There've been eight international Graphic Medicine Conferences since 2010. I've been to six of them. We've developed some traditions, one of which is that I always write a long and windy blog post when I get home. Another tradition, as explained by graphic medicine (GM) guru Ian Williams, is that if I don't proclaim every conference "the best one ever," they'll know they've failed.
Luckily, this was the best one ever.
Comics and medicine seems like an odd combination, but it works. Patients make comics about being patients, doctors and nurses make comics about being doctors and nurses. Comics teach kids how to use inhalers, encourage Australian aborigines to use public health clinics, and get informed consent from hospitalized children. In addition to tons of graphic memoirs 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 and many many more), people find myriad fascinating ways to work comics into healthcare themes or practice.
Professors, students, doctors, nurses, writers, artists, cartoonists and others get together at these conferences to meet and compare notes. People come from all over North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and more. It's a big tent.
In every previous conference, I've done some sort of talk or workshop. It took me this long to figure out I could just go to the thing without doing all that work. I recommend it!
Some people who'll show up in the photos below:
- The aforementioned Ian Williams, one of two proprietors of the GM website, coiner of the term "graphic medicine," a British M.D., author of The Bad Doctor graphic novel, co-author of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto, and recent first-time father.
- "Comic Nurse" MK Czerwiec, the other proprietor of the website, a Chicago nurse and teacher, another co-author of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto, and author of the new graphic novel Taking Turns about her experience on an early AIDS ward.
- Mita Mahato, an associate professor of English and cartoonist who does beautiful cut-paper art, has a book of poetry coming out in the fall, and was the on-the-ground lead for the Seattle conference.
- Susan Squier, professor of English and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University, yet another co-author of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto, and part of the organizing committee.
- Michael Green, an M.D. and bioethicist at Penn State University, yet another co-author of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto, and part of the organizing committee.
- Juliet McMullin, a cultural and medical anthropologist at UC Riverside, who led the organizing for 2015's conference in Riverside, Calif.
|The fourth floor. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub, redrum.|
|Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec, photobombed by Mita Mahato. I love this picture.|
|Tangles cartoonist Sarah Leavitt, MK, and Marbles cartoonist Ellen Forney pretend to peruse an anthology of comics produced for the conference because they saw my camera and wanted to look impressive.|
A few interesting themes spontaneously emerged over the weekend. One concerned the growth and spread of the GM concept. I heard a lot about Graphic Anthropology--not sure what it is or who does it, though I suspect Juliet McMullin is a ringleader. Professor-lawyer Dan Bustillos, whose classes I occasionally crash via Skype, introduced me to Graphic Justice, which is what happens when comics meet law. There were a lot of young first-timers at this conference, and, it seemed to me, a real explosion of recent books that fit under the GM umbrella. When I did Mom's Cancer there were maybe one or two dozen in the canon; now it seems like there are hundreds.
|An overview of the big, main auditorium where the keynote speeches and some of the panels took place. Other panels were in rooms on the red fourth floor (shudder) upstairs.|
|The Seattle Public Library pulled several GM comics from their shelves for display and browsing, and provided reading lists for dozens more. The white sheets of paper on the wall were taped up for people to draw on.|
|Juliet McMullin on "Accessing Land-Based Health with Indigenous Graphic Narratives."|
|Courtney Donovan of San Francisco State University on "Graphic Narratives and Nomadic Subjectivities."|
|Susan Squier moderating a panel in one of the smaller rooms.|
|Juliet McMullin, Amerisa Waters (who's working toward her PhD in Medical Humanities), and Neil Phillips.|
|Journalist-comedian-cartoonist Aaron Freeman and Mita Mahato.|
|Ian Williams illustrated a wry and dry progress report on his next book with a drawing of his family.|
|Michael Green has medical students make comics about the hardships of medical school. The results are enlightening.|
|Dan Bustillos is a strong, dynamic speaker. I'll bet he's a good teacher. That's Michael Green raising his hand.|
Some people told me how much they appreciated Mom's Cancer, and many cited it in their talks or said they teach it in their classes, which is a deeply gratifying legacy. One story I want to tell at the risk of immodesty: a young PhD gave a talk on "Webcomics Building Communities," focusing on Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half but mentioning Mom's Cancer along the way. I thought she made some good insightful points, so during the panel Q&A I stood up, said that I'd done Mom's Cancer, which started as a webcomic and went to print, and had some thoughts on the topic. We had a good exchange.
In private afterward, she said she'd had no idea I was there and would have been terrified if she had. I confessed that the opportunity to have my Marshall McLuhan "Annie Hall" moment ("You know nothing of my work...How you ever got to teach a class in anything is totally amazing!") was nearly irresistible. We'll keep in touch.
