Growing up, I didn’t read comics. Culture told me firmly that, as a girl, comics were not for me. When I was young, I believed that. I was a voracious reader of everything but comics.
Until I took a course in library school, that is. At the time, I was thinking I would become a public librarian, and I knew that comics were an area of focus in public libraries. Understanding comics, how they worked, what they were about, and the stories they encompassed was a gap in my education. Thus, I took the course Comics and Graphic Novels in Libraries. I learned so much from that class! It gave me a new understanding of the medium, an introduction to the various genres, and most importantly a love for comics. The first graphic medicine title I read was Pedro and Me, which was one of the suggested readings for the course. I didn’t yet know what graphic medicine was, but I was still hooked. I immediately saw where comics and medical librarianship could work together. I went back to the idea of becoming a medical librarian and continued my love of health comics, as I called them then. I began to read more comics about health and eventually found my way to MK Czerwiec’s website, comicnurse.com.
While in grad school, I was also volunteering with the local Deaf community. I had plans to eventually teach health literacy to the community. Unfortunately, I made a lot of mistakes because I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into. I came to understand that you can’t force a community to want the things you want. What matters most is attending to the things that they themselves need. In short, It isn’t what you need that matters, but what the community needs. I wish I could have done more for that community. I made promises that were not within my power to fulfill, though not for lack of trying. I’ve learned a lot since then.
I did come away with a new understanding of comics, of disadvantaged communities, of privilege, and of my own limitations. During this difficult learning process, I did research into the Deaf community and how comics were being applied to English literacy efforts. Through that, I found the many applications of comics being used to teach English as a second language. (For those that are not aware, American Sign Language is the first language for many in the Deaf community.)
I realized that this technique to improve literacy could be applied to improving health literacy through comics on health. I wanted to explore this idea and see if I could find any evidence to back up my idea. I was joined by a grad student from a different university on my endeavor to develop this idea. We presented at the Medical Library Association meeting in 2015 on the different ways medical libraries can be inclusive for Deaf patrons and coworkers, including providing health comics in their collections. A friend of mine live-tweeted the talk. A medical librarian, PF Anderson, came running in after the presentations were over to make sure I knew about graphic medicine, which I didn’t yet. She introduced me to the Graphic Medicine Manifesto.
Once I started, I didn’t stop. I have become more and more obsessed with graphic medicine. The more I learn, the more I read, the better I realize it is. There is always something new to explore. There are so many ways graphic medicine can be applied, so many ways it can have a positive impact. I want to tell the world about it. I have read as many graphic medicine titles as time and access have allowed. I’ve read around 75 books at present. I am in the process of creating a searchable database of graphic medicine titles to allow people to find books and webcomics on specific topics, age groups, and other aspects. I want this to include trigger warnings so that people are not caught unaware by the difficult topics often found in comics about health.
What was your comics origin story? Do you have a graphic medicine origin story? I would love to hear from you!