Monday, July 20, 2015

2015 Comics & Medicine Conference

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.
The conference was at the Culver arts center, which isn't on the UC Riverside campus itself. It's a graceful space with an artsy rather than an academic feel to it. Breakout sessions were held in theaters and dance studios. In one studio, attendees had to remove their shoes so as not to damage the dancers' wooden floor.
My friends Mita Mahato, associate professor of English at the University of Puget Sound who does beautiful paper-cut art, and MK Czerwiec, who makes comics as "Comic Nurse" and teaches at Northwestern in Chicago. MK hosted the 2011 Chicago conference and is pretty much one of graphic medicine's two spearheads.   

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.

Introducing myself at the beginning of my talk, before going on to some big-picture perspective about graphic medicine. This photo was tweeted by Aaron Humphrey. The conference did a neat thing: throughout the day people's tweets about the event were projected onto that wall behind me, providing instant reaction and feedback. The future; go figure. 
After my talk, Mita moderated a panel introducing some of the authors of the Graphic Medicine Manifesto, which sets a benchmark for what this field is about. Left to right are Mita, MK, Susan Squier, Michael Green, Ian Williams (who hosted the first London conference and, with MK, is the the other graphic medicine spearhead), and Scott T. Smith.
Their book.

After their panel, the authors formed a book-signing assembly line.
It felt a bit like being in the presence of the Beatles.
Australian psychiatrist Neil Phillips works in aboriginal public and mental health. The board behind him displays his artwork. Neil draws sketches on his phone, then prints them on good paper and offers then as limited-edition pieces. The conference included a silent auction of artwork, with proceeds going to support the Vesalius Trust for Visual Communication in the Health Sciences, which sponsored two of our keynote speakers. I bid on four of Neil's portraits but was outbid on two.
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.
Justin Green. In 1972, Justin did a book titled Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary about growing up as a teenager with undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Binky Brown is considered not only the first work of graphic medicine but probably the very first autobiographical graphic novel. In our corner of comics, he's a giant. His keynote talk was fascinating, with too much content for the hour he was given. It's hard to describe: someone afterward said it was as if he were sharing his jewel collection, showing us random brilliant bits of iconography, design, typography, craft, and history that had shaped his storytelling sensibility and career. In a meta sense, it was very much a talk about OCD given by a person with OCD. I found it pretty engaging.
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 arrogant dirtbags entrepreneurs. So I'm sitting in the hotel bar enjoying an end-of-day beverage with a couple of writers, surrounded by Trump wannabes in expensive suits and sequined ballgowns, when into the room walks Carol twirling a cheerleader's baton. I fell in love that moment. She's a force of creative light and energy in the world, and truly my favorite person in comics.

Speaking of end-of-day beverages . . . You know that game "one of these things is not like the other?" You might think it's the guy who's not wearing plaid, but no. Three of these guys are British. Two of them are physicians. And one of them's me. With Ian Williams, Andrew Godfrey (who will be organizing the 2016 graphic medicine conference in Scotland), and Jack Bedeman. 
Saturday morning: Juliet and MK in front of the conference site.
First session of the day, I taught a 90-minute workshop on storytelling and making comics. It just seems to me that a conference about comics ought to include actually drawing some comics. We opened with an eight-page jam comic, which is always fun and breaks the ice, then went on to talk about different ways to think about telling stories with words and pictures. Photo tweeted by Juliet McMullin.
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.

After lunch, Carol Tyler gave her keynote speech to conclude the conference. As a cartoonist this was probably my favorite of the weekend, as she talked about both her family--in ways that were sometimes emotionally overwhelming--and her process. The amount of painstaking work she dedicates to planning, plotting, outlining, writing, coloring (with home-mixed colored inks right on the originals), lettering and inking is astonishing. She's extremely good, and made it clear she got that way by working hard at it. 
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).
The final formal act of the conference was a feedback panel, where the organizers asked attendees to share the pros and cons of their experience to make the next one better. Left to right are Michael Green, MK (behind Michael), Ian, Susan Squier, and Juliet. That was followed by a Marketplace so everyone who'd brought comics to sell had a chance to make a few bucks.
With Sheila and Juliet McMullin. Here's how smart and sophisticated our conference attendees are: the whole day I wore that shirt, two people told me I looked like an 18th Century sailor and one person said if I had a beret I could be a Paris street performer, but not one single person yelled "Hey, I found Waldo!" That's how smart and sophisticated we are.

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.

Go Here

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.


Michael Green said...

Brian -- you beautifully capture the essence and spirit of the conference. I'm glad you said it, because you did it better than I would have and you saved me from getting writer's cramp! Michael Green

Juliet said...

