by Aaron Humphrey
The fifth annual Comics and Medicine conference kicked off today at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus in Baltimore, which raises the question: how did one of the world’s most prestigious institutes for medicine and research wind up hosting a conference about comics??
Back in 2010, The Beat covered the first Comics and Medicine conference, a one-day affair held at the University of London. Since then, ‘Graphic Medicine’ has become something of a movement, with an active blog and an upcoming line of books, along with the annual conference.
In its fifth anniversary, the Comics and Medicine conference has grown to three days, with more than 70 presentations, three workshops, and four keynote speakers. The conference program reveals a large and fascinating array of projects related to the use comics to depict pathologies, improve medical care and education.
Part of the success of ‘Graphic Medicine’ has been the fascinating way it ties together several strands of comics that are often overlooked.
One strand is the large number of graphic memoirs and biographies which centre on personal experiences with illness, including the work of Allison Bechdel and Harvey Pekar, as well as Ellen Forney, who will give a keynote speech and this year’s conference, and past Comics and Medicine keynote cartoonists David B. and Brian Fies.
(Justin Green’s pioneering 1974 underground comic “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” which chronicles Green’s struggles with OCD, might be considered the forerunner to all of these ‘graphic pathologies’.)
A second strand is the use of comics as educational tools in health campaigns, an application which dates back at least as early as World War II (this Malaria prevention pamphlet by Theodor ‘Seuss’ Gisel and Murno Leaf is just one example), and which continues today in the form of other endevours like comics created for the WHO, and the asthma-awareness campaigns of Booster Shot Comics.
There is also the strand of medical illustration, as seen in the work of Phoebe Gloeckner and 2014 Comics and Medicine organiser Lydia Gregg, cartoonists whose primary employment is in medical illustration. Johns Hopkins offers a M.A. program in Medical and Biological Illustration through their department of Art as Applied to Medicine, the host of this year’s conference. A more comics-centric M.A. in Applied Cartooning launches this fall at the Center for Cartoon Studies; CCS co-founder James Strum is also a keynote speaker at Comics and Medicine 2014.
Weaving together all of these strands, and others as well, the Comics and Medicine conference looks to represent some of the most interesting and ground-breaking developments currently taking place in the field of comics.
I’ll be checking in with The Beat periodically during the conference, which you can follow on Twitter through #graphicmedicine.
Aaron Humphrey is a doctoral candidate at the University of Adelaide, where he studies the intersections between comics and education.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.