Metaphors in Graphic Medicine

By | Tuesday, March 28, 2023 1 comment
I was reading a piece last night discussing graphic medicine -- basically comics that discuss health and medical-related issues if you're unfamiliar -- and the author made the point that by the time people began using comics to discuss stories about their own health (medical memoirs if you will) that we had already collectively established an analogy for discussing sickness and cures: war. We talk about commbatting illness or fighting off infections and such. If you look at the language used in dealing with illnesses, much of the very language itself is borrowed from military lingo, either directly or indirectly.

Interestingly, the author further pointed out that, like any analogy, it fails after a while and one of the problems in using war metaphors to discuss trying to cure diseases and ailments is when it comes to chronic conditions. There are some health issues that simply cannot be fixed (at least with the knowledge and tools we have currently) and they can only be managed, albeit over an extended period. The war metaphor doesn't hold well to this as even the longest ones have endings of some sort.

But I wonder if comics offers another metaphor that can work here. Namely: superheroes. Why would superheroes make a better analogy for chronic conditions than war? The mechanics are different (laser beam eye blasts instead of conventional artillary, for example) but the underlying tenant of beating up the bad guy is the same. So why superheroes? Because...
Action Comics #760
The Never-Ending Battle.

The phrase is tied most directly to Superman, first being used in the radio program in 1940 and lifted over to the Fleischer cartoons the following year. But it's kind of endemic to the whole notion of superheroes in comics. Because month after month after month, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and all the other heroes come back to fight the bad guy du jour. And month after month after month, there's an ongoing parade of villains trying to take over the world or rob the local bank or seek revenge for some perceived slight. This month it's Darkseid, next month it's the Red Skull, the month after that it's Fin Fang Foom... and eventually it'll cycle back to Darkseid again. I reviewed John Byrne's Generations series a few years ago and that was actually the biggest problem I had with it: that even though Byrne expressly said he wanted to show the characters age and die in "real time," he effectively made the majority of the cast immortal as if he couldn't even conceive of the possibility of Superman and Batman not continuing month after month forever into infinity.

So is there an idea there? To use the "never-ending battle" of superheroes as a metaphor for a person's ongoing fight against, say, Crohn's disease? Arthritis? Cystic fibrosis? I don't know; I'm not talented enough in crafting actual comics to really put the idea to the test. And for all I know, someone's already tried it and failed miserably. Maybe it doesn't work at all. But it still strikes me as an interesting idea/angle to noodle around.
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Ted Dawson said...

I think you’re on to something. Good thoughts. For folks with chronic illnesses and those with disabilities, I imagine that the War language is frustrating at the least.

Superhero stories, at least in the Old Days, were often about the struggle and trying to maintain a certain level of stability in some way. Interestingly, Superman was either a good example (using his intellect, compassion, or strength of character over power issues) or bad example (poor me, I’ve lost my powers under this red sun, I’m just normal now), depending on who the writer was. The best heroes also have a disability or physical handicap of some sort. I guess that makes perfect sense when you consider the often frail or nerdy young folks who created them.

My favorite comics were about the ongoing struggles. How to apply metaphors to struggling with illness makes sense, even if I can’t figure out how yet.