The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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APR 2016 Issue

A Pill for the Heart

Graphic Medicine book series
(Penn State University Press, 2015-2016)

Art and science: terminally uneasy bedfellows, or powerful partners in a new era of synergistic alliances? It’s a question that nags at anyone following the groundswell of enthusiasm for the convergence of these two fields. For of all the trans- and interdisciplinary dialogues being forged in academia and across the broader culture, this one seems the most fraught, so vastly different are the cultures and modes of knowledge native to each. But with a wonderful new book series from Penn State University Press, prospects for coalition are given renewed promise in a way that will inform, delight, and deeply move readers from all fields and backgrounds.

While theoretical astrophysics may never need art, the science of medicine does—and with special urgency. The series fuses the art of the graphic novel with medical pedagogy to form a new hybrid genre geared toward challenging conventional representations of health and disease. But while advancing a more inclusive model for medical culture, the books’ deft use of the comic medium also affords some fresh insights into the transformative nature of art. For with the two fields united, we’re reminded of something too often forgotten: art’s tremendous potential as an agent of healing.

With the exception of the series’ inaugural volume, a collection of scholarly essays by its six editors, the books are graphic memoirs or fictionalized accounts written by people who are themselves ill or are caring for others who are. Known as “pathographies,” the narratives chronicle the intensely personal experiences of people struggling with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a host of other maladies both physical and psychological. Having been thrust into a medical culture in which the dominant paradigm is one of clinical distance and “objectivity,” the authors recount their experiences of suffering both from the condition that afflicts them and a depersonalized system that threatens to rob them of their humanity. Throughout, tales of illness, treatment, death, and dying are interlaced with didactic elements addressing the science underlying the various conditions. But the astonishing thing is that none of it feels like pedagogy. While the reader may learn a great deal about the science of the human body, it is the art—the sequential drawings interwoven with text—that delivers the most penetrating message. For as anyone who has studied the medium will tell you, there is something about the complex hybridity of the graphic novel that engages the psyche like no other art form.

To understand how and why comics made their way into the medical community, we turn to an unlikely source: the staid halls of academia. In a burgeoning field known as the medical humanities, scholars from a range of departments are studying not the science of medicine but how it is practiced. As we learn in the series’ deeply informative Graphic Medicine Manifesto, the field arose as an impassioned challenge to medical culture’s dominant narrative, biomedicine, which treats the body but ignores the soul, and whose fixed standards of health, normalcy, and illness alienate many. Now part of the required medical school curriculum, courses in the medical humanities address the complex relationships between doctors and patients with the goal of creating more empathic caretakers. Since the focus is on the interior lives of all involved, the arts provide a ready vehicle for exploration—if not an altogether easy one. For as one can imagine, genres such as painting and poetry can seem maddeningly abstruse to the kind of goal-oriented, empirically inclined thinkers that medicine attracts.

Comics, however, are a different story. A medium born of popular culture with a storied tradition of edgy transgression, the form is inherently accessible. (Which is not to say “low” or by any means frivolous; regrettably, it seems the genre is still struggling for legitimacy as serious art—even with its recent rebranding as “graphic literature.”) Because of its penchant for play and gutsy irreverence, the medium can address serious issues in a way that feels less threatening than it might in other forms. In My Degeneration, for example, Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s beautifully moving account of his journey through Parkinson’s, the disease’s harrowing and often bizarre symptoms are rendered with such warmth and wit that the reader stays intimately engaged. So too with Ian Williams’s The Bad Doctor, in which a physician struggles with the intrusive thoughts and excruciating obsessions that accompany obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A practicing physician with capacious talents as an artist and writer, it was Williams who started the graphic medicine movement. Having created a personal website in 2007 as a way of compiling comics he came across with health-related content, Williams was contacted by a number of medical professionals who shared his love for the medium. Five of them—MK Czerwiec, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green, Kimberly R. Myers, and Scott T. Smith—would eventually become his co-founders of the Graphic Medicine series. All involved in medical pedagogy of one kind or another, the team began experimenting with comics in the classroom. What they found is that not only did comics make ideal prompts for discussions of difficult issues, they also gave medical students a uniquely effective way of exploring their own conflicts—that is, as authors of comics of their own. By writing and drawing about the myriad challenges of the medical school experience—many of them interpersonal—students gained valuable insights into the complexity of human relationships and, most significantly, what it might feel like to be on the other end of the stethoscope.

How do graphic novels work, and just what makes them so powerful? The answer goes well beyond their accessibility. To readers unfamiliar with the medium, the first thing one will notice with these books is that passive reading won’t do. Because of the complex interplay between text and image, one’s participation is demanded. Often, the text and images follow divergent narrative tracks, leaving the reader to make the connections between them. With an ingenious economy of means, narratives that might take pages of ordinary prose can be condensed into a few panels, as when elements from the past, present, and imagined future coexist within a single visual scheme. Everything is resonant with meaning, from the characters’ expressive postures to the shapes and arrangements of the panels that contain them. Since each turn of the page presents a new tableau to be deciphered, the reader is drawn ever deeper into the characters’ worlds. Visual and verbal faculties working in tandem, the reading experience is one of unusual cognitive attunement. (The series’ sole exception to this kind of discursive layering is its latest release, Dana Walrath’s lovingly written Aliceheimer’s, in which the author tells of her mother’s descent into dementia. While the story is tremendously moving, its somewhat more conventional form makes for a less engaged reading experience.) Throughout, the presence of the human hand, both in the drawings and the text, further intensifies the focus on interiority. It is no small matter that the graphic novel is the only literary genre to exploit the expressive power of human handwriting.

With such semiotic charge, it is also the consummate medium for symbolism. One of the series’ most powerful volumes in this respect is Aneurin Wright’s Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park…When You’re 29 and Unemployed. Here, an estranged father and son, reunited by the former’s diagnosis with terminal emphysema, are depicted as a rhinoceros and a minotaur, respectively. Much like Kara Walker’s much-lauded silhouettes, whose generalized form makes the figures more, rather than less, relatable, the anthropomorphic animals elicit our immediate identification. Throughout the novel, we empathize with the formidable beasts as they struggle toward reconciliation—only to be met with an unexpected turn. In one of the book’s most poignant moments—just after the father has gasped his last breath—we see zippers appear on both beasts’ skins. Then, in a sequence conveyed entirely through images, the son tenderly removes both of their masks, revealing two fragile human beings underneath. It’s an exquisite example of the medium’s capacity for visual metaphor, condensed expression, and emotional force. Anyone who emerges from this passage with dry eyes should be studied by science.

While people suffering from the conditions addressed in these books will surely find great comfort in reading them, the series ultimately speaks to a much broader audience—namely, anyone who suffers, which is to say all of us. For whatever the medium, part of art’s power lies in its ability to dissolve “otherness” and reach right to our shared humanity. But these books do more. By weaving two different modes of cognition into a single, seamless experience, graphic storytelling is itself a force of psychic integration. When combined with the science of medicine, it becomes a powerful appeal to both psychic and psychosomatic wholeness.

If the growing movement of interdisciplinarity can be seen to represent a broader cultural shift, perhaps we are finally heading toward a great and sorely needed collective healing: the mending of a consciousness fractured by the reification of reason. For the illusion that objective knowledge can be separated from the knowers who use it has been a high price to pay for the triumphs of modern science. Can art and science see eye to eye? Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong question, for surely neither exists without the human beings who practice it. As graphic medicine makes eminently clear, the two have much in common after all.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

All Issues