Ddepression. Addiction. Terminal illness. Pain. These are difficult subjects, and graphic narratives can communicate their nuances by using illustrations to support, or even replace, the text. “There’s an immediacy to comics that can make these subjects more enjoyable, engaging, or understandable,” says Eric Reynolds, vice president and associate editor at Fantagraphics, whose catalog includes several titles in the graphic medicine genre. TP spoke to publishers and authors about how the comic book medium contributes to the message.
The things we wear
Being a caregiver is a financial, logistical and emotional challenge, especially in the absence of strong social supports: the United States, for example, does not have a national paid parental leave policy and elder care is expensive. and complex. New titles tackle the issue from different angles.
Syndicated cartoonist Nate Fakes recounts his stepfather’s struggle with dementia in A fading of light (West margin, available now). “Rendered in intimate illustrations seemingly taken from the fun pages”, by TP, “it’s a heartbreaking but affectionate portrait, swollen with pathos.” In A list of pros and cons for strong feelings (Tin House, Nov.), Will Betke Brunswick documents their mother’s impending death from colon cancer. Two-tone illustrations depict the character Will, their mother, and other family members as penguins navigating chemotherapy and hospital visits; chickens, peacocks and other bird species represent Will’s friends. “Anthropomorphism avoids being sentimental or absurd”, according to TPthe exam. “Rather, it serves as a humble reminder that people are all weird ducks with brittle bones.”
Cartoonist Briana Loewinsohn tries to bond with a relative who died of mental illness in Short-lived, expected from Fantagraphics in March 2023. The book is rendered in warm, earthy tones and has a magical, ethereal quality to it, Reynolds says. “It’s solidly grounded in the sense that it’s a memoir about Brianna’s childhood, specifically her mother and her relationship with her mother,” he says. “But she filters the story through the literary motif of the garden, looking at the past through a filter that is not strictly first-person.”
Ronan and the Infinite Sea of Stars by Rick Louis and Lara Antal, a November release from Abrams ComicArts, focuses on the care and loss of a child: Louis’ son was born with Tay-Sachs disease, an incurable neurological disorder, and the book is a celebration of his short life. “In this candid account of a devastating ordeal”, by TP“It’s the beauty of moments of love that linger too briefly.”
A few years ago, when acquiring Ronan, Charlotte Greenbaum, editor of Abrams, saw “a real wave of mental health, physical health, body stuff”, and says the graphic format is a great vehicle for such topics. “Sequential storytelling is something between prose and live action,” she says. “It allows you to have a moment to breathe with the characters – the space between the panels, the gutter. It’s not so immersive that it feels overwhelming.
In Bear (Seven Stories, January 2023), Swedish printmaker Staffan Gnosspelius attempts to make sense of a friend’s mental illness. “The friend didn’t want any help,” he explains. “This bear appeared in my sketchbooks; I drew it a lot before connecting the dots; it was a relief valve. The bear of Gnosspelius, afflicted with a cone covering his head, encounters a hare who stays close and offers him support. “As the bear and the rabbit move toward silent understanding, they walk through the darkness,” according to TP, “and slowly pages of soft and luminous watercolors sometimes appear and suggest dawning relief.” The absence of words from the book serves the story, says Gnosspelius. “I express what these two characters were confronted with; you take what you want. Maybe it’s not a mental health issue for you at all. It’s open to interpretation.
Other books shed light on their authors’ health struggles and their relationship with their bodies.
French filmmaker Lea Bordier launched her YouTube channel Cher Corps (dear body) in 2016 and has since interviewed over 70 women and non-binary people about how they relate to their physical selves. In Dear body (FairSquare, Feb. 2023), initially published in France in 2019, 12 artists illustrate about ten stories presented on the Bordier channel. “I wish I had read that when I was younger,” Bordier says. “In France, where I live, it was a bit taboo to talk openly about body issues six years ago and even stranger to interview women about it.”
Bordier notes that the graphic novel format was the only one that would have worked for this project. “Sequential art brought my interviews and the stories we collected to life,” she says. “The video interviews were mainly about emotion and testimonials. The graphic novel adds the representation of bodies and situations.
to the bone by Catherine Pioli (Graphic Mundi, Dec.) details the author-illustrator’s experiences as a leukemia patient: tests and treatments, acceptance of her new body, support from loved ones. Pioli died in 2017, which is revealed in the book’s epilogue; the book was originally published in France in 2018. In another import, Tiitu Takalo reflects on his life before and after a brain aneurysm ruptured in Memento Mori (Oni, May 2023). The book was first published in 2020 in the author’s native Finland, where she has received numerous accolades for her work.
Buildings, towers and garbage cans author-illustrator Julia Wertz author exploits her own life for comics, graphic novels and cartoons in the Believer, Harper’s Magazineand the New Yorker. In impossible people (Black Dog & Leventhal, May 2023), the subtitle of which describes it as “a completely average recovery story”, it documents, through black and white line drawings, his more or less successful efforts in sobriety: buying alcohol at three convenience stores to avoid detection of the habit, forays into therapy, attendance at AA meetings, and rehabilitation.
The third installment in the series of autobiographical comics by British artist Rachael Smith Glass half empty (Icon, Apr. 2023), discusses his problematic relationship with his father and with alcohol. “Comics are an amazing way to communicate vital information,” she says. “There’s a reason there’s a comic behind every seat on an airplane or in every box of kit furniture.” She hopes reading about her experiences will comfort others struggling with addiction.
“I’m not an alcoholic and, in fact, no one is; the term is outdated and shames the person rather than the substance,” Smith says. “These are my opinions and my journey with this issue. While writing, I realized how many people go through similar things. If you are struggling with grief or addiction, you are not alone and there is help out there.
America’s healthcare system itself gets the graphical treatment in several new titles. Joy to stop (Drawn & Quarterly, available now) compiles the work, some previously out of print, of Keiler Roberts who humorously observes his frustrations living with multiple sclerosis and mental illness and coping with health care. In Bipolar Bear and the Terrible, Horrible, not good, very bad health insurance by Kathleen Founds (Graphic Mundi, November), the urchin Theodore navigates a maze of health claims and battles the literal big cats who run the insurance company. “The style shows that the state of health care in the United States is so absurd that it should be a story to scare children”, by TPthe exam. “It’s goofy with a zinger of political message.”
Nervosa by Hayley Gold (Street Noise, April 2023) blurs the insensitivity and ignorance of the system. As a teenager, Gold struggled with eating disorders and was placed in what she calls “labor camp situations” in an effort to heal her body. In writing the book, she says, her goal is to educate readers and inspire compassion. “In the story, a friend of mine kicks me out because she says my negativity is ‘too triggering’,” she explains. “It’s not a story of healing from anorexia; it’s the story of finding your voice. Finally, I believe that we will treat people with anorexia with dignity and not force them into extremely inhumane situations.
Graphic works like Gold’s inspire readers to tackle hard-to-talk topics. “We’re afraid to talk about the things that are just below the surface because we’re afraid to face what’s bothering us,” she says. “And those are the things that need to be discussed and be open. People can’t be afraid to feel pain.
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
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A version of this article originally appeared in the 11/14/2022 issue of Weekly Editors under the title: The image of health
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