The conference ended with a marketplace for people to sell their stuff. I'd brought a pretty big stack of cash to spend, but still ran out of money--and, more importantly, space in my carry-on luggage--before I hit all the tables. Sorry, I did my best.
|Peter Dunlap-Shohl (My Degeneration), MK Czerwiec and Ian Williams selling well at the marketplace. All three are published by Penn State University Press, whose Graphic Medicine Series is growing into an impressive and important library.|
|Kurt Shaffert (second from left) and James Sturm (right) from the Center for Cartoon Studies have committed to hosting the next GM Conference in White River Junction, Vermont. Fools. Mark your calendar for August 16-18, 2018.|
|My haul from the marketplace. I'm looking forward to reading it all.|
Mild Night Life
Both nights of the conference were capped with extracurriculars. After the first full day, many attendees made the long trek south to the Fantgraphics Bookstore and Gallery, which for fans of sophisticated comics literature is a bit like a pilgrimage to Mecca. It's a small space packed with terrific stuff. After the second day, we adjourned to the Raygun Lounge, another funky space providing beverages, gaming tables, and vintage pinball machines.
|Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery|
|One little wing of the Fantagraphics store.|
|Another selfie, this one the next day with MK at the Raygun Lounge.|
|You can tell these people are artists because they all have their heads down drawing instead of drinking, talking, brawling, or dancing on the table.|
|A second table at the Raygun covered with butcher paper for art, with Neil Phillips at the head and our wonderful final keynote speaker Rupert Kinnard to Neil's left (your right). Do yourself a favor and click the link on Rupert's name; his life and work cover a lot of struggle and history. I'd been sitting in that empty space along the window and did that black scribble that I'll show you after I explain something . . .|
One interesting theme that emerged through the conference was "catharsis." More than one presenter talked about how making comics about illness and medical care isn't really cathartic at all: it's too hard, too slow, and doesn't accomplish the "expelling and healing" that catharsis implies. So some of us were sitting around near the end of the last day agreeing that that was a good point when Rupert Kinnard talked for an hour about comics as catharsis and introduced the humorous past-tense verb "catharted." Rupert confused and unconvinced me.
Seattle is a good city for hosting an event like this. Its core is very walkable, public transit is convenient and not too hard to figure out, and its setting is beautiful. The vagaries of flight schedules made it best for me to arrive a day early and fly home a day late, immediately after a reading and signing for MK's book Taking Turns at a local bookstore.
Of course I walked the waterfront and Pike Place Market. With time to kill and a passion for World's Fairs of the past, I also visited the site of the 1962 World's Fair, riding the monorail built for the event to its centerpiece, the Space Needle. Imagine my astonishment finding the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) right next door, then my giggling delight at finding it had a wing dedicated to "Star Trek."
A. Star. Trek. Museum.
|The 1962 ALWEG monorail, built by the same folks who did Disneyland's. Retro cool transportation of the past future. Or the future past. Whichever.|
|An angle on the Space Needle shot through some floral metal sculptures (hard to tell from this angle, but the flowers are about the height of light posts).|
|Seattle from the tippy-top.|
|The monorail track ends in this Frank Gehry building that houses the MoPOP.|
|Ohmygod. It's Captain Kirk's actual chair, and Sulu and Chekov's actual console. And Kirk's actual tunic. And Uhura's actual dress.|
|Ohmygod ohmygod! And actual phasers and tricorders and communicators and hyposprays!|
|OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYG---|
|The MoPOP also has these guys . . .|
|. . . and those guys . . .|
|Plus a special exhibition on these guys . .|
|. . . and those guys . . .|
. . . and all the other pop culture, rock-and-roll, and show business artifacts that Microsoft money could buy. I really enjoyed MoPOP, all the more because I didn't know it was there and just stumbled onto it. What a discovery.
My flight home was one of the best I've had in years. The plane was only about a quarter full and took off due south at sunset, giving us wonderful views of the snowcapped Cascades. I took a few photos out the window, knowing that they never capture one-tenth the beauty you see by eye.
|Mount St. Helens in the foreground, Mount Adams in the background. Notice the shadow of St. Helens stretching off to the upper right behind it. Neat!|
|Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.|
I really think people at a GM conference, besides just being generally smarter (face it, they're mostly RNs, MDs, MAs, and PhDs), are more deeply interested in the potential of comics as a medium--and stretching the boundaries of that medium---than your typical comics fan. Some of them are trying to make comics do things they've never done before. I went away with ten new approaches to think about and five new ideas I'm just going to outright steal.
The best conference yet. And not entirely because I found a "Star Trek" museum.
|Out there. Thataway. Dork Factor 5.*|
*Not THE actual chair.