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I'm Cathy Leamy, a Boston cartoonist and medical writer. Check out my comics! They're mainly about health care and autobio stories.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

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Comics and Medicine 2011 conference

I went to a conference on comics and medicine.

That’s right! This was the second annual Comics & Medicine conference, held from June 9-11 at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois (they held the first one last year in London). Check out the New York Times write-up and the Publishers’ Weekly article on this year’s conference for a quick intro.

Get out! For real?

Everyone I mentioned it to did a double-take. "Ha ha, it’s a conference on what?" And maybe they’d chuck in a Rex Morgan, MD reference.

I admit that even I went in with preconceptions. I thought it might be all public service announcement comic books and maybe some illness memoirs.

But I was still pumped! I’d be going there under two of my identities - indy cartoonist and health care IT developer. I’m fascinated by medicine and I’ve actually been looking to do more in the realm of medical comics. It’s like the event should have been subtitled "HEY CATHY WE MADE A CONFERENCE JUST FOR YOU". And when I got there, I found so many more discussions and applications than I expected! I came home buzzing like I’d marinated in a vat of coffee for two days.

What kind of stuff happens at a thing like this?

Panels, workshops, and talks
So many excellent panels ranging from research ideas to on-the-ground applications. So many compelling speakers, including comics historian Paul Gravett, author and illustrator David Small, cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner, and comics theorist Scott McCloud. And quite a few hands-on workshops, but I couldn’t hit any due to cool panels at the same time.

An opening reception party with an art display
What a smart idea - a meet-and-greet with blown-up pages of medical-themed comics. It gave people something to talk about, and it introduced us to many of the works that would be covered at the conference. (See these comics on the conference exhibit website!)

A wrap-up party at Quimby’s Bookstore
I’d never been to the legendary Quimby’s comic shop. My god. Minis, zines, indy comics, design books … I would’ve just handed over my ATM card except I couldn’t carry too much back to Boston. Saved by my small luggage, phew.

Tell me about some of these panels!

Comics in Medical Education
How cool is this: A comics course for medical students, teaching them how graphics and text can be used for communication! This is the story behind Penn State College of Medicine’s seminar “Graphic Storytelling and Medical Narratives", which went from introducing comics right through the students making short comics of their own. It also reminded me of this art appreciation course taught to police officers as a way of improving their observation skills.

Bearing Witness to Illness
Three comics creators talked about how their works express, interpret, and just plain give a voice to the creators’ experiences with sickness (as a doctor, as a partner and caretaker, and as a grown child of an ill parent). An emotionally-charged panel, but also one with practical questions about issues like patient confidentiality.

Picturing Disability
Unexpectedly, this entire panel wound up being a discussion about how traumatic brain injury is portrayed in Gary Trudeau’s strip Doonesbury, complete with a clinical psychologist pointing out specific details. Fascinating talk about the power of raising awareness through stories and media depictions versus public service announcements.

Comics as Education
Here we go, the informative comics I expected! But that’s a good thing - I love ‘em when they’re done well! And this panel brought up ways of achieving this that I hadn’t considered, like doing localized research so that a comic teaching food safety to AIDS patients includes examples of foods they actually encounter every day. Little details like that drive a message home.

Comics as Process and Method
This panel blew my mind! Taking a complicated patient consent form and redoing it as a comic? Exploring geriatric ethnographic research data through comics? Man, this is going beyond plain storytelling … we’re getting into crazy Inception territory here.

Hear about any good comics?

Stitches by David Small - the award-winning memoir of childhood and thyroid cancer
I am Not These Feet by Kaisa Leka - incredible and funny autobio by a cartoonist who opted to have her badly-formed feet amputated and replaced with prosthetics
Comics by Thom Ferrier - autobio and drama from a British doctor’s perspective
Comics by Comic Nurse - autobio from an American nurse’s perspective
Tangles by Sarah Leavitt - a daughter’s memoir of her family’s struggle with her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease
Something Different About Dad by Kirsti Evans (writer) and John Swogger (illustrator) - a comic guide for children who have a parent with Asperger Syndrome

What struck a chord?

#1: Minority representation in the media is a topic very dear to my heart (see my short comic “The Paper Mirror" for more on that). So I was energized and inspired by all the different examples of not-typically-heard people and experiences getting out into the world via comics: the discussion on TBI in Doonesbury, the metaphors for Parkinson’s Disease from the illness panel, tales from Type 2 diabetics and hospice nurses and people living with STDs and newbie rural doctors and on and on, all these people showing up on paper, telling you what it’s like in their world and telling you that you’re not alone in yours. Man.

#2: Attention, people making comics to educate: Don’t think your creative team is complete just because you have a writer and an illustrator! If your comic is meant to communicate, make sure you’ve got someone in there with graphic design skills. Chucking in panels and artwork doesn’t magically create a teaching tool. Layout, font choice, text arrangement - these affect how well your message will be understood.

I know you’re aching to bust out some public speaking critique.

Ahaha, I totally am! Ever since I joined Toastmasters a few years ago, I’ve been more aware of what goes into public speaking that really works.

Like that Scott McCloud! He was a hell of a speaker! Prepared and practiced, loaded with good and relevant slides, entertaining, engaging, and rolling with the punches to keep that audience engaged during technical problems. I’ve seen him speak before, but only now am I really appreciating the level of professionalism he brings to his talks.

Presenters, take a page from his book and really think about how visuals work with your message. Even if your whole presentation is just reading a paper aloud, something visual on the overhead can drive the message home (and keep us audience members from zoning out). And hey, if you’ve got any visuals? Put ’em in a single presentation file. It’s kinda embarrassing for us to watch you hunting through desktop folders on the overhead during your talk.

Quotes of note

"Sprouts are basically the devil of food poisoning." Food safety fella, I am taking you to heart right now.

"I have to write my dissertation of 15,000 words … and they say a picture’s worth a thousand words …"

"Happy birthday to you!" -- the entire auditorium singing to Scott McCloud

"I wanted to figure out what was wrong with me, because it was a challenge, and I don’t like that." - from David Small’s talk

Any other thoughts?

One constant refrain rang out for the whole conference: "Where’s the proof that comics are good educational tools? Where are the studies?" Could somebody get on that, please? You’d have a slew of grateful people citing your research.

I want more comics creators to get into this field and be engaged in it. I want people to collaborate. At my previous job, I worked in IT in education. The researchers sometimes thought of us developers as the "mechanics", only there to take instructions and implement their vision without an appreciation for what we brought to the table. Anyone out there looking to make a comic, don’t approach it with the attitude of "I have it all planned out and just need some grunt to make with the pictures." Be open to collaboration and learning. Make it a partnership and the end result will be the better for it.

I was psyched that there was so much panel and workshop material, but I was bummed that I couldn’t attend it all! Somebody switch on my mutant powers and make me into Multiple Man.

What a great idea to include an attendee feedback session at the end of the conference. It felt appropriate given how many of the days’ discussions centered around reflection and processing.

Here’s your Comics and Medicine drinking game! Take a shot every time someone says that the pain scale is the original medical comic.

What’s next?

Tangles is getting published in the US, David Small is speaking in Boston in July, audio recordings from the conference are being posted online, and I’m itching to find out when and where next year’s conference will be. Summertime Chicago was a blast to explore!

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