Author: Ian Williams
Publish Date: June 2014
Publisher: Myriad Editions, UK, 2014. Penn State University Press, North America, 2015, Maraboules, France, 2015
Catalog ID: ISBN 978-0-271-06754-4.
Author website: http://www.myriadeditions.com/creator/ian-williams//
Review first published in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 2016
The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James is a riveting, debut graphic novel by Ian Williams, a celebrated medical humanist and founder of the Graphic Medicine website. He previously published using the nom de plume Thom Ferrier and contributed a series of comic strips for the Guardian. In The Bad Doctor, inspired by Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary and by his own experience of the continuing secondary effects of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Ian Williams deftly evokes the world of country GP Dr Iwan James’s deep psychic wounds and existential agonies occasioned by OCD.
Woven out of the turbulent undercurrents of his seemingly satisfactory medical profession, The Bad Doctor introduces the world of Iwan James, whose present is plagued and informed by his traumatic OCD past. It is in the past that the readers get a glimpse of his childhood mental rituals, compulsive neurosis, inner mental activity and his helpless feelings of fear and guilt. Navigating between the past and the present, the narrative begins in James’s hospital and ends dramatically in the Welsh countryside, tracing, in the process, the troubled personal and professional life of Iwan James. Although married for more than 20 years to Carole, Iwan fails to keep his nuptial bond alive, and from the embers of a dormant relationship he levitates towards his female colleague Lois, only to get rejected subsequently. Even though he is fond of music and pets, he is ‘obsessed’ with cycles. Beyond his mid-life insecurities and a routine of dull tedium, Iwan James manages to maintain a certain level of fidelity to his vocation by listening to his patients, by helping all those who come to him and by attending emergency cases.
Through a specific narrative strategy employed to interknit the present narrative time with the snapshots of Iwan James’s past formative years, the author takes the reader directly to the tenebrous, often bottled psychic tremors of an OCD patient that are usually shoved under his ‘sighs’. The palpable exasperation that Iwan James expresses for multiple things are nothing but the phantoms of his neurotic past, which is made obvious through the frequent flashbacks and deeply introspective conversational snippets with his cycling buddy, Arthur. Besides depicting the caustic stains of OCD on a person, The Bad Doctor also diagrams serial complexities of issues such as commercialisation of the health sector, the responsibilities of doctors like issuing shotgun licenses, the unhealthy criticisms faced by young GPs, among others, to foreground the often under-represented human side of the profession.
The art style certainly aids the author in reflecting the tone and theme of the narrative, especially with the efficient experimental ways of using colour, page layout and form. While the pervading gloom and lifelessness in the titular character’s life is depicted adeptly with the black/white and grey shades, the recurrent circular patterns and the iconic symbols succinctly capture the monotony and mechanic momentum of Iwan James’s life. The earnest and unexacting attitude of the doctor towards his patients is brought clear with simple, less complicated panels. Further, through a moment-to-moment panel transition, the narrative unfolds the complexities of OCD experience. The author’s experimenting with the conventional necessities of comics such as clear and distinct gutter space, tiers and panels adds to the reading experience and has a novelty appeal. Tellingly, Iwan James holding a skull on the cover page could be an astute way of approximating him with the Shakespearean tragic hero Hamlet, in that by collating Hamlet’s dilemma of ‘to be or not to be’ with the doubtful ways of Iwan James, the author throws open the fallible, mortal and existential dimensions of human life.
Supplementing the art form is the symbolic richness that accentuates emotional resonance and the heft of the narrative. Accordingly, the adroit integration of satanic, mystical, medical, agrarian, urban and occult symbols like the Sephirot in the Kabbalah provokes a sensory response in the reader in that it aids them to understand the ineffable intricacies of OCD. Further, Ian Williams’s technique of spatialising time and space on the same plane is illustrated in the beguiling beauty of the Welsh landscape, which, as it absorbs and evinces the social, cultural and environmental affectations of the place, also manifests Iwan James’s psychic landscape, or ‘psycho-geography’ as the author puts it. As a semi-autobiographical work, the tale of Iwan James’s troubles narrated with a clinician’s precision is a partial reflection of Ian Williams’s own life as a doctor from the Welsh countryside. Although a debut graphic novel, Ian Williams has captured in The Bad Doctor the vulnerable moments in the life of a trained physician with an impeccable dexterity. In the final analysis, through subtle portrayal of characters and a narrative that is saturated with black humour, The Bad Doctor unsettles popular perceptions that regard doctors as infallible, ultra-precise and always hale and hearty. Given the above-mentioned strengths, it is not surprising to learn that The Bad Doctor was shortlisted for Myriad Editions’ First Graphic Novel Competition.
National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappali, India
© 2016, Sathyaraj Venkatesan