It all started with the May 2006 LA Times Book Review, and a comic panel of Brian Fies’ mom receiving chemotherapy. Fies’ panel, entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” from his comic Mom’s Cancer, shows his mother sleeping while receiving chemotherapy. At the time I considered the panel as another artifact of cancer’s culture. But the image never left me. With over a decade of writing about cancer inequalities and seeing a series of cancer comics (fotonovelas, public health messaging, educational comics, and pink ribbon fundraising), I had not come across a story that was so honest and intimate.Since that initial introduction to personal narrative comics I increasingly focused my scholarly attention to this genre and what it might mean theoretically and methodologically for ethnography and, more broadly, for our experience of suffering.
I am currently working on an ethnography of the Graphic Medicine community that explores how storytelling about illness in graphic form creates an ideological and material network of support.
My thinking through comics and medicine has, so far, resulted in two publications and a series on Image + Text on the Somatosphere website.
My first article from this work is intimately tied to concerns with expressions of inequity that are often obscured by spectacles of difference. Situated within Povinelli’s (2011) theories of social abandonment, I use ethnographic methods to examine the ordinary and mundane experience of health and practices of prevention. My “Comics and Cancer” article, published in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, builds on my previous work in cancer inequalities and represents some of my new work in the emerging field of graphic medicine. This new line of inquiry analyzes autobiographical graphic narratives combined with my ongoing ethnography of the graphic medicine community. This work examines the ordinary and mundane ways that narratives of cancer and cancer treatment create what Fassin has called “biolegitimate” lives. I consider how dominant themes in the narratives simultaneously erase political and economic differences that matter in the production of health inequalities, while still creating a platform for people diagnosed with cancer to share their experience. Lives that are able to secure treatment are valued and considered more legitimate.
My chapter, “Zombie Toxins: Abjection and Cancer’s Chemicals” appears in The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image, published by Penn University State Press and considers how comics’ strength as the interplay between text and image allows us to examine the role of text in creating a familiar order for war on cancer metaphors and how image enhances the opportunity to understand abjection. My concern with the intersection of text, image, and subjectivity through narrative resulted in the funding of a pilot project from City of Hope that engages cancer patients in creating their cancer narratives in comic form. The project is matched with ethnographic observations designed to elaborate on how the details of life represented in text and image come to make meaning and potentially serve as a mechanism for symptom management during cancer treatment.