Glossary of Awkward: A Modern Lexicon of All the Uncomfortable Moments That Arise from Cancer
Publish Date: 2018
Publisher: Uncomfortable Revolution Limited
Catalog ID: 978-1527234192
Where to buy: https://www.glossaryofawkward.com
Guest review by A. David Lewis
Whether or not Brendan McDonald, Corinne Gray, and Simon Kneebone’s Glossary of Awkward qualifies as Graphic Medicine is at once both entirely beside the point as well as central to its relevance. The small, square red book likely has less verbal text in it than a New Yoker article and only slightly more comics: each page features a color image demonstrating the term and definition from this “modern lexicon of all the uncomfortable moments that arise from cancer.” For instance, rousing roulette is a noun describing “an aggravating game in which you try to compare someone’s cancer diagnosis to a round of seemingly worse-off hypothetical events.” The cutting designation is accompanied by a scene of two men talking, one of whom shares, “I’ve got cancer,” while the other responds, “Better than a stray bullet, hey?!” We witness a brief round of rousing roulette, a game that can only end in failure.
To mire discussion and appreciation of Glossary of Awkward in the similarly fruitless game of Does This Count as Graphic Medicine? would demonstrate precisely the oblivious distance some of us are fortunate enough to have from cancer. We could quibble over the lack of sequential image use, about the absence of clear narrative, or with the easy separation of verbal and visual content – and that pedantry would aid absolutely no one. Acting as gatekeepers of Graphic Medicine here would entirely undermine the very purposes of Graphic Medicine, whether as a genre, a field, a tool, or a movement.
In a sense, though, placing one’s own perspectives or criteria above that of someone more central and immediate to a difficult subject is the very theme of Glossary of Awkward. As McDonald explains in the introduction, “there’s no manual for what to say what to say when a loved one tells you they have cancer” as he had to with his Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. In many cases, their awkward responses shift to unrelated anecdotes, subjective assessment, misplaced drama, or poorly wrought sympathy (see rousing roulette). In short, their discomfort and the strangeness of this situation relocate them to a disconnected place not unlike doctrinaire equivocating over a scholarly label distracting from consideration of the content itself.
Glossary of Awkward exemplifies the principle of Graphic Medicine, regardless of its form: to communicate a medical condition that fails in words alone. McDonald, Gray, and Kneebone deliver a host of embarrassing situations to their audience readers so it, in turn, has the capacity to recognize (and avoid) these missteps in advance or, at least, have the opportunity to laugh about them after the fact. Scholars and supporters of Graphic Medicine must take care not to supplant such works by prioritizing the rigors of scholarly categorization over the value of the works themselves. To do so would be to institutionally protagonise (v.), “to inadvertently make yourself the protagonist of someone else’s story; and the victim of their diagnosis.”
A. David Lewis earned his Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from Boston University and his M.A. in English Literature from Georgetown University while developing original graphic novels such as The Lone and Level Sands and, more recently, Kismet, Man of Fate. He teaches at MCPHS University and was a 2015 Eisner Award nominee for American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife. Lewis is president of the nonprofit CYRIC organization and organizer of the 2020 New England Graphic Medicine Conference.
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