Monday, June 30, 2014

Baltimore Comics & Medicine 2014

Experience after previous Comics & Medicine conferences has taught me that if I start writing about it, I'll never shut up. It works better to do a photo essay and let the pictures do my talking. Suffice it to say that I returned home from this year's Baltimore conference more excited about the field and the people involved in it than ever.

Graphic Medicine puzzles people ("healthcare and . . . comics?!") and they usually need to see a few examples before they get it. Mom's Cancer is one example, but only one; the reasons people do graphic medicine include storytelling, memoir, therapy, education, and public health. Some still don't get it, but many are quickly converted. As I've often said, one of the things I like best is gathering doctors, nurses, professors, students, writers and cartoonists--groups you might not expect to have much in common--to talk about interesting ideas and projects as equals. It's very cool.

Pictures or it didn't happen.

My midnight flight from San Francisco to Baltimore was an adventure. A two-hour fog delay at SFO made me miss my connecting plane in Chicago. The airline was great about getting me on the next flight, but by the time I arrived I'd been sitting on aircraft or in airports for about 12 hours. Then I had to get to a reception and help open the conference as the last of eight 5-minute "lightning" speakers.

Approaching Baltimore, which is somewhere on the horizon there. As a Californian used to ocher-brown hills, I was impressed by the lush summertime greenness. 
Johns Hopkins Medical School hosted the conference in this building, which was less imposing in person than it may look in this photo. Not actually an impregnable brick fortress. 
The building had three large auditoriums plus a smaller classroom and cafe we used. Out back was an outdoor courtyard for breaks and lunch. Good space.

My lightning talk was on "Practicing Graphic Medicine," which I've been doing since I first put Mom's Cancer online 10 years ago. I hoped to provide some context for the conference: before I started the webcomic, only a few people knew my family's story, which wasn't really a story at all because nobody was telling it. I put Mom's Cancer on the Web, and that expanded the story's reach. It was published as a book, which further expanded its reach. In 2010, I was asked to speak at the first Graphic Medicine conference in London, followed by more conferences. I think Graphic Medicine embraces all means of storytelling: oral, web, print; intimate and immediate in the case of the Web, distant and permanent in the case of print. Now it's a Graphic Medicine community. It's a niche field with enormous potential, and it makes a real difference in people's lives.

My pal "Comic Nurse" MK Czerwiec took this photo of the start of my talk.
Audience for the opening night intro and lightning talks. About 200-230 people came to the conference, which I think is more than ever. That's MK in the blue shirt  up front, sitting next to San Francisco State University professor Courtney Donovan in yellow. 

After the opening hullabaloo, some of us met for dinner at a terrific Afghan restaurant in Baltimore's historic Mount Vernon district, where most of us stayed. Good food and company, but you can imagine how fresh and witty I felt after coming in on the red-eye and being shot out of a magnetic rail-gun to give a 5-minute hyperspeed lecture.

I didn't take many photos the next day because I kept pretty busy. I gave a 90-minute workshop titled "See One, Do One, Teach One," which applied that old medical school mantra to cartooning. I thought a conference dedicated to comics needed a place where you'd actually learn to make one. The idea was to take people who'd maybe never done so--maybe never even drawn since they put down crayons in the fourth grade--and send them into the world with the knowledge and confidence to not only create their own comics but teach others to create theirs.

If not for MK Czerwiec, I'd have no proof I accomplished anything in Baltimore at all. Thanks again for the photo, MK! Me and my workshop. This room was set up a bit oddly, with the computer and projector in the center so I had my back to about a quarter of the participants. Nobody seemed to mind. Although all speakers' PowerPoint presentations were pre-loaded on the facility's computers, I brought my own laptop to this workshop so I could toggle between my PowerPoint slides and my laptop's on-board video camera to project the participants' drawings (purely voluntary of course) on the screen for everyone to see. The comic on screen there is actually one I drew as I worked through the exercises with them. I'll dissect that comic in my next blog post. 

I ran out of the 40 little packets I'd made up for workshop participants, so I'd guess I had about four dozen people in a small classroom. Standing room only! I've done variations of this workshop a few times, and how it goes really depends on how willing the participants are to dig in and share their work, which I acknowledge takes guts to do. These guys were tremendous. They made some excellent short comics that really seemed to apply what I aimed to teach, and I hope/think everyone had a good time doing it.

Immediately after my workshop, I moderated a panel of three presentations on the topic of "Private Lives, Public Health." Moderating is usually light duty: introduce everyone, keep them on time, give them a 1-minute warning when they're running out, field some questions. All went well until near the end of the first speaker's talk, when a booming Voice of God blasted from the auditorium's sound system. First thought: the speaker's presentation had an audio file embedded in it. No, she looked puzzled, too. Second thought: the computer had fritzed and begun playing some other file. Nope. As a few of us gathered around the podium and the voice continued to boom, we figured out we were picking up a wireless microphone from another auditorium and eavesdropping on someone else's lecture. We managed to kill the entire audio system but then couldn't get it back up, so the remaining two presenters had to orate the old-fashioned way. Luckily they were game, and good speakers. I still feel bad for the first.

Nobody prepared me for that in moderator school.

Also, the series "House of Cards" was evidently shooting scenes across the street from my hotel.
Alas, no Kevin Spacey or Robin Wright (sigh) sightings from my window.

The next day, my responsibilities were done and I could relax. I tried to take more photos.

