Graphic Content, With Good Intentions
For our latest issue, we sat in on Michael Green’s class at Penn State Hershey that teaches medical students about the power of comics. But it’s not the only initiative in which Penn State is using graphic narratives to help raise understanding and empathy around difficult health issues.
Although a handful of universities like Rutgers and Ohio State have published books about the comic culture and cartoonists, the Penn State Press has dedicated an entire series to the graphic medicine genre. English professor Susan Merrill Squier, who has been teaching comics to grad students since 2011, co-edits the series with physician and artist Ian Williams. The first book, published in 2015, was Graphic Medicine Manifesto, a volume of scholarly essays and visual narratives that is as much an intro to “comics in medicine” as a declaration for its place in this world.
In just under two years, Penn State Press has published at least seven other graphic memoirs, on subjects from caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s (Aliceheimer’s) to parenting a daughter with Down Syndrome (Hole in the Heart). One book getting a lot of press right now is My Degeneration by Alaskan cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl about his daily struggle with Parkinson’s. Says Publishers Weekly: “The narrative covers the fear and determination that make up [his] daily life, from the terror of suddenly unable to walk to the triumph of still being able to dress himself.”
People are reading—and sending pitches—from around the world. Squier recalls how one customer bought Graphic Medicine Manifesto for a brother with incurable throat and jaw cancer: “[His brother] had basically all the treatment he could have, but was now just trying to find a way to live with the situation. And he was blown away by the possibility to express what he was really feeling and not able to get out yet.”
Squier and Green are also part of an international committee that organizes an annual global conference on graphic medicine. Says Green: “We’ve brought together communities of artists and scholars and physicians and teachers and patients, all around this common interest in comics in medicine.”