In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Introduction
  • Susan Squier (bio) and J. Ryan Marks (bio)

Graphic medicine may not be a familiar term, but we hope that readers of Configurations will find both recognizable and engaging the heady mixture of art and literature, scholarship and practice that characterizes this field devoted to “the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.”1 We are happy that this special issue honors the spirit of Configurations as Melissa Little-field and Rajani Sudan described it upon assuming the editorship two years ago. While the journal has, since its beginning, fostered “the multi-disciplinary study of the relations among literature and language, the arts, science, medicine, and technology,” they promised it would stretch to include work that brings together “colleagues of different disciplines who may debate principal methodologies or ideas, but who also work to exceed their disciplinary boundaries.”2 Configurations is committed, Littlefield and Sudan explained, to “transgressive and transdisciplinary scholarship in the field of literature, science, and technology studies.” Well, comics and medicine make a pretty volatile mixture! And so, as scholars have begun to write about graphic medicine, their transdisciplinary work offers acute new perspectives on the core fields that have made the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) such a high-voltage organization since its inception. [End Page 149]

Consider some of these new perspectives. The literary understanding of memoir and life writing is now taking account of the disruptive urgency of graphic memoirs and underground comics like Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles, and Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary. Comics written from the perspective of patients and family members, such as Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year and David B’s Epileptic, are calling into question the epistemological authority of the medical profession. Comics created by physicians and psychiatric nurses, such as Ian Williams’s Bad Doctor and Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, are puncturing the myth of Doctor Kildare and uncovering the personal vulnerability of healthcare workers, as well as their struggles with institutional medicine. And graphic pathographies like Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer and David Small’s Stitches show us biomedical technology from a different light, revealing that procedures, scans, tests, and new drugs can offer stressed healthcare providers an easy alternative to confronting the actual emotional and physical vulnerability and pain of their patients.

Indeed, the field of graphic medicine challenges our very notions of what art, medicine, literature, and scholarship should look like. We use the visual term here advisedly, for graphic medicine is, above all else, a visual medium. “Juxtaposing words and images in deliberate sequence”—the phrase is Scott McCloud’s, from his iconic Understanding Comics—works of graphic medicine both tell and show us how it feels to be sick, to undergo medical treatment, to practice healthcare, or to engage in the work of caregiving.

As the essays in this special issue demonstrate, the stakes of engaging in this transdisciplinary field are multiple: aesthetic and pragmatic, ethical and practical, analytic and emotional—frequently, all at once. Using juxtaposed words and images in a sequence to express an experience that is at once quite specifically embodied and yet universal, indeed inevitable, complicates productively the ways one can write about, visualize, understand, and feel the impact of medical treatment, illness, disability, and caregiving. How a scene is drawn will shape how it is framed and perceived: the images may expand, explode, or even contradict a narrative, enrich characterization, and control the pacing, mood, and import of a series of events.

As with many new enterprises, there is a temptation toward the exclamatory, even the evangelistic: comics can produce better doctors and better patients! Comics can enable a therapeutic expression of difficult experiences! Comics can reach broader audiences! [End Page 150] All of these statements are true, and yet, as we selected works for this special issue, we wanted to move beyond that initial celebratory impulse to demonstrate that graphic medicine—as art, scholarship, and something combining both—is subtle, analytic, and complex.

We have selected works, then, that exemplify some of the major strands of graphic...