Beyond superheroes: Comics as a new genre for medical storytelling

January 19, 2012 at 8:36 am 1 comment

Comics in medicine classPenn State College of Medicine may be the only place in the country where a fourth year medical student can take an elective Humanities course about comics titled “Graphic Storytelling and Medical Narratives.” But before you snort derisively, listen to Michael Green, M.D., professor in the Departments of Humanities and Medicine, explain why he created this course.

“Most people think comics are juvenile, silly, and frivolous, that it’s only about superheroes or funny cartoons,” Green said. “But I’m teaching about a specific, growing genre of graphic narratives that tell incredibly moving stories about serious topics.”

Even within this broad category, there is a growing number of individuals creating memoir-type stories related to medical issues–for instance, patients telling stories about their illnesses, medical providers sharing their experiences, and family members providing their perspectives on healthcare. As Green sees it, his course offers students an opportunity to learn and explore themes relevant to the practice of medicine.

Nearly a dozen students signed up when he first introduced the course three years ago. He thought it would attract comic-lovers and artists, but he discovered that it drew students largely because it simply fit their schedules. These students were quickly won over, however, by the course content and format when they realized here was a great opportunity for them to move outside their typical comfort zones.

Most students were nervous when they discovered that the final class project involved drawing and writing their own graphic stories about a personal experience in medicine, Green said. But their confidence grew, and students created terrific, original stories that can be found online at

“About half the stories have to do with students’ own experiences of being in medical school—about their transformation from novice to doctor,” says Green. “The other half tell stories about a meaningful patient encounter that affected their decisions to enter a particular medical specialty.”

Based on a pre-course assessment of attitudes and skills repeated at the completion of the class, Green found that his course helped medical students improve their communication and observation skills, better appreciate patients’ experience of their illnesses, and become more aware of the effects of body language on patient care. It also provided an opportunity to try something new.

The class is part of a humanities-based approach to medical training that is embedded at Penn State College of Medicine. “Humanities and ethics is part of the fabric of this institution. To be a good doctor, you have to be more than just a scientist. You have to be someone who can communicate well with patients, understand various points of view, and appreciate life beyond science,” Green says.

He adds, “Our department has pioneered the teaching of humanities in medical schools. People around the country look to us as leaders in this field. We have opportunities to be innovative in our curriculum and try things that others don’t.”

While this approach is rare, it is not unique. Green has joined with like-minded colleagues around the world to pursue this branch of comics–a term that loosely refers to the combined use of pictures and words to tell stories–for teaching and research.

While the medium may be new to medicine, the concept has been around for centuries. “People have always been visual storytellers,” Green says. “Pictures and images have been used since cave drawings to tell stories, and now people are starting to use this medium to describe medical experiences.”

Two years ago, Green discovered a like-minded colleague in Wales, and their conversations ultimately led to the first international conference devoted to this subject, held in 2009 in London. The conference attracted more than 70 participants, mostly across Europe. Interest grew, and a second conference was held last year in Chicago, co-sponsored by the College of Medicine’s Department of Humanities, Penn State’s Science, Technology, and Society Program, and Northwestern University, with 80 participants from around the world.

Two students from Green’s course presented work before this international audience at the June conference, which was partly funded by a donation from Jean Schulz, widow of the “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz.

Comics, however loosely defined, are not limited to medical training. Physicians across the country have found graphic stories to be an effective alternative for patient education, offering a compassionate glimpse of a shared experience, whether it’s dealing with cancer (Cancer Vixen), struggling with Alzheimer’s (Tangled) or handling a loved one’s suicide (Years of the Elephant).

“These stories are such great examples of our universal experience,” Green says. “It’s helpful not only for physicians to understand patients better, but to share these stories with patients. Patients who are ill often feel isolated, so here’s a chance for a doctor to say, ‘Read this story. You’re not alone.’”

If he has one message for incredulous readers, it is this: “I encourage you to check out these great stories,” he says. “You might be surprised by how moving and relevant they are.”

For readers who want to check out some medical comics, Green recommends the following:

·     Cancer Vixen: A True Story, by Marisa Acocella Marchetto
·     Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, by Miriam Engelberg
·     Stitches, by David Small
·     Years of the Elephant, by Willy Linthout
·     Monsters, by Ken Dahl
·     Tangles, by Sarah Leavitt
·     Mom’s Cancer, by Brian Fies
·     Psychiatric Tales, by Darryl Cunningham
·     Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel
·     Epileptic, by David B.
·     Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman

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