Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Comics and Medicine

Today's C-log is a guest Blog by Meredith Li-Vollmer.  Meredith is a risk communication specialist for Public Health - Seattle & King County here in Washington State who spearheaded the project Comics 4 Health Coverage.  I did a 4-panel comic for the project because so very many fine cartoonists were discussing their involvement in Comics 4 Health Coverage that I had to learn more about it for myself. 

Here is Meredith to tell you about her project and the 

Comics and Medicine community: 


“You mean there are others like you?”
When I told my public health colleagues that I was going to a conference called Comics & Medicine, this was the bemused response I got. And truthfully, as I sat surrounded by 285 people from 12 countries in a lecture hall at Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, I was giddy and astounded by how many share my quirky interest.

David Lasky and Meredith Li-Vollmer hawking their
pandemic flu comic book at Comics & Medicine marketplace.
Our eclectic crowd included cartoonists, clinicians, linguists, bioethicists, medical illustrators, and literary scholars, gathered to share our work and generate new directions for comics. I’ve been collaborating with cartoonist David Lasky on educational comics about pandemic influenza and other dire public health topics since 2007, but I had no idea how many other ways people were using comics in medicine and health.
The conference featured a staggering 70+ talks demonstrating the power of graphic narrative to help people intimately grapple with the complexity of health and medical issues. For instance, fellow Seattleite Ellen Forney gave an amazing reading/lecture/performance piece that explored her diagnosis of bipolar disorder as detailed in her graphic memoir, Marbles. In Marbles, Forney masterfully used the visual vocabulary of comics to convey the intensity of her emotional states and to explain how she reconciled her diagnosis with her identity as an artist.
Artwork by Lydia Gregg, Chair and Lead
Organizer for Comics & Medicine.  Lydia
is an Instructor and Certified Medical
Illustrator at Johns Hopkins University School
of Medicine.
It’s that ability to flesh out the inner life of a character and make visual the sensations experienced that makes comics so well suited for stories about physical and mental health. And creating comics also offers possibilities of transformation for those who create them. In Vermont, James Sturm, co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, is helping veterans with PTSD and substance abuse issues use comics as a way of communicating—and processing—what they went through. In the impoverished Dharavi neighborhood of Mumbai, Benita Fernando is teaching locals to make comics as a means of expressing their concerns about sanitation issues and talking about mental health.
Several physicians gave talks about the use of comics to reflect upon their clinical and medical school experiences, a practice that is gaining traction in a few medical education programs. The Annals of Internal Medicine even has a call out for comics after an enthusiastic response from their readership when they published Missed It, a comic by Dr. Michael Green that tells about a missed diagnosis he made as an intern.
Importantly, graphic memoirs are providing a platform for patients to tell their own stories, shifting the perspective of illness narratives from the doctor-driven case studies. David Brenner and the cartoonist Mindy Indy presented on No Tears: Life with FD. This weekly webcomic about living with familial dysautonomia (FD), a rare, life-threatening disease, has created a community of rare disease patients who can relate to the humanizing depictions of daily struggles and moments of levity.
I gave a presentation on Comics 4 Health Coverage, a project I spearheaded with a small group of comics scholars and cartoonists in Seattle to tell personal stories about health insurance. Why health insurance? After reading several graphic memoirs related to illness, we were struck by the centrality of health insurance to these memoirs: for example, would Ken Dahl, author of Monster, have suffered such self-loathing and isolation if he had been able to afford the test for herpes sooner? What if Marisa Acocella Marchetta, the uninsured protagonist of Cancer Vixen, had not had a wealthy boyfriend who could cover the costs of her chemo treatment?
Noel Franklin's contribution to
Comics 4 Health Coverage
We were also highly aware of the low levels of insurance among artists and writers, so when enrollment opened for Obamacare, we issued a call for comics on why health insurance matters. We hoped that personal stories told through comics would spark thoughts or discussion, and perhaps motivate others to explore their coverage options. The idea had resonance, as seen in the range of stories we received from both seasoned and first-time cartoonists about what it means to have—or not have—health insurance, candidly told in four panels. And the presentation on the project certainly drew interest at Comics & Medicine, most notably from attendees from England and Brazil who were flabbergasted at the lack of universal coverage in this country.
In retrospect, it’s not that surprising that there were so many of us willing to travel to Baltimore to talk Comics & Medicine. Fans of the comic medium know the power of comics to transport readers into the experience of another. So it makes perfect sense that people with interests in health and medicine are increasingly using comics to tell stories about some of the most profound human experiences.

