Interview: The link between graphic fiction and medicine

GP and graphic novelist Dr Ian Williams runs a website, Graphic Medicine, and will see his first graphic novel published this summer.

How did graphic fiction become a part of your life?

I loved comics as a child and in my teenage years, discovered the American underground comix of Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb. These have remained at the centre of my interest because it is from this transgressive branch of the comics industry that the modern ‘graphic memoir’ has developed.

The first autobiographical stories of the underground movement concerned psychedelic drug experiences or sexual adventures, but these groundbreaking artists soon started to use the medium to convey narratives of mental disorder or problems with physical health.

I never had much interest in mainstream or superhero comics and remain largely ignorant of the DC and Marvel universes. I lost touch with comics for a while, but my interest was reignited by the rise of the graphic novel: particularly Maus by Art Spiegelman and the work of younger American artists such as Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes.

I did make comics as a child, and have drawn strips on and off over the years, but I didn’t really start making comics seriously and participating in comic makers’ events until 2007, after starting to write about medical narrative in graphic fiction.

When did you link graphic fiction and medicine?

Reading numerous graphic novels, I started to notice that many autobiographical titles were being published that concerned the personal experience of illness, either in the author or in a close relative or partner.

I started to look for more titles and the more I looked, the more I found. I felt that these works conveyed the subjective experience of illness in a particularly powerful way. The difference, I think, between graphic fiction (a bit of a misnomer – the stories are often ‘true’) and educational or self-help comics, for example, is that they don’t follow any agenda, other than that of the author.

The best ones do not seem to care about an ‘audience’: they are not written to ‘help’ people, and in doing so, because of that unselfconscious lack of duty to anything beyond art, they create new knowledge and truths that are profoundly important. There are many functions that comics can perform for patients and healthcare professionals, but for me this is the most important aspect – the work creates a direct portal, as it were, into the mind and the experience of the author.

I am very conscious of power structures within medicine, and one thing that graphic fiction does is disrupt the monopoly of ‘objective’ medical knowledge in favour of a more inclusive approach, in which the perspective of the patient or carer is given as much importance as that of the medical ‘authorities’.

What prompted your MA and what did it comprise?

After medical school, I went to art school part-time and did a postgraduate certificate. I then developed a side career as a painter and printmaker, in which I had some modest success. I felt I had no common language with which to tie the two sides of my career – art and medicine – so I enrolled on an MA in medical humanities in Swansea.

As doctors we are funnelled into a medical worldview, with little cognizance of any other theories or viewpoints outside the medical model.

Medical humanities is an inter­disciplinary space within healthcare, in which literary theorists and ethnographers, for example, rub shoulders with neuroscientists and cardiologists.

I thought I would end up writing about fine art with medical themes, but it dawned on me that the place where the two sides of my interest really met was the graphic novel and comic art. I wrote a dissertation on medical narrative in comics and earned a distinction.

How did you develop the Graphic Medicine website?

While I was writing my dissertation and reading lots of graphic novels, I had the idea of starting the site, which I called GraphicMedicine.org

Launching it changed my life – people from all over the world started contacting me and I heard my site referenced in academic talks.

Key early collaborations were with Professor Michael Green of Penn State University, Pennsylvania, US, and MK Czerwiec, aka Comic Nurse, with whom I now run the site.

I published my dissertation and started to write journal papers and speak at medical humanities conferences. I headed the organisation of the first international conference on comics and medicine in London in 2010 and since then, we have had conferences in Chicago, Toronto, and Brighton. This year we will be in Baltimore in the US, at Johns Hopkins University.

I’ve written two book chapters on the subject and we are launching a book series on graphic medicine, of which I am joint series editor, from Penn State University Press. I have also just finished drawing and writing my first graphic novel, which
will be published this summer.

The Graphic Medicine site offers reviews, links, academic news, interviews and a blog. It is a non-profit exercise and we receive funding from the Wellcome Trust.

How does Graphic Medicine relate to your work as a GP?

General practice is the most wonderful source of stories. I think many GPs forget what a privileged position they occupy.

I worked in rural north Wales for 15 years in an old-style practice. In our work, we meet fascinating characters and see people at their best and their worst.

If you are an enquiring person, as I am, the stories are much more interesting than the pathology. I never told my patients that I make comics, I wasn’t sure what they would think and thought it best not to say anything. I used a pseudonym, Thom Ferrier (www.thomferrier.com).

I have been living in Manchester for the past year while finishing the graphic novel and I am just about to move to Brighton (home of many comics artists) and will be looking for GP locum work there.

Tell us more about your forthcoming graphic novel

My first graphic novel, The Bad Doctor, is a tale of general practice, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), cycling and heavy metal. It will be published in June by Myriad Editions Publishers.

The protagonist, Iwan James, is a rather troubled soul, a middle-aged GP going through something of a midlife crisis. A patient whose life has been blighted by OCD causes Iwan to reconsider his own adolescence when he, too, lived with the condition. He thought he had overcome the illness, but realises it has subtly shaped his life in ways he had never considered.

Cycling with his friend Arthur is a kind of therapy for Iwan, which gives me a chance to draw some lovely Welsh countryside.

My publishers are already booking me in for speaking engagements at literary festivals and comics conventions, and I am looking forward to the summer

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