I'm home from three days at the sixth international Comics & Medicine Conference hosted by the University of California, Riverside in southern California.
Friends, family, and long-time readers know I go way back with these conferences--in fact, back to the very first one held in London in 2010. I helped organize a couple of them before bowing out to let more capable hands do a better job of it. I've been to all but one (missed the one in Brighton, England in 2013), giving talks and workshops, sitting in on other people's talks and workshops, and hanging out with people who've become good friends.
On its face, comics + medicine is an odd combination. In practice, it works. Patients make comics about being patients, doctors and nurses make comics about being doctors and nurses. Comics are used to teach kids how to use inhalers, to encourage Australian aborigines to use public health clinics, and to get informed consent from children for medical procedures. They're used to tell stories, express anxiety, provide therapy, teach empathy, give instruction and reach audiences that words alone might not reach. Graphic medicine has been written up in medical journals and the New York Times.
In addition to tons of graphic novels that touch on medical topics (mine, Epileptic, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, Pedro & Me, Special Exits, Hyperbole and a Half, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Tangles, Marbles, Psychiatric Tales, The Bad Doctor, and many many more), people find a hundred fascinating ways to work comics into healthcare themes or practice. Professors, students, doctors, nurses, writers, artists, cartoonists and others get together at these graphic medicine conferences to compare notes. We've got medical illustrators and disability activists, Yanks and Brits and Aussies and Canucks and more. It's a big tent.
UC Riverside professor Juliet McMullin took on this year's conference and did a great job. She's the best, and I've never seen a prof with more devoted students and grad students. When I wavered on attending this year's conference, she convinced me to come. Made me an offer I couldn't refuse. She was right and I was wrong and I'm glad she did.
Photo essay, interspersed with essay essays:
|Many attendees stayed at the nearby Mission Inn, a strange and beautiful fever dream of a hotel built by a man with grand ambitions and too much money. It reminds me a bit of Hearst's Castle and the Winchester Mystery House in being a singular product of one person's vision.|
|An inner courtyard. Nice place.|
To save time, just assume that every name I mention is preceded by the words "my friend." Please don't infer that if I don't mention your name I hate you. Unless you suspect I do. Your call.
Juliet asked me to kick off the conference Thursday evening with a 15-minute talk on "Graphic Medicine and Community." I interpreted my job as explaining what graphic medicine is about (in fact, I lifted some of the intro above directly from my speech notes) and why we were all there. I hoped to set a tone for the weekend and think I did all right.
|After their panel, the authors formed a book-signing assembly line. |
It felt a bit like being in the presence of the Beatles.
|Mine. I'll be proud to add the comics stylings of Neil Phillips to my studio art wall.|
|Friday continental breakfast with Ian and MK . . .|
|. . . followed a few hours later by lunch with keynote speaker and comics great Joyce Farmer. I'll have a lot more to say about Joyce later. Next to Joyce is Juliet McMullin's daughter Sheila, a writer/poet/activist in her own right. Next to Sheila is Steven Keewatin Sanderson, a comics artist and filmmaker who gave another keynote speech.|
|Laughing with Joyce. Photo by MK Czerwiec.|
|On my way back to the Mission Inn at the end of the day, I ran into Justin and his cartoonist wife (and our later keynote speaker) Carol Tyler having dinner in the patio restaurant. I'd never met Justin but knew Carol.|
My Carol Tyler story is worth retelling in larger print. In 2009, Carol and I were both at the Miami Book Fair to introduce new projects (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow for me) and sign some books. Staying at our same hotel were hundreds of people for some sort of Donald Trump seminar. I think the idea was that they had all invested thousands of dollars to learn the secrets of Trump, which they'd then go out and employ to make their fortunes. Sort of an Amway franchise deal for
|Saturday morning: Juliet and MK in front of the conference site.|
|I had about 18 people (a few came late or left early), which is a good size. But I want to point out the woman sitting at the second table on the left, wearing the rust-colored blouse. That's Joyce Farmer. Now I'll switch to my large-type voice.|
I first met Joyce at the 2012 Comics & Medicine Conference in Toronto, where she was a keynote speaker. Juliet invited her to attend some panels in Riverside as well. Joyce was a lion of the early '70s Underground Comix scene, on a first-name basis with cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, doing passionate feminist comics in books whose titles I can't print in a family-friendly blog. In 2010 she put out a terrific graphic novel, Special Exits, about losing her parents to Alzheimer's disease. Since Toronto we've corresponded, and it was wonderful to see her in person again.
