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Q&A: Shelley Wall talks comics and medicine at the University of Toronto

Shelley Wall, assistant professor at U of T's biomedical communications graduate program, co-organized the fourth annual Comics and Medicine conference in Toronto next week

While comics artists have tackled all manner of sex, drugs, and violence in their work, medicine “ an area in which all these issues (and more) intersect “ still seems to carry the stink of stigma. But if an upcoming conference at the University of Toronto is any indication, times are changing.

Comics and Medicine: Navigating the Margins, the third conference of its kind, will take place from July 22 to 24. Monday night, the conference will host a discussion with Joyce Farmer, author of 2010’s Special Exits (Fantagraphics Books), a graphic novel about caring for elderly parents, and Joyce Brabner, who wrote the graphic memoir Our Cancer Year (Running Press, 1994) with her late husband, Harvey Pekar. The talk, moderated by Paul Gravett and co-presented by the Beguiling bookshop, is free and open to non-delegates.

Shelley Wall, the driving force behind bringing the conference to U of T, spoke with Q&Q about the many relationships between comics and medicine, the depiction of health care and illness in Canadian graphic arts, and why the graphic medical memoir genre has gained momentum.

How did you develop an interest in comics and medicine?
I’m a medical illustrator and teach in the biomedical communications program at U of T, where we train professional medical illustrators. I came to comics and medicine when I was teaching an undergraduate course in written health care communication and became interested in different modes and combinations of modes to communicate about health.

It was through reading about this that I found Mom’s Cancer by cartoonist Brian Fies [also a conference organizer]. It’s the story of his mother’s diagnosis with metastatic lung cancer and the effect that it had on their family. That’s when I realized there was this whole world of people who were doing graphic novels about illness, and I started a comic of my own about someone very close to me who has early-onset Parkinson’s.

What relationships between medicine and comics will be explored at the conference?
Some people will be presenting on their own work dealing with illness, or the experience of someone they’ve known. Others will look at the use of comics in medical schools. Comics are a way of marrying the emphasis on evidence-based medicine “ statistics, epidemiology, biological science “ with the human element “ what it’s like to experience sickness “ to encourage empathy in medical students.

Some people are also encouraging medical students to create their own comics as an alternative way of thinking through experiences such as encountering ethical dilemmas, or their first dissection of a cadaver, to get at the sort of unquantifiable aspects of practicing medicine.

There’s also a look at using comics for public education and health promotion. They can be an alternative way to engage in patient education, and help overcome literacy and language barriers. Comics can bring in elements of playfulness, visual metaphor, or storytelling that can really help to get a message across in a clear way.

What are some of the challenges involved in putting these experiences on the page?
Ian Williams, another conference organizer who is a physician and an artist in Wales, tells stories about his interactions with patients. But these stories bring up the issue of confidentiality, so he fictionalizes the stories and publishes them under a pseudonym.

Also, we don’t often hear people speaking of medicine from stigmatized positions, like people who are inmates in mental hospitals. The title of the conference, Navigating the Margins, refers to the fact that a lot of these stories give perspective to people who don’t necessarily get their voices heard over the voice of medical authority.

What are some of your favourite examples of this genre?
One of the conference presenters, Sarafin, is writing a book called Asylum Squad: The Psychosis Diaries. The book is based on her webcomic series about her time as a patient at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. They’re very powerful stories because there are so many more stigmas and taboos associated with mental illness than with a lot of other health conditions. I think it takes a lot of bravery and clear-sightedness to deal with that issue.

Toronto’s Suley Fattah, who’s made and edited comics about being a cancer patient in the self-published book Drawing the Line, will give a workshop at the conference. And Sandra Bell-Lundy, who appears on a panel, has a hugely successful syndicated strip in Between Friends. Although the strip is not about health necessarily, there are a number of storylines about infertility, domestic abuse, and breast cancer. Her stories on mammograms are even used by the Canadian Cancer Society.