I have always loved comics. As a child, I read several a week. The realisation that growing up meant moving beyond books with cartoons and panels and onto chapter books was a sad day.
Fully grown up, having left the world of comic books far behind, I studied medicine.
During my clinical practice over many years, I increasingly came to realise that too often there exists a gap between the language of those affected by illness, and the language of medicine. I started to explore this - the language of illness - more closely. Through these studies, I re-engaged with the world of comics, which by this time had started to emerge as a distinct genre within the world of literature. The era of the graphic novel had arrived. Graphic novels and comic books are pretty much the same thing - graphic novels are sometimes described as comic books with chapters.
With colleagues in medicine as well as the humanities, I was involved in the first Comics and Medicine conference, which was held in London in 2010. This is now an annual event, alternating between Europe and the US.
The visual / verbal format is well positioned for relaying information as well as the emotional components that inevitably accompany illness. There are many reasons why comic books facilitate the communication of difficult and complex medical information, including:
- Efficient use of text. Comic books contain less text than their non visual counterparts, which means that the words used are chosen deliberately.
- Words and images complement each other. Thus, for the reader who might not fully understand the text explanation, the accompanying visual serves to clarify. This makes the format particularly useful for complex medical topics.
- The format appeals to different audiences - it pulls in readers who prefer visuals as well as those who respond better to words.
- The visual component allows a showing of emotions, rather than merely describing them with words.
Comics have been shown to enhance learning within the classroom. In one study, students read either the traditional text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s or a graphic novel version. Those who studied the graphic novel spent about an hour less reading and scored higher on a comprehension quiz.
The potential value of comics to relay health information has also been studied. This review demonstrated the potential of comic books in the health field to enhance self-awareness, reassurance, empathy, companionship, in addition to their strength as a means of exploring the impact of illness on family relationships. The author concluded that comics are under-utilised in terms of their potential to enhance understanding and to deliver support in this context.
Within the health care setting, comics have many potential educational uses - patient support and care, patient education, education for medical students and healthcare workers, caregiver support, healthcare community programs.
Graphic medicine - the use of comic books in the area of medical education and patient care - has now become a field in itself. Check out this great website that features reviews of very many graphic novels and comic books, all related to health and illness. It was originated by Ian Williams, MD, in 2007, with the following goals:
- Reflecting or changing cultural perceptions of medicine
- Relating the subjective patient/carer/provider experience
- Enabling discussion of difficult subjects
- Helping other sufferers or carers
Here at Jumo Health, we use the comic book format to help educate and support children and their families affected by illness. Our content features real children, and their stories, which enhances the relatability of their experience to their peers. Understanding what is going on when you have a chronic medical condition is not easy, and as a result it can be very difficult for children and young adults to share their stories with others. The comic book format, the graphic representation of what living with a specific illness both physically and psychologically really means, facilitates not only an understanding of what is happening in the body, but also helps those affected feel less isolated as, through knowledge, they gain confidence about sharing their experience.
Comic books, with their dynamic visual action stories that work around information on health and illness, uniquely allow for this.
Today, September 25, is National Comic Book Day, a very special day here at Jumo Health. Check out our digital comic books, audiobooks, podcasts and more.
About Columba Quigley, MD, FRCP, MA Lit & Med
Mother, physician, writer, cellist, (over)thinker. Lover of comics. Editor-in-Chief at Jumo Health