Comics and Healthcare


As a kid weekends meant two things Saturday mornings cartoons and Sunday mornings comics.  Sometimes they were a little over your head, but they were the only part of the Sunday paper that mattered.  Over the years, I realized that comics aren’t just for kids and in the Nerd Nite talk, “Comics and Healthcare,” presented by Cathy Leamy, a web application developer at Mass General Hospital and indie cartoonist, comics were presented as an important method of communication, particularly in the healthcare industry.

Although generally though of as kids stuff because of their blend of words and pictures, comics used in healthchare can be leveraged to help patients communicate with doctors about pain, or used to explore subjects that are otherwise difficult to talk about like mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases and even what its like being in medical school.


Leamy explained that while some comics are definitely “for kids” a lot aren’t and some have even gained widespread acclaim and won awards such as Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza,” and “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi.   The list Leamy  covered during her talk was impressive and was delivered rapid fire.  It included everything from Archie comics to the Amazing Spider man and a few of my favourites such as The Far Side and Naruto not to mention the two dozen or so other healthcare care based comics I’d never heard of.

All the way back to cave paintings, pictographs and stained glass windows in churches visual learning has precedence in history.  Using visuals or introducing them into a storyline can add a new layer of understanding to the story and bring humanity back into the pages of what would otherwise be hundreds of pages of static bound black and white text.  Although it might seem regressive to some, we already see cartoons everywhere in street signs, instruction manuals and now on our personal electronic devices.

Adding pictures to text helps people understand complicated ideas or emotions across a broad spectrum of literacy and education.  Surprisingly comics are already being used by some to educate. “Someone who gets this is the US Navy.  They commissioned this graphic novel (The Docs) to train medical corpsmen before going overseas to the Middle East on some of the emotional and physical experiences they were going to have,” Leamy said, “Because they knew they were reaching out to an audience of 18 to 25 year olds and they were not going to read an text novel they had to make it engaging and make it something you could relate to.”

How hard can it be to create a comic, you just doodle something on a page and BAM! Right!?  Putting visuals and text together is tricky it requires a degree of skill and understanding of the subject matter that some people might underestimate.  Trust me, i’ve tried.

But, don’t take my word for it, try it yourself.   Leamy suggested if you are interested in creating a comic you should start by reading as many as you can to develop a better understanding what makes the good ones, so good.   It will also help you better understand the use of panels, pacing and storyline.  Then you develop an idea, plan it out in as much detail as possible and find collaborators if necessary.  “Don’t start with the 700 page graphic novel,” she said, “Start small, see what it’s like and then devote resources to the larger project.”

But what happens once it’s done? and how do you get it out there, to your audience? “The comic industry used to be very heirarchical.” Leamy said,  “The internet empowered all the people who previously couldn’t make it happen, or get into a publishing company.  With the aid of the internet and using social media marketing you can make your own comic and get it into people’s hands without ever having to go through a publishing company.”


The talk was enjoyable and Leamy really knew her stuff.  Even at the almost breakneck speed she ran through her list of comics, graphic novels and web cartoons,(all of which can be found in the long list of  links and citations she provided for the work she covered in her talk), it was hard not to get caught up in her enthusiasm.


Scoff if you want, but the thing is, even if you don’t believe that comics can help communicate bigger ideas to a large audience, with the growing importance of visual interfaces on the internet and via apps we are proving to ourselves that the adage is right and, “a picture IS worth a thousand words.” Even if I wasn’t a photographer, and I didn’t already know the power images can have, Leamy probably would have had me convinced by the end of her talk.

As an undergraduate I read a lot of graphic novels, which we can talk about some other time, many of which remain among my favourite books to this day.   Even with my own longstanding, abeit now somewhat latent, interest in them it was very interesting and exciting to hear Leamy talk about how graphic novels and creative professionals are finding their place in the professional word today.

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