Continental breakfast in the cafe before starting the day.
The other half of the cafe was a greenhouse where a silent auction was held for participants' artwork, mostly good-quality prints.
I ate lunch with two of our keynote speakers: Carol Tilley from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who gave a great lecture on psychiatrist Frederick Wertham, who in the 1950s convinced the American people and Congress that comics were evil and almost destroyed the industry; and Arthur Frank, professor emeritus in Sociology from the University of Calgary, who is a scholar on illness memoir and gave a brilliant talk. I just met Carol at this conference but knew Art from a similar event at UC Riverside last year, where he gave a different but also brilliant talk. Fine dining.
Here's an example of Graphic Medicine in action: Gary Ashwal and Dr. Alex Thomas created Booster Shot Comics to help teach sick kids about their diseases, including a comic book series titled "Iggy and the Inhalers" for children with asthma. During their presentation, they showed data that kids who'd read their comics had much greater understanding of their illness and treatment. I liked this presentation because I remember seeing Alex and Gary a few years ago when they were just getting going, and it's neat to see how much they've accomplished.
As part of the same panel, Laura Ruth Venable and MK Czerwiec talked about creating a comic to help clinic patients in Chicago transition from one primary care provider to another. They had results showing that while patients tended to forget or ignore letters informing them of care changes, they paid more attention to and remembered comics conveying the same information. 
Group discussion at the end of the same panel (from left): Laura Ruth, MK, Gary, Alex, and Leah Eisenberg. Leah talked about developing comics to help gain children's informed consent for medical procedures.

Following a keynote speech by Ellen Forney, the day and the conference were capped by a Marketplace similar to a comic convention dealers' room, where participants could sell their own books, prints, whatevers. Local comics shop Atomic Books was on hand to sell several related books, including Mom's Cancer. (Atomic Books also hosted a post-conference event Friday night, Laydeez Do Comics, which I didn't attend.) In addition to sales tables, a signing table was set up so Ellen, conference co-organizer Dr. Ian William, and I could sign our books.

Also attending was artist David Lasky, whose book Don't Forget The Song (written by Frank Young) was put out by my publisher Abrams and won a 2013 Eisner Award. He was at the conference because he recently illustrated a comic on the 1918 flu pandemic for Seattle & King County Public Health that aims to inform the public on handling future epidemics or pandemics. We compared notes on our mutual editor Charlie Kochman. Look out, Charlie.
A portion of the Marketplace. I think 18 or so people had tables in the relatively small cafe. There's some excellent work out there.
Another portion of the Marketplace. Those people all facing left in front of the yellow wall are lined up to see . . . 
. . . me! Well, also my friend Ian Williams, whose debut graphic novel The Bad Doctor is getting excellent reviews, and the conference's concluding keynoter Ellen Forney, author of the NY Times Bestseller Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me. I think Atomic Comics sold out of all of our books.

And now a series of photos which on Facebook I titled "Brian Awkwardly Hugging People Who Were Too Slow to Escape":

My friend Mita Mahato, professor of English at the University of Puget Sound, and I being expertly photobombed by MK Czerwiec. Mita led a fun workshop on making and binding zines--small homemade comics whose handcrafted quality is a big part of the appeal. She does beautiful paper cutout work that I like a lot. MK is short.
Cartoonist Joe Sutliff attended because he did a comic for the Fairfax County (Virginia) Health Department on mosquitoes and ticks that's been adopted by other health agencies around the country. But I was especially happy to meet Joe because we both contributed drawings to the Team Cul de Sac book raising funds for Parkinson's Disease research. He totally made my day by pulling out his copy of the book and asking me to sign it. A couple of other people also made me very happy by saying nice things about Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, which I wouldn't expect anyone in this context to know or care about. Very cool.
Dan Bustillos is an assistant professor of Healthcare Ethics at St. Louis University, whose class I recently spoke to via Skype but had never met in person. Good guy with a great fashion sense. I had a couple of opportunities to place faces to people I'd only known as e-mail or Web presences, which is always fun.
With the bad doctor, Ian Williams. Sorry, I meant The Bad Doctor. Italics change everything.
Eating Afghan with Art Frank.

There were a lot of neat people in Baltimore, including some friends, that I didn't happen to get photos of. Michael Green, Susan Squier, Shelley Wall. If I start listing them, I won't be able to stop. However, I need to mention three: Lydia Gregg, a medical illustrator at Johns Hopkins, did an excellent job of organizing the conference, which unwound with clockwork discipline (but in a nice way). She worked very hard and pulled it off. Also, I was very happy to see Juliet McMullin from UC Riverside, who organized the conference I spoke at last year, in Baltimore with her daughter Sheila, with whom I had a very nice conversation over dinner Saturday.

We have a joke in my family that I head off to each Comics & Medicine Conference swearing that it's going to be my last one, and coming home too excited to wait for the next one. It's not my place to make any announcements, but it looks like next year's conference could be relatively close to home; if so, I think I kinda need to be there. These are my people.


Mita said...

Thanks for this write-up, Brian!! It was so great to see you. Looking forward to staying in touch and to seeing you at the next conference!

Lasky said...

It was great to meet you, Brian! Hope we get a chance to meet up and talk again soon.

Thanks for writing this recap. I realized, when an old friend from high school visited me in Baltimore for dinner, that if you haven't been to Comics and Medicine, it can be a hard thing to describe. Now I have this writeup, which I think explains it pretty well, to link to.