by Laura S. Kyle
Assistant, Arts and Culture Exhibitions
San Diego Public Library
The medical world is opening to comic books. No, your surgeon isn’t learning scalpel technique from Superman, but professional caregivers and their patients increasingly turn to graphic literature when communicating about sickness and death.
It makes sense: Although they carry authority, words are distant and weak just when the human experience is most complex and deeply nuanced. Add pictures, however, and interpretation comes into play. What’s ineffable begins to be understandable. Think of an emoji. That’s the message behind a traveling exhibit from the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine. “Text and images work together to create meaning neither conveys alone,” states a banner in the exhibit, titled Graphic Medicine: Ill-Conceived & Well-Drawn.
The exhibit’s six banners explain the elements of graphic literature and why the genre is so effective for medical communication. From a patient’s perspective, graphic literature’s friendly and familiar approach can counterbalance the cold, hard facts of medicine. For caregivers, it can open insight to a patient’s experience and provide feedback on quality of care. What’s more, well-designed graphics can convey a wealth of technical information at a memorable glance.
Each banner has examples from medical graphic texts such as Cancer Vixen: A True Story, by Marisa Acocella Marchetto; Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, by Sarah Leavitt; and Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371, by MK Czerwiec. The exhibit’s curator, Ellen Forney, herself creates such literature about her own experiences as a patient.
Until recently, the exhibit was at an especially opportune venue: San Diego’s Central Library during July 2018, just a few blocks from Comic-Con, the granddaddy of popular culture events. San Diego’s Comic-Con is such a big deal that events spill over into the Central Library. As a result, thousands of attendees were exposed to Graphic Medicine and the emerging concept of graphic medical literature. The exhibit generated an unusual amount of interest and heavy viewing traffic while in San Diego. The NLM has received numerous requests from organizations hoping to borrow the already wait-listed exhibit. Send your organization’s application today!
And that thing about Superman teaching surgeons? It’s not so far-fetched. Penn State University, for example, has a Graphic Medicine press. Among its offerings are “comics used in medical training and education, as well as monographic studies and edited collections from scholars, practitioners and medical educators.”