Getting Started with Graphic Medicine in Disability Studies
Liaison: Ann Fox
Dovetails productively with
A dovetail is not just a verb, but also a noun: it’s a kind of interlocking joint. This image of two parts maintaining their integrity as both separate bodies and a newly conjoined one is how I see the powerful relationship that can be crafted between graphic medicine and disability studies.
My name is Ann Fox, and I love interpreting representations, especially visual and performed ones. This first led to my work as a theater scholar and eventual collaboration from 1996-1999 with The DisAbility Project, a community-based theatre in St. Louis. Learning that disability is a powerful identity and social justice movement led to my discovering disability studies, and I was fortunate enough to carry out an intense study of the field with other scholars in a 2000 NEH Summer Institute. That summer changed the course of my life; I have been a deeply passionate student of disability since then. This has included my teaching about disability in drama, literature, and culture, as well as my curatorial work centered around disability art.
I first became interested in graphic medicine before I even knew it was a field. My interest emerged at first from teaching disability memoirs as part of my disability and literature classes. In the early 2000s, I started to notice that it seemed there were more and more graphic novels that were taking disability and illness as their focus. But while I thought that was interesting, it wasn’t until I first met MK Czerwiec when we were both presenting at the New York Academy of Medicine that I began to understand that graphic medicine was a field and a movement – and that it had powerful connections to disability studies (more on that below). I taught my first graphic medicine course in 2016, and discovered it was both a logical extension of my disability studies work, as well as a way I could meaningfully connect that work to an entirely new student audience, including many pre-med students. As of spring 2021, I’ve taught the course four times, and it has been a joy. This is not just because I see students deepen their understanding of the social, economic, and lived experience of illness; not just because graphic medicine is a new way to introduce them to key concepts in disability studies; not just because I know graphic medicine will make them kinder to themselves and others; but also, because I see them harness their own creativity to tell their own stories of illness and disability through making their own comics. Convinced I needed to learn what that was like, I made my own comic too; it was a revelation to return to that part of me that loved to draw – a version of myself I left behind forty years ago, when I was thirteen years old.
I hope what follows – the connections I see between graphic medicine and disability studies, and some advice for getting started – is useful to those of you who are disability studies students and scholars. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions at the email address below!
How do graphic medicine and disability studies dovetail? A not-exhaustive list:
- Both center the experiences of disabled people as a source of knowledge, meaning, and creativity. Both interrogate what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls the “normate,” and embrace a wide range of embodiments as a distinct version of the human.
- Both investigate a more capacious definition of disability and trouble the supposed divide between “disabled” and “nondisabled.” They point to the ways all bodies are contingent, and that neither health nor disability are fixed states in themselves.
- Both convey a kind of communal disability knowledge and history. For example, what does it mean to move through different stages of identity after becoming newly disabled (as we see in Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s My Degeneration)? What was it like to work with patients at a transformative moment in social history (as in MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from Care Unit 371)?
- Both value a kind of care work that pushes back at paternalism, medical hierarchy, and White supremacy. For example, Don Brown’s Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans shows how networks of mutual care supplanted the failures of government during Hurricane Katrina.
- Both engage metaphor in newly complex ways. Comics (particularly superhero comics) have used disability as a metaphor for a long time. But graphic medicine and disability studies both ground themselves in a search for metaphor beyond problematic and hackneyed tropes and stereotypes, seeking to portray disability experience and embodiment in more substantive, nuanced, accessible, and original ways.
- Both push back at stigma, particularly that stemming from ableism that is externally imposed or internalized.
- Both explore how factors external to bodies like poverty, climate change, and racism are disabling forces.
- Both re-read canonical works that might not seem on the surface to be about disability or medicine in terms of their own approach (think, for example, how we can claim Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home for both disability studies and graphic medicine, given its exploration of obsessive-compulsive disorder and emotional trauma).
- Both explore the ideas of “crip time,” pain, and grief in ways that don’t re-pathologize them.
- Both create alternate histories of disability and medicine that de-center traditional views of patients and practitioners.
- Both embrace principles of disability justice; consider, for example, how Kara Sievewright’s “Queer in Common Country” centers the stories of queer and trans disabled people with cancer, interweaving their experience of the medical-industrial complex with colonialism.
- Both emphasize care work as vital: not just traditional caregiving, but also self-care and care networks.
- Both contemplate the importance of access; graphic medicine makes complex medical or emotional realities more accessible, while comics can also spur new and exciting directions the aesthetics of access (for example, in considering how to make a visual medium accessible to those with low or no vision).
- Both interrogate the medical model, moving past the idea that cure is its only objective.
How can someone working in disability studies get started in graphic medicine?
Incorporate a work of graphic medicine into your disability studies course! Graphicmedicine.org (the home site for this page) is an especially rich resource for suggestions. So for example, instead of reading a literary disability memoir in the context of a disability in literature and art class, we look at works of graphic medicine. Graphic medicine can also be a useful way to make nuanced concepts in disability studies more accessible, including disability aesthetics, crip time, and the ideology of cure. The visuals of graphic medicine lend themselves well to a discussion of how to convey disability embodiment in representation in innovative ways.
