Graphic Medicine Conference: Whit Taylor’s keynote and a lightning round of cartoonists

Susan Merrill Squier, Ian Williams, Morgan Sea, Rachel Lindsay and more presented at the second day of the Graphic Medicine Conference in Vermont.

The big news of the Graphic Medicine Conference came Friday evening, at Susan Merrill Squier’s keynote address: Graphic Medicine is going to seek 501(c)(3) status, making it officially a nonprofit organization. When co-director Ian Williams told me this the next day, I thanked him -— up until now, I haven’t ever been sure what noun to use to describe Graphic Medicine. Is it a movement? A community? Now it will be a nonprofit organization, although there are still many details to be hammered out.

I didn’t make it to Squiers’ address because I was tuckered out from the earlier activities of the day, which kicked off with Whit Taylor’s keynote address focusing on public health. Taylor, who has a master’s degree from the Boston University School of Public Health and has worked as an educator, pointed out some bad examples of public health information—scaremongering anti-smoking ads, and a pamphlet about heart disease illustrated with inappropriate stock photos—and suggested some more effective strategies. To get people to change their behavior, she pointed out, you first have to understand why they act that way in the first place. She also showed some examples of student-driven work from a college setting.

In terms of comics, Taylor’s work includes America Isn’t Ready For a Pandemic. Here’s How It Could Happen and another comic on the Tuskegee Experiment, both posted on the website The Nib. Her most recent graphic novel, Ghost Stories, is a trilogy of stories that deal with PTSD and sexual assault. She also pointed out some excellent examples by others: Susie Cagle’s Sugarland, which looks at the high cost of insulin, its effects on individuals, and the response of the diabetic community; Maki Naro’s Vaccines Work; and Emi Gennis’s Radium Girls, as well as minicomics such as Isabella Rotman‘s sex education comics, Kriota Willberg’s artists-health minicomics, which have been collected as Draw Stronger, Kate Leth’s tattoo primer, Ink for Beginners.

Turning to the personal aspect, Taylor said, “I’ve always been interested in health because I’m a hypochondriac. I try to understand what scares me.” She discussed her own struggles with mental health, and she pointed out that in recent years more and more creators are doing cartooning around mental health, in many cases getting good responses from readers. She pointed to Ellen Forney’s Rock Steady, a followup to her memoir Marbles that is something of a guide to living with bipolar disorder; Keiler Roberts‘s work dealing with living with bipolar disorder; and Yumi Sakugawa’s There Is No Right Way to Meditate.

After Taylor’s address, the conference broke into sessions that offered a wide array of presentations. I opted for a “lightning” round of creators speaking about their work:

Suzy Becker, author of I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse?, talked about her experience not only of having a brain tumor but also creating the book: “It’s curative, not a cure all. When I sit down to write, I think, ‘I am not alone.'”

Maureen Burdock discussed her graphic dissertation, The Baroness of Have-Nothing, which explored her family history in terms of PTSD and transgenerational trauma.

Scholar Martha Stoddard Holmes questioned why there were no comics about ovarian cancer, discussing her own experience with the disease and society’s perception of ovaries, which she described as “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know—without the sexiness of Lord Byron.”

Rachel Lindsay presented some pages from her graphic memoir RX, which will be published next month. When she learned she had bipolar disorder, Lindsay set aside her artistic ambitions and got a steady job in advertising so she could afford the medical care and medications she needed to manage the disease—and, ironically, ended up working on ads for antidepressant medications while hiding her own condition from her co-workers. When she couldn’t take it any longer, she quit her job abruptly and ended up spending two weeks in a mental hospital, struggling to regain her autonomy.

Morgan Sea presented a playful satirical project, Trans*Pataphysics.

Liesl Swogger discussed the process of collaborating with her brother, John Swogger, on One of Those People, her graphic memoir of anorexia. John, the artist for the project, is an archaeologist who is currently working on another continent, and he delivered his part of the presentation via video.

Graphic Medicine co-founder Ian Williams wrapped up the session with a report on his almost-completed graphic novel The Lady Doctor, the second book in the trilogy that began with The Bad Doctor.

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