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Frames of Mind:

Reflections on Medicine in Comics

Ian Williams, the doctor-turned-graphic novelist who pioneered the field of Graphic Medicine, very kindly invited me to give the Opening Keynote address at the first ever conference on comics and medicine in London in 2010. Since then, it’s been an honour and privilege to be invited back to subsequent conferences in Chicago in 2011 and Toronto in 2012. This year, the Conference reconvened in Brighton with special guest speakers David B. and Nicola Streeten, and once again I was the opening act or ‘warm-up man’, giving my overview of some of the highlights I have found in graphic medicine, past, present and future.

You might not think these two very different fields would have much in common, but you’d be wrong. The Medical Humanities are embracing the way graphic narratives can convey not only clear, concise health information but also give profound insights and enhance the profession’s empathy for patients and for their relatives and carers, as well as empathy and identification with fellow doctors, nurses and other practitioners. As for the comics world, there’s something of a boom in autobiographical graphic novels and webcomics dealing with the very personal experiences of illness, treatment, recovery, loss and grief. We’re in an amazingly rich time.

Instead of presenting here the full text of my address, Frames of Mind: Reflections on Medicine in Comics, I recommend you click on the link and go listen to this audio recording of it, smoothly organised at the conference by Alex Fitch. You can also watch an accompanying QuickTime slideshow of the images I screened, synchronised expertly by Comic Nurse MK Czerwiec. My talk follows welcomes and introductions by conference organiser and comics creator Muna AlJawad and by fellow organizer, Brighton Sussex Medical School ethics professor Bobbie Farsides.

I kick off with my reading ‘performance’ of a complete comic from an annual I recently discovered from fifty years ago, Calling Nurse Abbott!, a hardback annual spin-off from Girl comic, cover dated 1963 but published of course for the Christmas gift market in 1962. Calling Nurse Abbott! was written by Frank Redpath, and drawn by Philip Townsend and Leo Davey. It had begun on November 25th 1961, replacing another nursing serial, Susan of St. Brides, which had run for about seven years. Girl‘s new nursing star proved less popular, wrapping up after precisely one year.

Next I talk about two recent significant Spanish graphic novels which have really crossed over and been adapted into feature films: Miguel Gallardo’s Maria y Yo (‘Maria and Me’) about the author’s autistic daughter, and Paco Roca’s Arrugas (‘Wrinkles’) about the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Here are the first two pages of Arrugas, which brilliantly convey Emilio’s disorientation, as he believes he is still a bank manager refusing clients a loan, when he is in fact in bed being served his dinner by his son Juan and daughter-in-law. That sudden shift in awareness is brilliantly and unobtrusively conveyed here.

Both books have helped stimulate greater awareness and discussion of these conditions in Spain and the two authors toured the country, meeting local families, groups and communities coping with them. Gallardo and Roca have even co-created a graphic travelogue report on their experiences making and promoting their books, entitled Emotional World Tour. The animated movie version of Arrugas has had no cinematic release in the UK, as far as I am aware, and the graphic novel also languishes untranslated so far. Let’s hope that will change in the near future, as this book and film can reach a lot of people dealing with this condition. Here’s the trailer and a frisson-making extract, subtitled into English.


To find out more about these and the other titles I discuss in the audio of my Keynote, and other exciting examples contributed at the end of my session by conference delegates in the audience, check out this very handy page Graphic Medicine Conference Recommends, where MK Czerwiec has compiled links to almost all of them.

And if you’d like still more, the highly recommended Graphic Medicine website also lets you listen and watch images from my Keynote from the 2012 Toronto Conference, and from my conversation with the joyous Joyce Farmer, from Tits & Clits to Abortion Eve to Special Exits. Happy listening and viewing!

Posted: July 21, 2013

With thanks to Ian Williams, MK Czerwiec and all involved with Graphic Medicine.


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Calling Nurse Abbott!

Arrugas by Paco Roca