It was inspiring and liberating to be surrounded by so much creativity and passion related to my professional field. I haven’t drawn much since my teen years, but after this conference, I’ve been drawing a quick comic every day so that I can be more than just a writer of health comics. The next Comics & Medicine conference will likely be in Riverside, CA.  Care to join others like me?

Meredith Li-Vollmer

C-log posts on comics, publication and community every Tuesday.


  1. I work with low-literate adults in Madison, WI who are either immigrants with limited English skills or undereducated native English speakers, and they really struggle to understand and communicate with doctors, especially now that a doctor is more likely to give a patient a lengthy print-out of instructions (often in college-level vernacular) instead of sit and explain everything until it is understood. Do you know of anyone creating comics that rely more heavily on illustrations to describe basic health self-care, diabetes, or how to use the emergency room vs. urgent care? Airlines are able to provide clear graphic illustrations on safety -why can't we have the same thing for basic health care issues? Our Health Literacy programs are very effective -for those who attend. So many more people could be reached if there were instructional graphic "novels" available to low-literate communities.

    1. Hi Shawn, I know there are people who are using comics to illustrate health care for patients. I will check with some of the folks who were at Comics & Medicine from the medical illustration field to see if they can give you some resources. In the meantime, I'll share with you a couple of things that I've done using comics or illustration related to the flu for Public Health - Seattle & King County that we have translated into multiple languages. Both are on this webpage: http://kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/communicable/immunization/fluseason/fluresources.aspx

      One is a comic I did with David Lasky about staying home with flu. I've found in talking with different immigrant groups that there are strong cultural differences in the threshold people have for staying home when sick (especially if someone doesn't have sick leave), so we hoped this comic would help.

      The other handout shows through illustration how to use a digital thermometer. We found out during the H1N1 flu pandemic that some people didn't know how to use thermometers because traditionally they had just used their hands to assess relative temperature. But during that pandemic, schools used a precise temperature to determine if students could come to school, so people needed to know how to take temperatures. We used some grant money to buy quantities of digital thermometers to give out and created the illustrated flyer to go with it.

      I'll try to find some more resources for you. - Meredith

    2. Thanks so much for your reply, Meredith! I appreciate the link and resource info. While our local clinics work hard to provide translators and information in a variety of languages, the material still misses the mark when patients are low literate in English or their native language, or speak a language that is new to the area (as was the case when a couple thousand Bhutanese immigrants settled in Madison). I figured it would be helpful to have airline-safety-style illustrations of common health safety topics covered in our classes: diet, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease, describing symptoms, using 911, and understanding prescription labels/side effects. (We use the book "Staying Healthy" by the Florida Literacy Coalition, which is geared to English learners.) That way we could help those who read/write below a 5th or 2nd grade level (or don't at all). Again, thank you so much for your time, your thoughtfulness, your blog post, and your help!

    3. Shawn, I like the idea you are suggesting! As an English speaker who is a visual learner, I would like to have that for myself as well! (I am also a fan of airline safety cards.)

      Booster Shot Comics is one of the many producers of medical-related comics showcased at the Comics and Medicine conference in Baltimore this summer. Booster Shot is designed to help kids understand their illnesses...
      This is probably too cartoony for immigrant adults, but it's getting maybe towards what you are suggesting...