GSWS, Research, Community

Comics a way to express ideas about health

January 15, 2018

By Christine Lyons

Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies professor Coleman Nye spoke to CBC News this month about her new collaborative graphic novel Lissa and the power of comics to tell complex stories about health with both text and image.

Co-authored by Nye and Sherine Hamdy, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California Irvine and illustrated by Sarula Bao and Caroline Brewer, the book is set against the backdrop of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and tells the stories of Anna and Layla, two young girls living Cairo who form a surprising friendship as they each struggle with sickness and medical situations within their own families.

As a comic, a teaching tool, and an ethnographic work, Lissa is the first graphic novel published by University of Toronto Press for their new series ethnoGRAPHIC. Introducing an excerpt of the book in December’s issue of Anthropology Now, Nye and Hamdy explain in Anthropology Now that the new series “aims to merge the insights of anthropological analysis and the visual appeal of comics to reach various audiences within and beyond anthropology.”

As a work of “ethno-fiction,” they explain that the basis for Lissa came from both Hamdy’s research “in Egypt on the bioethical dilemmas faced by people suffering from organ failure” and Nye’s research “in the U.S. on women navigating genetic risk for breaks and ovarian cancer.” Their choice to collaborate on the project came from the realization that their own distinct ethnographic sites of research had more than one theme in common: the “individualization of patient suffering” and “the commodification of human bodies and health care.” As a form, go on, comics “allowed them to play with visual juxtapositions in scale, time and geography and to depict inner emotional states and experiences like pain, solitude, mourning, and meditation that can be difficult to capture through text alone.”

So far, Lissa has garnered critical buzz not limited to the fields of anthropology or literary criticism. Petra Boynton, for example, a lecturer in International Health Services Research at University College London, published a positive review of Lissa in The Lancet, a well-established, peer-reviewed medical journal.

While cartoons and graphic novels have been for some time as tools for outreach and public health messaging, says Boynton, Lissa is part of a new movement that uses comics for medical education and sharing research findings. “Lissa allows us insights into the kinds of dilemmas clinicians, patients, and their families may face when offering care, explaining diagnosis, and working in resource-poor or conflict-torn communities. It also raises complex issues about diverse attitudes to health and personal decisions of treatment.”

Also watch:

Trailer for “The Making of Lissa” by Francesco Dragone, who is documenting the process of transforming scholarship into the graphic novel form.

Coleman Nye’s lecture for the FASS Canada 150 Speaker Series, “A Genetic Portrait of Gender in North America”