Interview With Brian Fies About Graphic Medicine Conference

After getting some information about the upcoming Graphic Medicine conference, scheduled for June in Chicago, from Brian Fies, I asked him a few more questions about the upcoming event. My thanks to him for his time and answers.

Q: How did you come to work with the Graphic Medicine conference?

I was asked! The organizer of last June’s London conference, Ian Williams — who is both a cartoonist and physician — invited me to give a keynote lecture. I thought the idea of the conference was terrific, and exactly in line with some of my reasons for making Mom’s Cancer. Plus: free ticket to London. It was an easy decision and I had a great time.

When the organizing committee started planning a 2011 event in the states, they asked if I’d help. I imagine they vastly overestimated my contacts and influence in the comics world, but I agreed anyway. We’re trying to learn from what worked best in London and make the next one even better. It’ll be hosted by Northwestern University in Chicago June 9-11, expanded from one full day to two. Our keynote speakers are Scott McCloud, Phoebe Gloeckner, and David Small, so that’s an all-star lineup. We’ll have lectures, panels, workshops, and opportunities to just talk informally. It should be great.

Q: How did the first one go? What was the attendance, and what were the high points?

As a “first-of-its-kind” pioneer, I think the London conference was excellent. About 70 people attended, with a very nice mix of cartoonists and medical people from North America, the UK, and Europe. These are academic conferences rather than comics conventions, which is an important distinction. Paul Gravett gave an outstanding keynote lecture on “Evolving Forms of Medical Graphic Narratives” that pretty much covered the whole history of comics. Sessions addressed comics and mental illness, comics in medical and patient education, comics and caregivers, manga — a real smart, high level of discussion.

I came away with a few strong impressions. I was struck by the mutual respect and easy interaction among cartoonists and medical professionals, which you wouldn’t necessarily find in other situations. We were on common ground. Everyone took comics seriously as a medium that had something to offer. I left feeling that I’d been part of the start of something that could grow into a very interesting and important piece of both comics and medicine.

Q: Do you think that medical issues in comics and graphic novels is a wide enough topic to continue having these conferences regularly? Is this intended to be a yearly event?

I can’t speak for the organizers, but it’s fair to say we’re taking them one at a time, and we’ll see how Chicago goes. Ideally, Graphic Medicine conferences could be held regularly, perhaps alternating between the continents.

You’re right that within the world of comics, medically themed work is a small niche. There are maybe a few dozen comics and graphic novels in English, and similar numbers in other languages such as French and Japanese, that fit the bill. But graphic medicine is bigger than comics. Medical schools have courses in “Medical Humanities” that teach about the human side of medicine, dealing with people as people rather than leaky sacks of defective parts. Those classes use comics as textbooks and encourage future physicians to find novel ways to connect to their patients. The British Medical Journal published an article on using comics in medical education and patient care, written by two of our conferences’ organizers. It’s a growing field.

The unique strength of the medium is that anyone can do it. It’s egalitarian and cheap. For the price of paper and a pen, you too can be a cartoonist. Patients make comics. Caregivers make comics. Doctors and nurses make comics. They won’t usually be professional-quality work ready to publish, but that’s not the point. These conferences focus less on specific works of comics literature than the potential of the comics medium to share stories, provide therapy, teach, and communicate ideas that can’t be communicated any other way. They’re about tapping that largely untapped potential.

Q: What kinds of people attend? How will they benefit?

Attendees include cartoonists, writers, critics, doctors, nurses, therapists, academics. Fans. As I said, it’s an academic conference, not a comics convention. One of the consequences of that is that we really need people’s proposals and input. This isn’t a Comic-Con where an anonymous committee sets up all the guests and programming. We recently issued a Call for Papers asking people to submit 300-word proposals for what they want to come to Chicago and talk about. We need ideas for panels, workshops, poster sessions. You decide the programming. We’re expecting a lot of good proposals, and we are especially eager to hear from cartoonists as well as academics and healthcare professionals. Anybody doing a Master’s or Ph.D. thesis on a comics-related theme should take a look. The deadline is February 28.

The cost is not yet set. We’re getting grants and donations to cover as many of the expenses as possible, and Northwestern University is being incredibly generous and helpful. We are very mindful that cartoonists and physicians are used to paying very different prices for conferences. We want it to be affordable and are just aiming to cover costs; no one’s making any money on it.

I came away from the London conference very excited by the idea that comics could make a real difference in people’s lives. The most rewarding responses I get to Mom’s Cancer are when people tell me I captured their family’s story, and when doctors and nurses tell me my book motivated them to change how they do their jobs. Both of those reactions are very powerful and gratifying. Multiply that a thousand-fold and you get an idea of the potential benefits I see.

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