sessions in the hospital. The cartoons speak to the absurdity of his situation as well as his determination to keep on drawing no matter what.

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