Graphic medicine

Adam Campbell meets a GP with a special interest like no other

WHEN I ask GP-cum-debut graphic novelist Dr Ian Williams how his colleagues, friends and family have responded to his new book, The Bad Doctor, he says: “I just thought, when the book comes out and they read it, they’re going to think I’m completely crackers.”

Creative, talented, ambitious even… but crackers? It’s not as implausible as it may sound. As a medical student in Cardiff , Ian suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and developed irrational fears which led him to adopt a series of odd rituals, such as avoiding certain “taboo areas” of the city he came to associate with bad luck. He told no one about it – not family, not friends and especially not fellow students – for fear he would be ridiculed and perhaps even turfed out of university.

But nearly three decades later his secret is out. These experiences, combined with those of being a GP in a rural north Wales practice, have helped to inform his highly amusing graphic novel featuring Dr Iwan James, a GP with OCD. And as part of his promotional work for the book Ian has outed himself as a former OCD sufferer – not least in the national press in an article for the Independent newspaper.

“Until I started making comics in 2007, I had never told anybody about having had OCD when I was younger. I hid it the best I could when I was in medical school. You just didn’t admit to any illness or failure and you especially didn’t admit to any sort of, mental health problems,” says the 48-year-old who lives in Brighton, and now splits his time between being a GP and a comic artist.

Well, as he realised some time ago when he sought professional help, crackers he’s not – and the response so far to his tale of Iwan’s troubled life and times, not to mention those of the community of pensioners, obsessives and gun nuts who attend his surgery, has been positive all round. “The senior partner where I work said, ‘I bought the book and you know I really like it, it’s fantastic.’” He laughs as he adds: “That is not to say that there aren’t loads of people out there thinking that they would never give me a job in medicine!”

Flaws, failure, illness and self-revelation are all a kind of currency in the indie comics scene, explains Ian, and this was part of the reason he was attracted to the form in the first place. “Although strips or graphic novels may be fictional with an autobiographical streak, comic artists aim for an emotional honesty, basically to tell the truth through story.”

Making comics

But there was a good deal of ground to cover – medical, artistic and otherwise – before his eureka moment. His first move was to rural Wales, partly to get away from the urban scene that had featured so prominently in his OCD and partly to pursue his hobbies of climbing and mountain biking – an adrenaline antidote, perhaps, to the disabling cautiousness of OCD. Little did he know that working as a GP there he was starting to store up some of the many tales from the surgery that would later populate his graphic novel.

In the meantime, Ian began to develop his artistic side, pursuing an interest in painting. Before long, he began to exhibit and sell his work and by 1999 he decided to go part-time as a GP and enrol in a postgraduate certifi cate in Fine Art at Chester. “I built up a sort of side career as a painter and printmaker. I sold work through galleries and actually made a bit of money doing that.”

But all the time he was looking for a way to bridge the divide between medicine and art, not wanting to ditch one or the other. “I felt that the two sides of my career were split. So I did a part-time MA in medical humanities in Swansea. While I was doing that I realised that the link for me lay not in painting or printmaking but in comics. I was reading lots of graphic novels and I found a couple that dealt with illness. Specifically the one that changed it for me was Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies. And I realised I wanted to write about illness in graphic novels.”

Now he did what “doctors are prone to doing”, he says with a laugh. “After I had been writing about it for some time I thought, ‘Well I could do that.’” So he created a nom de plume for himself, Thom Ferrier, to maintain some anonymity while still continuing to work part-time as a GP, and began to make comics.

Personal view of illness

The strips he made were blackly humorous and with the air of the confessional. In one, Ferrier admits that as a young boy he used to vandalise his neighbour’s house. In another he comes out as having been a “sensitive child” who, later, during his medical training, became a serial fainter in “blood and guts” lectures and practicals. One very detailed strip describes how A&E doctors would “wake up” patients feigning unconsciousness in distinctly unpleasant ways. Underlying the strip is a strong sense of outrage that these supposed “time-waster patients” were being punished for displaying a mental dysfunction, while the dysfunction itself remained unattended.

Immersing himself in the new form, Ian took his comics to fairs in London and began to get a reputation for himself. “I was going down to London every month when I was living in North Wales to meet up with other comic people, to attend comics events, to take part in them, to get to know people in the scene.”

He even started a website, www.graphicmedicine.org, to look at “the area of interaction between comics and medicine”. It was then he realised he was not alone. “I thought that I was being pretty clever and there wouldn’t be any person interested in this but when I set the website up people started contacting me from all over the world,” he says.

The site, which he runs with MK Czerwiec, who makes comics under the sobriquet Comic Nurse, is a hub for this crossover between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare and features reviews, podcasts, a blog and more.

Along with others, the pair have run conferences every year since 2010 – with the most recent held at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. The events aim to examine the ways in which comics can be used to highlight important ethical issues in healthcare, portraying patient experiences, and even as effective communication and learning tools in medical training.

The conferences have been well received but, Ian admits, this remains a fairly niche subject area.

“If you go in to the dean of your average medical school and say, ‘I want to teach your medical students about comics,’ they will say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I’ve stood in front of audiences of doctors and told them that they should read graphic novels and they just look at you like a complete idiot.”

Nevertheless, there is a firm place for comics in healthcare, he believes, and his new book stands as one of many that have off ered perspectives that might otherwise remain invisible. “I find autobiographical comics in which people are talking about their own experiences fascinating. I am also interested in how authors find ways of representing their illness. The way that we visualise somebody with meningitis or cerebral palsy is traditionally under the control of doctors and medical illustrators. But these comic artists who are drawing themselves, drawing their illness, are having some slight effect on the public consciousness or the way that we visualise disease. I think that’s really interesting.”

Adam Campbell is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to MDDUS publications