After a few weeks of vacation, I’m immersed back in an academic world of pediatric cardiology pearls, conference presentations, and narrative medicine projects. But despite the busy return, I wanted to drop a quick post about a new genre of literature I was recently introduced to and have quickly embraced. I attended an Arts & Humanities in Medicine Conference last year, at which I heard about the new and growing field of graphic medicine. It is a subset, or perhaps a branch, of narrative medicine, but it uses comics and graphics in lieu of a narrative format (narrative medicine x graphic novels). The phrase, “graphic medicine” (a thrilling new syntax on its own), was formulated by Dr. Ian Williams; a physician himself, he is the founder of GraphicMedicine.org and the author of The Bad Doctor. (Alison Bechdel called him, “the best thing to happen to medicine since penicillin” if that gives you a better idea of how cool he is.) I don’t have as much experience with graphic novels as I’d like; I’ve read a few pieces in the past; so along with learning about a new genre, diving into a graphic novel was also a relatively newer experience for me (PS: I would love any and all suggestions for more titles). The website I’ve mentioned about graphic medicine (link below) has a lot of suggestions for similar authors/books, a blog to follow, related conference schedules, and more content that is definitely worth a browse for a better idea of what the field encapsulates.
The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James is a unique page-turner about a general practitioner in a rural UK town who sees a variety of patient personalities and their ranging ailments, including those of mental health, infectious processes, diseases of old age, etc. Although Dr. Iwan James is an outwardly calm and timid man who enjoys cycling in the country, his mind is a realm of loud and overbearing fears. The story is enriched by flashbacks of the doctor’s obsessions and compulsions and illustrates how his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) evolves with age. Along with his past, Williams also explores the doc’s present by tackling how OCD still affects his current daily practice and his interactions with his patients.
The story is fun to read, but what was really exciting for me to follow was the use of the illustrations. Again, I don’t have a lot of experience with graphic novels, so much of my observations come from a narrative medicine perspective. But using comics in a narrative medicine context let the author show his audience what James sees in his clinic rooms – the patients’ hand motions, their eyebrow movements, eye contact patterns, postures, clothes, body types… And with each frame one sees how the physician responds to his patients and how they react to him in return. Conveying that interaction successfully with words is a skill most writers often only aspire to, but seeing it in action in this comic proved how beautifully effective it can be when done with pictures (and with noteworthy ones at that). Aside from the doctor-patient dance, the use of graphics is also utilized ingeniously to show readers Dr. James’s OCD. Full-page illustrations draw the doctor’s circular thought processes, his irrational thought connections, and snapshots of the images he sees when he closes his eyes – trying to make sense of the unwelcome “nonsense” that occupies his mind. Being able to visualize a protagonist’s overwhelming anxiety connects you to the piece in a completely different way than I am used to, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Ian Williams has another graphic medicine novel titled, The Lady Doctor, that is also sitting on my bookshelf. I considered reading that, as well, before writing this post, but if you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have a hard time keeping my thoughts off of my keyboard once I finish a book I enjoy. But if nothing else, I hope that I’ve at least introduced one other person to an unexpected new genre of literature today.
Until next time!