guest post by Maja Milkowska-Shibata, recipient of a Peter James Burns Scholarship
The annual Graphic Medicine Conference brings together individuals from a wide range of disciplines and motivations. Some participants conduct research on the role of comics in healthcare and use them as teaching tools. Some have already released or are working on autobiographical comics. Others simply want to connect with people who have gone through similar experiences of illness or trauma.
Personally, I have been learning about the field of graphic medicine for over a year now. In Aprill 2022, I stumbled upon MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Unit 371. I was fascinated by the visual method of telling health-related stories, as well as how well it managed to convey the incredible emotional charge of the story. I also realized I wanted to create my own memoir about how my disability influenced my decision to work in public health. And so I began reading a lot of graphic novels in order to learn the craft of comic-making and storytelling.
I felt extremely lucky when I discovered that the 2022 Graphic Medicine Conference would be held in Chicago, which is very close to where I live. I attended the conference and was blown away by everyone’s stories and talents, as well as the kindness and welcoming atmosphere around me. I had the opportunity to meet MK and even asked her to sign her book for me, which was a cherished moment. Leaving the conference, I knew that I wanted to be part of it next year. That was when I decided that the following year, I would not only participate, but also present at the conference.
A year has passed and I’ve just came back from the 2023 Graphic Medicine Conference in Toronto. Since my graphic novel is still in the works, I decided to present to the audience something related to what I do now, which is medical interpretation. When I started working as a Polish medical interpreter nine months ago, I knew I wanted to document my professional journey through comics. During my lightning talk, I introduced the comics I make to educate people about the profession, as well as document interactions with patients and providers.
The day of my presentation arrived, and I was filled with nervous anticipation. I had never shown or discussed my comics in front of a larger audience before, and I suddenly felt very vulnerable. However, worries about my presentation and performance vanished as I listened to the first panel of the day. Witnessing the attentive and genuinely interested audience, I realized there was nothing to worry about. I got a positive response, distributed some zines, and the conversations went on long after the session was over.
Despite having to cut the conference short this year, I made a lot of connections and met other creators with whom I had previously connected online through our shared passion for comic books. The highlight was finally meeting in person some members of the Sequential Artists Workshop Graphic Memoir Working Group. I learned about the group during a panel with Tom Hart at last year’s conference, and joined it two months after. Their guidance and support over the past year have been invaluable in making the ambitious goal of creating a graphic memoir a little less daunting.
I brought home a lot of inspiration. Michael DeForge’s provocative and colorful posters supporting various social causes, for example, made me want to create some in a similar style. The work of Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth has shown me that I need to work harder on representation in my comics. Emunah Woolf inspired me to create a coloring book. I cannot wait to read books on comic-making that I learned about at the event and hope will help me improve my comics, such as Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics by Hillary Chute and Autobiographical Comics by Andrew J. Kunka. And it is always fascinating to learn about other artists’ creative processes and approaches to writing, drawing, and collaboration.
But it is the courage with which participants share their personal journeys of hardship and challenge through autobiographical comics that inspires me the most. Witnessing their resilience and creativity had a profound impact on me, and it serves as a reminder of the transformative power of graphic medicine and human connection. Attending the conference reinforced my belief that I must continue to create comics in order to tell my story in my own words.
Last year an outsider, this year I felt like I belonged. This is especially true considering that I was awarded the Peter James Burns Graphic Medicine Scholarship, which allowed me to make the most of the conference while also making me feel included. I’m looking forward to the upcoming conference and all the amazing experiences it will bring. See you in Ireland!
Maja Milkowska-Shibata (she/her) lives and creates in Naperville, Illinois, and online at www.majamilkowska-shibata.com. A public health professional by training, she uses writing and art to share stories and perspectives.