‘Graphic Medicine’ exhibit helps relate difficult stories

Three panels in "Graphic Medicine" exhibit


Words with pictures are often associated with books we give young children to learn to read, but for Jay Hosler, biology professor at Juniata College and a cartoonist, the words, pictures and stories in graphic novels create a powerful and increasingly popular medium.

Hosler will be a guest speaker on Aug. 27 during the exhibit “Graphic Medicine: Ill-Conceived and Well-Drawn,” which opened Aug. 19 and is on display through Sept. 30 at Falk Library in Scaife Hall. He will discuss “The Art and Science of Science Comics” from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Scaife Hall, Room 1104 (11th floor conference center). The lecture is free and open to the public.

“I’ve just always been sort of fascinated by the power that the medium has in conveying ideas, emotion,” Hosler says. “There’s this efficiency to comic art, in that you don’t have to spell out the emotion of the character, right? That you read those emotions on the faces. And I personally think that generates much stronger empathy for the character.”

First panel of "Graphic Medicine" with work by curator Ellen ForneyThe exhibit, from the National Library of Medicine, explores the literary genre of medical comics or “graphic medicine,” which uses comics to tell personal stories of illness and health, through six panels on display on the first floor of the library.

Visitors also can peruse or check out popular graphic medicine books from the University Library System’s collection and try their hand at drawing a medical symptom or a comic depicting an experience in medicine.

“One of the things that I think is most interesting about this exhibit is that comics can be used to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible to certain groups of people, or it’s information that would otherwise be hard to talk about, because it’s sad or painful or it’s just really confusing,” says Julia Reese, interim chair of the library’s exhibit committee. “One of the things that didn’t occur to me until I saw this exhibit was that comics kind of provide a unique medium to tell those kinds of stories.”

The exhibit was curated by Ellen Forney, who created the graphic memoir “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me” to describe being an artist with a bipolar disorder.

Other books in the collection range from “Cancer Vixen” by Marisa Acocella Marchetto to “El Deafo” by Cece Bell and “Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371” by nurse MK Czerwiec. There also are memoirs from well-known cartoonists, such as “Our Cancer Year” by famed underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar and “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s memoir of caring for her aging parents.

Hosler, who has written several cartoon books aimed at sparking interest in science in middle-school children, will be speaking about “the fundamentals of the way comics work, and why they appeal to our brain, both the rational brain and our emotional brain.”

His books include “Clan Apis,” about an older bee passing on lore to a larva, and “The Sandwalk Adventures,” in which Darwin engages in discussion with follicle mites that live in his left eyebrow that lead to lessons in natural selection.

“I would never purchase a textbook for any of my classes that were not richly illustrated with diagrams and pictures that helped provide context cues for my students,” he says. “It is very difficult to imagine an ovipositor in an insect, but it’s relatively easy when you get a picture of it.”

Although he generally eschews kitschy phrases, Hosler says he hopes to inspire “wonder-standing.”

“My goal is to inspire wonder in you,” he says. “My goal as a teacher and my goal in writing graphic novels is to inspire enough wonder that you’ll go learn more about this on your own. So I want to talk about why I think comics are uniquely situated for that as well.”

It is the narrative base of these graphic novels that have made them grow in popularity, Hosler says.

“There are still people who believe this, that story gets in the way of understanding the science,” he says. “I would argue the very nature of our evolutionary history, and the way our brains work, is exactly the opposite. Story helps us understand.”

The works in the “Graphic Medicine” exhibit are personal stories that “let you into an individual’s experience,” Hosler says. “And the visual component, again, I think is critical. It is one thing to say in a text, ‘She was suffering.’ It is another thing to see that person suffering, even if it’s a highly simplified cartoon version. To me, that’s the power of these things — not that they’re talking about disease but that they’re telling a story about that disease.

Hosler says we’re slowly shaking off the notion that words with pictures are a bad thing.

“At some level, intellectually, we’re OK with words and pictures. I think that the big step that we’re starting to take is being OK with words, pictures and story all together,” he says. “And I think that’s why these types of graphic novels succeed — because I think people yearn for that. They yearn for the contextualizing nature of story. They yearn for pictures. We don’t ever want to admit that, but we do. We’re very visual critters.”

The exhibit is open during regular library hours: 7 a.m.–midnight Mondays through Thursdays; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m.-midnight Sundays.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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