At GraphicMedicine.org one of the first things you’ll see is the definition: “Graphic Medicine … explores the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” The Graphic Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) opens with: “Graphic medicine is the use of comics to tell personal stories of illness and health.” So, comics, cool, yay! But healthcare? That can get tough, as you know. It’s not easy having mental health challenges, a chronic condition, living with pain or a disability, just feeling like you’re different from the people around you. It’s not easy talking about it, especially when you don’t see anyone else around who is like you. There are also topics that are just … difficult … for almost everyone! (Ahem, sex?)
Engagement & Discovery
One of the superpowers of comics and graphic novels is the way they draw the reader into the story, and make content understandable that is difficult to put into words. For teaching health, using comics seems obvious, but first, does the content you need to teach already exist? To get started, here is one on teen pregnancy from Indigenous Story Studio. School Library Journal has a good starting selection, and so does the Network of National Libraries of Medicine. Of course, always ask your friendly neighborhood librarian for more ideas.
Information, Issues, & Awareness
Is there a hot news topic you want to teach? The Nib is a comics journalism site that includes short pieces on health topics. We Need Diverse Comics is great to finding comics content on social justice topics. There are comics ranging from mental health to disability, how people respond to gun violence, anti-racism, police brutality, and so much more. Specific health topics available in comics for middle school and high school include sex education, anxiety, asexuality, cancer, diabetes, food, more mental health (and more cancer), and even pieces around what life is like working in healthcare professions. Choose excerpts carefully, as not all are age-appropriate. Comics anthologies can be good sources for short pieces you might select as a prompt for awareness or a class discussion, and many comics artists are putting short pieces on Instagram, like CancerOwl. YALSA has a great list with many examples, expanded yearly (2021, 2022).
Enrichment & Visual Literacy
Comics are known for being engaging and accessible, but this is more true for some than others. Our culture is shifting toward visual and multimodal literacies, and comics are part of that. Helping kids learn to work with and critically examine visual content adds extra importance to the content. Brian Fies’ book, “Mom’s Cancer” is a personal favorite for examining how visuals communicate content differently than text. Some of the questions you might pose for a class or an assignment could include:
- How do the colors impact your reading or support the topic? (compare the use of red in Dumb and Go With The Flow)
- Where is the artist drawing your attention in this panel/frame?
- How does the style communicate emotion? (Compare Haines and Brosh on anxiety)
Investigation & Analysis
Here are a few assignment or project ideas for applying critical thinking approaches to
- Write a review of a title.
- Is it accurate, both medically as well as telling an honest story? How do you know?
- Who wrote it and why? Are they trying to inform you or persuade you or something else?
- Do you agree or disagree? Do you have a family or personal experience with this topic? Does that change how you read it?
- Do you like or dislike the art style? Does it work or not, and why?
- Do a deep dive into a single page or frame analyzing how visuals support the message
- Do the words and the images tell the same story?
- Create a response to some aspect of the work being read, and provide evidence for any health claims
Original Works & Creation
Sometimes there are students who want to make their own comics. There are prompts for assignments from 1-6 panels. When it happens, I’ve found team approaches and co-creation really powerful. First, they allow people who are good with words and those good with art to collaborate and both work from a position of strength. Small groups also work well, developing a consensus story around a topic or issue. Try having two different teams draw a scene from different perspectives (eg. doctor/patient), and then discuss how they differ and why.
- What do I wish …
- … my doctor/HCP knew or did different?
- … my parents or family understood?
- … my friends understood about your health (physical or mental)?
- When I [X], it feels like this in my (body, mind, emotions)
- In this scene, show each of the five senses
- Once upon a time, [X] happened
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