Make a comic of your own! I found the experience transformative when I created my own small-scale comic; there are disability studies scholars like Jennell Johnson who have both created and also assembled collections of comics. Share it with your students and submit your comic to a publication like Graphic Medicine Review or Annals of Internal Medicine.
You might also think about how your disability studies research could be conveyed in comics form. In other words, are there areas in your own field of disability studies where transforming your ideas into comics might make them more accessible? Imagined in a different way? Could you be a trailblazer in your subfield by offering your disability studies research as a work of graphic medicine?
Design a graphic medicine course! I am happy to share my most recent graphic medicine syllabus with anyone who gets in contact with me and walk you through the kinds of assignments I create to help students create their own comics. I have found that students (especially science students) who ordinarily shy away from English literature classes because they think they “can’t write” blossom in a class where the visual feels more accessible to them – and in turn, their writing about it. Of course, I know the secret they later discover: that the critical skills they use to analyze comics are very much those of astute literary critics. I love seeing them let go of their fears of the literary and understand themselves to be knowledge people, not just STEM people. I also love that for many of them, graphic medicine is a real respite: not only because it is time away from the content-heavy pre-med courses, but because it allows them to let go of their perfectionism and literalism for a while. They care very deeply about the social justice issues graphic medicine raises, and I am always astonished at the kinds of disability experiences they relate. This, in turn, reminds me of the lesson I wish to impart to them: disability is a fundamentally human condition, not simply the domain of the sick or old.
Invite speakers to class! Comics artists love to discuss their work with students and are incredibly generous with their advice and expertise. Don’t be afraid – especially in these days of Zoom – to invite artists to engage in dialogue with your disability studies students. These visits are always my students’ favorite part of the semester, and you will learn a lot as well.
Incorporate a comics-based class activity or project into your disability studies class! Many of us who teach disability studies courses invite students to create their own artworks or representations. I have found that offering students in my disability studies classes the chance to make comics has resulted in some powerful work; students who might find the idea of writing poetry or creating visual art are less intimidated (even though the resulting work is just as rich and complex).
Comics can also take the place of simple text-based assignments, and show you a side to your students you never imagined. I used the prompt “What is bringing pleasure into your world during pandemic” to invite students in a class to introduce themselves to me, but they had to draw, rather than write the answer. (My response, which I shared with them, is pictured at the bottom of this page.) They had fun, and immediately found connections with others’ drawings in a way that a typical icebreaker’s recounting of just the facts might not have yielded. I know a colleague who is having students respond in an anthropology class to disability essays through creating small drawings as well.
Embrace your own productive discomfort with teaching and making comics! The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that because you have not taught the graphic novel before you cannot teach students how to read and make comics. Collections like Graphic Medicine Manifesto provide practical advice. Because we are almost all already familiar with reading comics, and because many concepts from literary study apply equally here, the pedagogy of graphic medicine is very accessible. Graphic medicine encourages students to deploy the powerful skills they already have as interpreters of popular visual images – often themselves based on regenerated tropes and devices –and this makes them feel more empowered as critics and thinkers. This is a powerful rejoinder to the idea that only literary experts have meaningful critical knowledge.
Finally: embrace the crip fabulosity of graphic medicine! When students enter my classroom, they are nervous about making comics because they “can’t draw.” But as I point out to them, I’m not worried about their virtuosity as artists. Rather, I’m curious about the vision they create to convey their story. Those stories can be embodied in all kinds of ways, resulting in a variation of styles that echo the crip fabulosity that highlights human variation! It’s telling that students are always eager to share their final comics with subsequent generations of students – both as a way of sharing their own stories as well as providing reassurance: you can do this, too!
And so can you!
Some places to start researching:
Disability Studies Quarterly (open access) and the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies are leading journals in the field that publish essays about comics (both graphic medicine and disability studies analyses of “mainstream” comics). (Note: JCLDS will have a special issue forthcoming in 2021-22 entitled “Cripping Graphic Medicine: Approaching Comics from a Disability Studies Perspective.”) If you want to see examples of graphic medicine x disability studies, these journals are excellent places to start.
Other useful resources:
Alaniz, José. Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
Couser, G. Thomas. “Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation.” PMLA 120:2 (2005): 602-606.
Czerwiec, MK et al. Graphic Medicine Manifesto. Vol. 1. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2020.
DeTora, Lisa. Graphic Embodiments: Perspectives on Health and Embodiment in Graphic Narratives. Leuven University Press, 2021.
Foss, Chris et al. Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.
Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly 37:3 (2017).
Smith, Scott T. Uncanny Bodies: Superhero Comics and Disability. PSU Press, 2019.
Squier, Susan Merrill. Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawings as Metaphor. Duke University Press, 2017.
Squier, Susan Merrill and Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff, eds. PathoGraphics: Narrative, Aesthetics, Contention, Community. Penn State University Press, 2020.
Wegner, Gesine. “Reflections on the Boom of Graphic Pathography: The Effects and Affects of Narrating Disability and Illness in Comics.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14:1 (2020): 57-74.
Wright, Aneurin. “Shame, Sexuality, Mental Health and Comics.” Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics 11:4 (2020): 438-47.
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