Demystifying Medicine, One Comic Strip at a Time
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The rising popularity of a new art form could cause doctors — and patients — to look at medicine in a new light.
By Anne Miller
What does it take for a doctor to diagnose himself? Perhaps a patient.
That’s what happens in The Bad Doctor, a new graphic novel by Dr. Ian Williams that proves comic books are OK for grown-ups, too.
“His book is really interesting because it puts to words and images those thoughts that many doctors have, but hide,” says Dr. Michael Green, who teaches a “Graphic Storytelling & Medical Narratives” course to fourth-year medical students at the Penn State College of Medicine.
It’s words and pictures, but they add up to something that’s much more powerful than either one.
In a sign of the growing acceptance of “graphic storytelling” and medicine, the highly regarded journal Annals of Internal Medicine published Green’s work as part of a treatment supplement (available for free online).
“He demystifies and humanizes the experience of doctoring and shows us what is ’behind the curtain,’ so to speak,” Green says of Williams. “It’s a really valuable contribution to our understanding of what it means to be a doctor.”
The book follows one Dr. Iwan James as he juggles his practice with two other partners and a variety of patients. This doctor isn’t a God-like medical figure, but rather one with doubts and very human concerns. Dr. Gregory House he is not. Not only that, Dr. James has his own demons, mental health issues that represent a realistic portrayal not so common in general literature, much less being ascribed to a physician.
Williams had enough talent to dream of art school. Instead, he decided to “do some good” and entered medicine. But the pen’s siren call never dimmed. Today, Williams is a part-time general practitioner and a more-than-part-time graphic novelist and comic artist.
“It’s words and pictures, but they add up to something that’s much more powerful than either one,” he says.
He should know. Among his many professional hats: running GraphicMedicine.org, a blog about comics and doctoring.
“It’s uncensored. It’s anarchic,” Williams says, Skyping from his flat. “People just say what they want to say: ‘This is how I see it, and screw you.’ ”
Williams also runs a website and publishes academic papers on graphic novels and the depiction of medicine.
“The process of making a graphic novel is so labor intensive and slow that you really think about what you’re saying and thinking,” he says. “You have to make every word count. You have to make every gesture count. You might take a really long time with one interaction with a patient. It’s a great reflective process.
“None of us are perfect, and doctors are not perfect,” he says. “Doctors are full of self-doubt, anxiety, they beat themselves up, they make mistakes.”