Comics and Medicine

October 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

In June, the Wellcome Trust sponsored the first ever conference on Comics and Medicine at the Institute of English Studies in London. Mun-Keat Looi, science writer and comic nerd, went along to see how the graphic medium is helping doctors and patients alike.

Comics and medicine may seem like strange bedfellows. The former you may dismiss as a frivolous medium for children, while the latter is a critically important, serious endeavour. But graphic stories are hugely popular among all age groups and are today seen as a legitimate form of literature. And not just fiction – graphic novels have dealt with all kinds of medical and scientific subjects: substance abuse, depression, HIV, diabetes, epilepsy, mental illness.

‘Graphic pathographies’ provide powerful, personal insights into medical conditions. The visual format can communicate the internal experience of conditions, like depression, and help de-stigmatise and demystify an illness.

Researchers have found how combining pictures and text enhances understanding. The activities of reading and viewing activate different information processing systems within the brain, and the combination fosters connections between new information and existing knowledge.

Comic artist and former journalist Brian Fies says that comics have the capacity for powerful visual metaphors and universality. The spare and stylised use of text and art allows readers to project themselves into the story.

“These powerful images illustrate the patient’s and family member’s experience in a way that standard clinical reportage could never achieve with such economy,” says Dr Michael Green, a physician and bioethicist at Penn State University.

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