A collage of images including a Marvel comic cover showing diverse nurses in masks, a black woman in a nurse uniform in a Rosie the Riveter pose, and a drawn figure holding a telephone with text Socialize from a Distance.

COVID Comics: Decentering White Narratives in Graphic Medicine

Soha Bayoumi, PhD will speak on Thursday, March 30, 2023 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Soha Bayoumi is a Senior Lecturer in Medicine, Science, and the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Posed photograph of a woman in a black blazer and abstract pattern top. Soha Bayoumi: I grew up in the Middle East, mostly in Egypt and for some time in Saudi Arabia. I received a BA from Cairo University in political science, then went on to pursue a master’s and a PhD at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) in political theory and history. I taught at Harvard between 2011 and 2021 in the Department of the History of Science before joining the Medicine, Science, and the Humanities program at Johns Hopkins in the fall of 2021.

My teaching days usually involve class prep and meeting with students during office hours. My non-teaching days give me more room to carve out time for writing and editing the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, and I usually start them with a morning run!

CN: What initially sparked your interest in the history of medicine?

SB: During grad school, I got to learn more about history of medicine as an academic field. My mother is a now-retired physician who has always been socially and politically active. I think, as a result, I’ve developed an interest in questions related to health and social justice and thinking about health and medicine in their political contexts. In this regard, I believe that history of medicine, as an academic field, allows us to think, among many other things, about the ways in which the valences of medical expertise have changed over time and how this expertise has been, and continues to be, deployed differently in different political contexts to various ends.

Image of artist book, "Fractured: COVID 19"
Fractured: COVID 19 Artist’s Book by Maria Pisano recently acquired by NLM.

CN: Tell us a little about your talk, “COVID Comics: Decentering White Narratives in Graphic Medicine During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” what drew your attention specifically to Graphic Medicine?

SB: I’ve loved comics since my childhood, but I only became aware of the potential of comics as a medium that can discuss serious subjects artfully after I read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in 2004. I became obsessed after I read Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which was banned by a school board in Tennessee last year!) as well as Alison Bechdel’s work (which has been repeatedly banned as well). About ten years ago, my friend and colleague Sherine Hamdy, who is a medical anthropologist, introduced me to comics that deal with narratives of illness and to the field of Graphic Medicine. It immediately felt like several of my worlds were colliding as I saw how Graphic Medicine combined my passions for comics, the medical humanities, and the history of medicine. I have since taught a course on Graphic Medicine almost every year and have participated in the annual Graphic Medicine conference. My friend Sherine Hamdy, along with her former PhD student Coleman Nye, and two Rhode Island School of Design students, Sarula Bao and Caroline Brewer, ended up publishing her own Graphic Medicine novel Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution, based on ethnographic work conducted by both authors in Egypt and the United States, which goes to show the boundless potential of Graphic Medicine as a field.

Since its emergence as a creative genre and a scholarly field, Graphic Medicine has consecrated a canon that centers predominantly white, middle-class narratives, and the field, in general, has been dominated by these narratives. In this upcoming talk, I hope to explore the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has opened the field up to a diversity of views and narratives, especially given that the loss of life and livelihood has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Moreover, the fact that the pandemic coincided with (or enabled) the so-called racial reckoning of the summer of 2020 has meant that many of the BIPOC comics about COVID that we’ve seen recently have tended to highlight some of the racial, social, and political aspects of the pandemic, as opposed to focusing primarily on the purely medical aspects. This, I argue, is a welcome influence in the field of graphic medicine that I think, or hope, will reshape the field in interesting ways in years to come.

Recent acquisitions to the National Library of Medicine collections document art and imagery created during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CN: In looking at material created during the COVID-19 pandemic, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?

SB: There are so many compelling and beautifully rendered stories. If I were to focus on comics produced over the past few years, during COVID, I would say that one story that really stayed with me is a short comic by Whit Taylor, published in The Nib, about giving birth at the height of the COVID pandemic. Beyond the devastating loss of life and the physical and mental suffering incurred by the pandemic, Taylor’s comic is one of many comics that shed light on the ways in which all aspects of our lives have been upended by the pandemic.

Montage of artwork featured in Graphic Medicine: Ill Concieved and Well Drawn.

CN: The NLM exhibition Graphic Medicine: Ill-Conceived & Well-Drawn! curated by Ellen Forney highlights the Library’s collecting in this genre and provides classroom education resources. What are we learning about this genre and how it can help us explore narratives about illness, health, and healthcare from a variety of perspectives?

SB: Most clichés have a kernel of truth, and a “picture is worth a thousand words” is certainly an apt descriptor of what Graphic Medicine can do. Good comic creators are very skilled at “show and tell,” combining words and images to convey not just outward events and interactions but also inner worlds and very personal and intimate experiences of illness—in ways that would not be possible in the same ways through text-based memoirs. Moreover, Graphic Medicine, as a field that often values abstraction, is very effective in highlighting themes related to both the universality and plurality of illness experiences. Reading graphic medicine comics can be cathartic to many patients, allowing them to simultaneously identify with the comic creator and distance themselves enough from the experience to allow themselves a different take or perspective on their own experience. They can also be extremely helpful to healthcare providers and caregivers, allowing them a window into patients’ inner worlds of suffering and resilience and creating room for greater empathy. Comics have also been used for more educational or didactic purposes in the healthcare field. Drawing and creating comics have also been used to facilitate communication between patients and providers and as a form of art therapy. Ensuring that the field is open and accessible to creators and readers from various backgrounds enriches the field and allows us access to the varied aspects of the human experience with health and illness.

Watch on YouTube

Soha Bayoumi’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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