Live from Comic-Con: it’s Public Health!

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I’m at a conference, and I just saw a T-Rex wearing a Supergirl backpack trot by.  Clearly, I’m not at the CDC (otherwise, Dr. Tom Frieden has a hobby that no one knows about). I’m at San Diego Comic-Con, the premiere comics convention in the world, alongside a projected 130,000 other conference attendees. So what’s a public health professional doing here?

I spoke on a panel called “Comics and health: Saving lives and preventing disease” as part of the Comics Arts academic conference associated with Comic-Con. Our panel shared exciting work that demonstrates the value of the comics medium in conveying health information, part of a growing discipline of “graphic medicine.”

Cropped Mer panelist
Meredith Li-Vollmer on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2016.

Why comics?

1. Comics tell stories. I’ve been developing public health comics since 2008, when award-winning Seattle comics artist David Lasky and I created No Ordinary Flu, a comic book that evolved from my work trying to raise awareness of the potential catastrophic nature of a severe influenza pandemic. It’s hard to interest people in health warnings about an illness that comes around every year, and presenting the information in a standard fact sheet did little to raise their awareness.

But by using comics to tell the story of a family living through the influenza pandemic of 1918, the issue takes on emotional weight and urgency. A narrative grounds the information in what happens to the characters. Suddenly, a crisis that seemed abstract and distant becomes much more concrete and human.

2. Comics help people visualize what to expect or what to do. Comics convey meaning through a visual vocabulary that includes pictures, symbols, dialogue, and sequential panels that can jump across geography, time, and metaphysical space. These elements make it possible to show what happens inside the body when a virus attacks, illustrate what steps people should take to protect themselves, and also visually demonstrate the social impacts, such as the closure of public events and schools to prevent the spread of disease.

Panels from No Ordinary Flu show how everyday life changed during the 1918 influenza pandemic when large numbers of people were sick.

3. Comics expand our reach. Of course comics have appeal to the ever growing legions who read graphic novels, web comics, manga, and comic books (as demonstrated by the small city of people surrounding me at Comic-Con). And comics are also a familiar and widely read medium for people of all ages in other countries—particularly in Asia and Latin America—that make them a great outreach tool for the diverse communities of King County. In fact, in focus groups we held in immigrant communities, participants asked for information to presented in comics.

We’ve translated all our of comics into other languages, and funding from the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) helped us translate No Ordinary Flu into a whopping 22 languages! (We’re grateful to NACCHO’s Advanced Practice Center program which also provided the funding to develop the artwork and print No Ordinary Flu and much of our other comics work.)

Not as niche as you might think

David and I have since done a number of other projects for the health department, including Survivor Tales, a comic book series featuring real-life survivors of disasters telling their stories, and shorter comic strips such as Home with Flu. Outside of the health department, I collaborated with a group of local comics artists and scholars on Comics 4 Health Coverage, project that invited people to tell why health insurance matters in four comic panels. And yes, I’ve done some comics for kids, Ready Freddie and Disaster Buddies.

And we aren’t alone in our quirky endeavors. Public Health – Seattle & King County’s Emergency Medical Services has developed a comic book for the Chinese community about how to call 9-1-1. King County’s Local Hazardous Waste program and 4Culture worked with comics artist Edie Everette on a HazMatters comic book. The Annals of Internal Medicine regularly features comics that detail the experiences of medical providers. And even the venerable CDC has done comics—they’re here at Comic-Con too to talk about their comics for HIV prevention.

If you want to join us, stay tuned. While it’s not at the same scale as San Diego Comic-Con, I’m helping to organize the 9th international conference of Comics & Medicine in Seattle in 2017, a remarkable gathering of healthcare providers, academics, comics artists, public health practitioners, and laypeople who all share this oddball interest. You are most welcome to attend, no costume needed!

Note: I paid for all travel associated with this conference myself and used vacation time so that I could fully enjoy the full parade of Game of Thrones, Marvel, and Studio Ghibli tributes when I wasn’t presenting!

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.

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