So I'm teaching this workshop on making comics and Joyce Farmer shows up. As I said to the group, I felt like a high school basketball player trying to teach LeBron James how to do a lay-up. The workshop was supposed to culminate with the participants completing a story, which they'd written and thumbnailed in bits during the course of the workshop, as a finished short comic.
But this was a brand new workshop I'd never test-driven before, and I was running late. I looked at my watch--10 minutes left, not enough time for everyone to draw a comic. So I called an audible, apologized to everyone, and asked Joyce to talk about how she decides what story to tell and how to tell it. Her conclusion, which distilled what I'd been trying to say for 90 minutes: "Your story has to have a point, or there's no point in telling it."
Skip the workshops; that's all you need to know.
|Saturday lunch, a small group of us went to a very good Mexican restaurant a couple of blocks away. This is Linda Raphael, who directs the Medical Humanities program at George Washington University. She wanted a light lunch, so she ordered soup. They brought her this. After several minutes of befuddled laughter, she got bowls and shared it with everyone (it was good!). Midway through lunch it began to rain. Luckily, we already had a boat.|
|A bravura comics panel from Carol's book series You'll Never Know about her father's post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in World War II.|
|Carol brought a lot of original art for us to gawk at. It's amazingly clean work, and small (most cartoonists work at much larger than print size, but hers looks to be very close to its published size).|
I don't mean to overlook the opening-day keynote speech of Jared Gardner, professor of English and film studies at Ohio State University. His speech was very good--thoughtful, personal and moving. I just didn't get any good photos of him or have much of a chance to talk with him, but he made a real contribution to the weekend.
You Go First
Now I'm out of photos but not words.
After the conference ended, a bunch of us took over half a restaurant for dinner. I ended up at the end of the table with Joyce Farmer and Carol Tyler, and mostly listened as they compared notes on 40 years of making comics. We talked about publishers, contracts, agents, book designers, advances and royalties, foreign translations, cover design, everything. I learned a lot. I won't share any of what they said because it was a private conversation. Instead I'll tell a story about a movie star.
It's probably apocryphal but is usually told about Shelley Winters, who made hundreds of films and won an Academy Award in 1951. The story goes that late in her career, Winters had a meeting with a movie producer fresh out of school. The kid sat behind his big desk and said, "So, Shelley, what have you done?" Winters reached into her oversized handbag, pulled out her Oscar, thudded it down onto his desk, and said, "You go first."
Some creators shouldn't have to constantly prove themselves to children who weren't even born when they were inventing an art form. They've earned the respect they're due.
|MK Czerwiec shot this photo of Joyce and Carol at that dinner. |
I'm in the background talking to Joyce's husband Palma. Used with MK's permission.
A final thought:
Less than a week before this conference, I'd been at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Around the middle of the Comics & Medicine Conference's second day, the contrast between the two experiences really hit me.
In Riverside, I was surrounded by people who love comics, think deeply about comics, talk a lot about what comics can do and be, and try to figure out ways to stretch the medium to make it do more than it has before and actually change people's lives.
There might be people like that in San Diego, but if so I never meet them.
Now, I appreciate San Diego Comic-Con for what it is, but when I go home afterward I feel beaten and tired. When I go home after a graphic medicine conference, I feel enthused and refreshed.
One of the big stories to emerge from this year's Comic-Con was the ascendance of talented young women: Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, Noelle Stevenson and others all have bestselling books and took home Eisner Awards. I like Raina and Cece a lot (have never met Noelle) and think their work is great.
But anyone who'd tell Joyce Farmer or Carol Tyler that their work would be more marketable if it were more like Raina's Smile or Cece's El Deafo understands nothing about Joyce, Carol, Raina, Cece, art, literature, craft, style, genre, business, or comics. I sat there slack-jawed hearing these stories. If it weren't so appalling it'd be funny.
There's a dark side to comics' female revolution that didn't occur to me until that dinner: this is a good time to be a woman in comics if you're a young, hip, modern woman making comics for 12-year-olds (which I respect a lot and there's nothing wrong with that!). But if you're an older woman who wants to make comics about love, family, politics, trauma, sex and death for adults, you don't get compared to men your age doing similar things. You get compared to women half your age doing something completely different.
That ain't right. And it's a shameful waste of talent.
The world headquarters for graphic medicine is this website, run by Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec. If any of this sounds interesting, maybe give a thought to presenting a paper or just attending the next one in Dundee, Scotland, summer 2016.