I absolutely love your review, Brian. It's funny, insightful, and as so many of my conversations with you, I learned so much. Thank you for sharing your photos and stories from our conference.

Unknown said...

Inspiring report.Pl share videos

Brian Fies said...

Michael and Juliet, glad you liked my write-up. Excellent job . . . again! Now get a few weeks' rest before you have to start work on the next one.

Nathan, as far as I know there weren't any videos shot. However, all the sessions were recorded, and MK Czerwiec will be posting some as podcasts on the website over the coming weeks and months. I'll keep an eye on it.

Brian Fies said...

Syndicated cartoonist Sandra Bell Lundy ("Between Friends") messaged me to say she was unable to post a comment for some reason but gave me the OK to post it for her:

"'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 less than half your age doing something completely different.' Just wanted to say that this would make an interesting panel..much more interesting than the typical 'women in comics' bit...and more relevant! Enjoyed your blog post!"

Brian again: it would be interesting to know if other mature women creators have experienced the same. It'd be a good panel topic for Comic-Con or anywhere. Thanks Sandra!

Bookworm said...

From an outsider -- well, outside your circle of artists and creators -- I'm "just" a reader... I enjoyed your Comic-Con post, and now this one blew me away. You've introduced me to a new organization composed of new people and given me the names of their books I now want to read.

I didn't even know this genre existed until GoComics started posting Mom's Cancer online. After seeing the announcement of the "new" comic in their blog, I read 2 pages, then bought the book. The graphic style is so much more direct, readable, and representative than just words.

My husband had a stroke last fall after a few years of declining short-term memory. He's okay physically, but has increasing problems with organizing his thoughts and keeping track of events, so books about aging and senility are very helpful in giving me new viewpoints and commiserating with me. If they also make me laugh, that extends my patience level! And I have and have had family members and friends dealing with cancer, some successfully and some not, so books about cancer are also meaningful and very personal. (So far I have not been able to read Mom's Cancer through. I can only deal with it as GoComics posts it, 2 pages a week.)

You wrote that you and others at the C&MC want to "try to figure out ways to stretch the medium to make it do more than it has before and actually change people's lives". Well, this person has been helped, all because of GoComics' blog and now yours. Thank you. And thanks for the link to the Graphic Medicine website. I'm looking forward to reading about more books and seeing the videos they post from the conference.

Brian Fies said...

Bookworm, there's nothing "just" about a reader. They're the most important part!

Thanks for the comment and for sharing your thoughts. I'm very sorry about your husband, and am trying to think of any graphic novels I can recommend that might best fit your situation. I'm coming up a bit blank--can't think of a single one dealing with stroke or brain injury. I'll ask my friends.

Your last paragraph is very gratifying, thanks. I really appreciate it and will pass it on.

Susan Merrill Squier said...

Brian, what a wonderful blog post, especially your comments about the role for older women cartoonists. Having Carol Tyler and Joyce Farmer together: bliss. Sandra Bell Lundy's suggestion is great: what a fantastic panel that would be for the next Comics and Medicine conference, to discuss the experiences of mature (great word: rich, full, ripe) women cartoonists.

I'm sad, though, that you spent so little time discussing a wonderful workshop on comics creation that I was happily pulled into at the last minute, and that taught me so very much, not only about how to create a comics narrative, but about how to teach. That was, of course, your workshop. Thanks so much.

Brian Fies said...

Susan, I'm glad I strong-armed you into walking through my door. Your compliment means a lot coming from you, thanks.

Mita said...

Brian! Thank you so much for this thoughtful recap of what was an incredible 3 days. It was so great to see you!!

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to spend time with Carol Tyler and Joyce Farmer—so inspired and energized by their tremendous talent, intelligence, humor, and graciousness. I totally agree with you: It seems like women in the comics industry are always subject to comparisons that they don't seek nor deserve. It's ridiculous and unfair—and especially so in the case of these women whose comics rank among the TOP.

To spin positive: I am grateful for Comics and Medicine for providing a forum to discuss and celebrate comics in a way that isn't dictated by business models and marketing blah blahs. Ackk—it was an amazing conference!

Thank you thank you thank you for your friendship and for being a big part of what makes this community tick.

alpha2 said...

Thanks for this summary of the Comics and Medicine conference, Brian! Both Evi and I really appreciated meeting you and everyone else at the conference. We especially enjoyed being part of your drawing session.

In case you're interested, the first printing of Evi's book, The Hallway Closet, has sold out. A second printing will be coming out this month--we have an order for 40 books from one store!

Thanks so much for the extra time and advice you gave to Evi. As a young artist and writer just starting out, your advice was invaluable.

We hope to see you again at next year's conference, if not before.