Drrespression. addicted. Incurable disease. Sadnes. These are challenging topics, and graphic novels can convey their nuances by using illustrations to support or even replace text. “There is an immediate character to comics that can make these topics more palatable, engaging, and understandable,” says Eric Reynolds, vice president and co-publisher of Fantagraphics, whose catalog includes several titles in the graphic medicine genre. PW I spoke with editors and authors about the ways in which the medium of comedy helps with the message.
The things we carry
Being a caregiver is financially, logistically, and emotionally challenging, especially in the absence of strong social support: the United States, for example, does not have a nationwide paid parental leave policy and hospice care is expensive and complex. The new titles address the issue from different angles.
Joint cartoonist Nate Fix tells the story of his stepfather’s struggle with dementia fading light (Western margin, out now). “Introduced in home illustrations seemingly pulled from the funny pages,” per PWReview, “It’s a heartbreaking yet loving picture, bloated with pathos.” in List the pros and cons of strong emotions (Teen House, Nov.), Will Bettke Brunswick documents the impending death of their mother from colon cancer. Two-color illustrations depict Will, their mother, and other family members as penguins navigating chemotherapy and hospital visits; Chickens, peacocks and other bird species are Will’s friends. “Animals avoid being cute or silly,” according to PWreview. “Instead, it serves as a humble reminder that people are all cranky ducks with brittle bones.”
Cartoonist Briana Loewinsohn tries to connect with a parent who has gone missing due to mental illness demise, due from Fantagraphics in March 2023. The book is presented in warm, earthy tones and has a magical, ethereal quality, says Reynolds. “It is well established in the sense that it is a memoir of Brianna’s childhood, specifically her mother and her relationship with her mother,” he says. “But it filters the story through the literary idea of the park, and looks into the past through a filter that’s not entirely first-person.”
Ronan and the endless sea of stars Written by Rick Lewis and Lara Antal, the November issue of Abrams ComicArts focuses on child care and loss: Lewis’ son was born with Tay-Sachs disease, an incurable neurological disorder, and the book is a celebration of his short life. In this frank talk of a devastating ordeal, ‘Per PWReview, “It’s the beauty of the very short loving moments that still linger.”
Several years ago, while getting it Ronan, Charlotte Greenbaum, senior editor at Abrams, saw “a real wave of mental health, physical health, and bodily things,” and says the graphic format is a great avenue for such subjects. “Sequential storytelling is something between prose and live action,” she says. “It lets you take a moment to breathe with the characters—the space between the panels, the gutter. It’s not so overwhelming that it feels overwhelming.”
in bear (Seven Stories, January 2023), Swedish printmaker Staffan Gnospelius attempts to understand 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 release valve.” A Gnosspelius bear, with a cone covering its head, meets a rabbit who stays nearby and offers support. “As the bear and the hare make their way to silent understanding, they pass through the darkness,” according to PWReview, “Pages of soft and bright watercolor slowly appear occasionally and signal the dawning of dawn.” Gnospelius says the silence of the book serves the story. “I am expressing what these two characters have been dealing with; you take what you want out of it. It probably isn’t mental health at all for you. It is open to interpretation.”
Other books highlight their authors’ health struggles and their relationships with their bodies.
French director Lea Bordier launched her YouTube channel Cher Corps in 2016 and has since interviewed more than 70 women and non-binary people about how they relate to their physical selves. in dear body (FairSquare, February 2023), first published in France in 2019, 12 artists depicting dozens of stories shown on the Bordier channel. “I wish I’d read this when I was younger,” Border says. “In France, where I live, it was a taboo to speak openly about body issues six years ago, and even more bizarrely, to interview women about it.”
Borderer notes that only the graphic novel format would have been successful in this project. “Sequential art breathed life into my interviews and the stories we collected,” she says. The video interviews were mostly about emotion and testimonials. The graphic novel adds representation of bodies and situations.”
Down to the bone Written by Catherine Bewley (Graphic Mundy, December) details the writer and illustrator’s experiences as a leukemia patient: tests and treatments, accepting her new body, supporting loved ones. Pioli passed away in 2017, which is revealed in the book’s conclusion; The book was originally published in France in 2018. In another import, Tito Takalo reflects on her life before and after the rupture of a cerebral aneurysm in Morey’s souvenir (Oni, May 2023). The book was first published in 2020 in Finland, her home country, where she has received several honors for her work.
Buildings, towers and trash Author and illustrator Julia Wirtz The author explores her own life with picture books, graphic novels and animations in BelieverAnd the Harper’s Magazineand the New Yorker. in Impossible people (Black Dog & Leventhal, May 2023), whose subtitle called it “a perfectly average recovery story,” documented, by drawing a black and white line, her varyingly successful efforts at sobriety: buying liquor from three corner stores to avoid revealing her habit, and forays into therapy, attending AA meetings, and rehab.
The third installment in the biographical comic series by British artist Rachel Smith half empty cup (Icon, April 2023), addresses her issues with her father and alcohol intake. “Comics are a great way to communicate vital information,” she says. “There’s a reason there’s a comic story behind every seat on an airplane or in every box of packed furniture.” She hopes reading about her experiences will be reassuring to others dealing with addiction issues.
“I’m not an alcoholic, and in fact, no one is; the term is outdated and puts a lot of shame on the person rather than the substance,” Smith says. “These are my opinions and my journey with this problem. In writing, I realized how many people are going through similar things. If you struggle with grief or addiction, you are not alone and there is help out there.”
The American health care system itself is getting imaging therapy in several new titles. joy of quitting smoking (Drawn & Quarterly, out now) collects work, some previously out of print, by Keeler Roberts, who astutely notes her frustrations in living with multiple sclerosis, mental illness, and dealing with health care. in Bipolar and terrible bear, Terrible, not good, very bad health insurance By Kathleen Founce (Graphic Mundy, November), Theodore Orsen navigates a maze of health claims and battles the fat cats who run the insurance company. “The method suggests that the state of health care in America is so absurd that it should be a story to frighten children.” PWreview. “It’s enthusiasm with Zenger for a political message.”
Nervosa By Hayley Gould (Street Noise, April 2023) distorts the system’s cruelty and ignorance. As a teenager, Gould struggled with an eating disorder and was put into what she calls “labor camp situations” in an effort to heal her body. She says her goal in writing the book is to educate readers and generate empathy. “In the story, a friend of mine shuts me down because she says my negativity is ‘too sexy,’” she explains. “This is not an anorexia recovery story. This is a story about restoring one’s voice. Ultimately, I believe we will treat people with anorexia with dignity, and not force them into extremely inhumane situations.”
Drawing works like Gold Challenge readers to tackle difficult-to-discuss topics. “We are afraid to talk about things below the surface because we are afraid to deal with what is bothering us,” she says. “And these are the things that need to be discussed and made public. People cannot be afraid to feel pain.”
Pooja Mikhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
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A version of this article appeared in the 11/14/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly Under the title: The image of health