Graphic Medicine at Work
Brighton and Sussex Medical School
…to go into a talk on the relationships between Ethics, Medicine and Comics
On a sunny Friday evening, it was a smallish turn out of about 20 with the audience split about 50/50 between people coming from comics and medicine backgrounds.
Simple format where three speakers presented their work and thoughts followed by a group Q&A that skewed more to comics questions than medicine or ethics ~ probably because comics are a more tangible area?
SPEAKER THE FIRST: Dr Muna Al Jawad uses comics in her research and as teaching tools. She may not rate her comic-fu highly but it’s pretty strong – I particularly liked the Beanoesque way she showed her character’s gut telling her something her head was ignoring. These should be published somewhere as they work for the layman and a lot of the issues are readily transferable to other areas, but being so subject-specific they may need a brave publisher to pick them up…
SPEAKER THE SECOND: Nicola Streeten is an illustrator who’s first comic book is the 100+ page Billy, Me & You, which is almost about a personal tragedy but mostly about reactions to the tragedy ~ and reactions to the reactions ~ and reactions to the reactions to…
Now, I loathe misery-memoirs and that goes double in the comics format, as they hardly ever use comics as a medium just as a series of icons to substitute for any actual writing. So I had discounted Nicola’s book before the talk, but her description of using the it to talk about interactions rather than a “poor-me ~ something happened” litany of troubles caught my attention.
I wasn’t convinced by her argument that the strength of comics is because “they’re not grown-up… we’re taken by surprise” when they tackle serious subjects. That is surely a statement only a writer who is relatively new to the form could make. But there is some mileage in the idea that part of the audience will underestimate the medium so it can be used to subvert their expectations.
I was impressed enough by Nicola’s enthusiasm for the medium to buy a copy of Billy, Me & You from her afterwards. I read it last night and it stands up pretty well as series of observations and a use of comics. It doesn’t tend to focus as much on the to-and-fro reactions as I’d hoped ~ having to cover too much ground too quickly to allow that ~ but it works as a narrative and is neither wallowing nor uplifting (both of which would be too pat for the subject).
Oddly the sequence where Nicola’s partner photographs the scene, mixing actual photos with line art, worked better as comics than the straight illustrations. I think it adjusted the pacing a little, extending the moment.
Timing seems to be a common hurdle for illustrators moving into comics. Something that gets compounded when the work is going to be presented as a single graphic novel ~ there is a tendency to rush to the next plot point and not let the moment linger…
That said, it’s a problem that only pops up occasionally in Billy, Me & You, so I’m keen to see where Nicola goes in her next book and what extra comic-skills she will be able to bring to it.
The book is drawn in what I would call the Scratchy-Personal style (which gets the reader in close to the narrator), so there is little space devoted to comic techniques such as panel-to-panel transitions or page layouts that work to develop the individual panels’ contents, but there are moments that show a real feeling for the potential of her chosen medium ~ some very effective juxtapositions of images and a few scenes where the tension between images on the same page are used to really enhance the mood (page 117 where the narrator suddenly feels like a misfit is a particular success).
As for the ‘story’, I may have read it at the wrong time of my life ~ the father of a two-year old, babysitting a friend’s two-year old is either the worst or the most perfect reader for a book that has grown from the death of a two-year old. Some of the passages hit me on a personal level that makes it hard to read objectively. I had to pause a few times and steel myself to read on…
Not comfortable reading, but recommended.
SPEAKER THE THIRD: I also bought Nye Wright’s first book Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park When You’re 29 and Unemployed about a young man’s relationship with his terminally-ill father after previously passing it over for similar reasons (although expecting more of a slacker tale than a misery memoir).
I only read the first 20 or so pages (it’s 320pp in total) before lending it to my own father, but I could tell it’s an impressive debut. The scene Nye showed us of his protagonist receiving a long-distance phonecall from his father was poignant and perfectly constructed ~ with pauses and the narrative equivalent of negative-space used to great effect.
In contrast to the previous speakers, this author was obviously steeped in comics knowledge (a suspicion which was confirmed when I bumped into him again at this week’s Cartoon County) and it makes this memoir a very different read.
Nye’s slicker drawing style successfully treads the line between realism and cartooning (lessons learned from Will Eisner and the like rather than superhero comics it would seem) and the colour scheme is powerful without being overwhelming. I’m keen to read on when the book comes back to me…
A THOUGHT ABOUT COMICS ‘LECTURES‘: Whenever I’ve given (non-comics) presentations and workshops, I’ve tried to avoid reading out loud what was shown in the visual presentation. I’ve always found it galling when a speaker shows me a PowerPoint slide that I read as it pops up only to have the speaker say the same words a short time later (it can lead me to think I should have simply stayed in the bar with the notes).
It seems to be in the nature of a comics show-and-tell to describe the action in a panel and read out the text/sound effects, then move on to the subsequent panel and repeat. But this undermines the comiciness of the pages displayed, suggesting they could as easily be made in simple prose and losing a lot of what makes them work.
Given the nature of a mixed audience, with widely varying degrees of comics literacy and willigness to actually read the screens, it’s probably a necessary process to go/sit through but it was a noticeable quirk during an evening with three speakers doing the same thing.
Is there a way to get the content across to a comics-novices during a talk without diminishing the experience of the comics?