Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence

I’m looking forward to the Comics and Medicine 2018 conference in Vermont in August. This is one of my favorite conferences and I try to attend every year. I love the cross-disciplinary, cross-practice (health, art, conceptual) aspect of the conference. This year I’m presenting a paper called “Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence.” Here’s my abstract:

Stories of sexual harassment and assault are currently reverberating through US cultural and political life, and #metoo has become shorthand for the hard work of testifying to experiences of violence and trauma and the difficult working through of feelings of pain and anger. We have also seen in recent years the publication of several graphic narratives that deal with sexual violence and its aftermath. In this presentation, I will explore some examples of what I call graphic trauma, a process of drawing as a form of working through the experience and event of sexual violence. In a conversation between comics critic Hillary Chute and comics artist Scott McCloud, Chute uses the phrase “the secret labor of comics” to emphasize the hidden work involved in what McCloud describes as the choices comics creators have to make in terms of “what moments to include in a story and what moments to leave out.”[1]

A key aspect of the comics form, then, is the necessity of what Chute describes as the work of condensation and distillation. Thus, I want to explore the possibility of graphic narratives as a medium well-suited for rendering trauma, and in particular the trauma of sexual violence as exemplified in Una’s Becoming Unbecoming and Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! These works show how young women often first experience sex and sexuality as traumatic, because at the moment they are becoming sexual, their sexuality is taken away from them by a violent experience. Drawing for Una and Barry becomes a means by which they demonstrate resilience, the hard work of accessing what one can’t remember and what one can’t forget at the same time.

[1]Hillary Chute, Interview with Scott McCloud, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 29.

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Comics & Medicine freshman seminar

I’m teaching a freshman seminar on Comics & Medicine in the Science and Society undergraduate college at Stony Brook University this spring.

I’ve been working on the syllabus and here’s the almost-final draft:

Comics and Medicine syllabus

This is the description of the course from the syllabus:

In recent years, comics and graphic narratives have become a popular and innovative form for telling auto/biographical stories in a medium that artfully combines words and images. Our course will focus on one exciting sub-field of the form known as graphic medicine, which explores the conjuncture between comics and clinical medicine. We will discuss how comics and graphic narratives have become important resources for communicating a range of ethical and clinical issues related to the experience of illness, and how this hybrid verbal/visual form helps medical practitioners, patients, families, and caregivers creatively reimagine the boundaries of “health,” “illness,” “life,” and “death.” We will investigate the ways that graphic medicine/illness narratives can be read as symptomatic texts of our time in at least two respects: as texts that literally describe symptoms (and struggle with finding a form to describe the affective and physical experience of symptoms), and as texts that describe illness as an event that goes beyond any particular individual’s experience and account of it, reflecting wider cultural categories, including race, gender, class, and sexuality.

The image on the left is from David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook’s 7 Miles a Second and the image on the right is from MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Both are portraits of the artists: in one, Czerwiec stands before and is dwarfed by one of the huge Keith Haring murals at Rush University where Czerwiec studied nursing; in the other, Romberger and van Cook portray Wojnarowicz at work spray-painting a canvas. Above the artist and his canvas, an image of Wojnarowicz’s lover Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987, looks down. After I initially mis-characterized this image as a Wojnarowicz self-portrait, Romberger kindly wrote to inform me that he and van Cook created it “informed by specifics that I knew well as his friend: the layout of his apartment and that he had that particular photo of Peter on the wall, that he is working on that particular hopeful painting he did of a cosmic scientist, and doing it wearing a protective mask, necessary for a person with AIDS working with aerosol paint and which also comments ironically on the text about him breathing the air his dead friends cannot.” The caption at the top is from Wojnarowicz’s writing and begins, “I’m acutely aware of myself alive and witnessing.”

These are two of the texts we will explore in Comics & Medicine. There is so much to say, as these two images of a page and panel suggest.