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Friday, July 8 • 14:50 - 16:20
Session 2C: Personal Experience

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Elizabeth Shefrin and Bob Bossin: Love, Sex and Stitchery: the Embroidered Cancer Comic

When someone you love has a life-threatening illness, how do you tell that story lightly without making light of it? How do you respect their boundaries, without diminishing the artistic integrity of the piece? How can the person your work is about contribute to the artistic process when that process turns on their vulnerability? As soon as we learned that Bob had prostate cancer we started making cancer jokes. Every time we laughed, one of us said, “That goes in the comic.” I am a fabric artist so I got out my needle and started stitching the Embroidered Cancer Comic. By the time of the 2016 Graphic Medicine Conference the comic will be print, published by Singing Dragon, an imprint of Jessica Kingsley Publishers of London and Philadelphia. I didn’t have to make up much of the story because most of it really happened. Bob has been open about the cancer, and we have worked together on the changes which it brought to his body and to our relationship. Bob has consistently supported the project even when the jokes were about his penis. (His surgery included cutting the erectile nerves.) Little of the cancer literature talks about this from the partner’s point of view, or about its effect on the relationship. Please join Bob and me, as we share the stories behind the comic, the places where we told the truth and the places we didn’t, and maybe even the jokes we left out. As Dr Peter Black, Bob’s surgeon at the Vancouver Prostate Centre, says, “Bob and Elizabeth started the journey no different than most patients, but the comic shows how they stuck together, rolled with the punches, and emerged perhaps even closer together than when the journey started.”

Expressing Myself Wordlessly: Intertextual Self-Portraiture in David Small's Stitches - Madeline Gangnes

In Stitches: A Memoir (2009), David Small depicts his young self’s use of creativity to cope with a difficult home life and trauma related to his medical conditions. Small employs a variety of visual styles in portraying young David’s journey, many of which are references to comics and illustrated fiction. Small incorporates these styles into his own in order to create an intertextual piece that illustrates the impact of his artistic influences on his personal and creative development, but also as a commentary on the nature of his illness, and the way it impacts his ability to communicate.


Elisabeth El Refaie argues in ‘Of mice, men, and monsters: body images in David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir’ (2012)[1] that “the very process of producing multiple self-portraits in a graphic memoir can be seen as enabling the development of [an] integrated body image” (56). Small’s incorporation of various visual styles makes his production of “multiple self-portraits” an intertextual act, complicating the idea of an “integrated” body, and perhaps turning his body into a performing body on which the various influences are enacted. His self-representation highlights the importance of performance in David’s development, and his response to his illness. David thus plays the roles of recognizable figures from comics and illustrated fiction. Furthermore, his performances are presented in contrast with the performances of identity enacted by other characters, notably David’s parents, who he portrays through similar (but not identical) methods to his own mode of intertextual performance.


This paper examines specific images from Stitches that are references to other comics and works of illustrated fiction in order to analyse Small’s self-portraiture through David and his surroundings. The visual references discussed in this paper contribute to Small’s portrayal of David’s use of performance and creativity to cope with traumas he experiences during childhood and adolescence.

[1] Elisabeth El Refaie, ‘Of mice, men, and monsters: body images in David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir’, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 3:1 (24 July 2012), pp. 55-67.

Christina Maria Koch: Stage 4 Cliffhangers: Illness Progressions and Ways of Being Sick in Comics

Across cultures, generations, classes, genders, or ethnicities of their patients, medical professionals schooled in “Western” medicine often attempt to uphold universal definitions of diseases and guidelines for treatment. However, individual ways of being sick can differ radically. From the early days of medical sociology, Kasl and Cobb’s terminology of “illness behavior” or Parson’s “sick role” attest to the significance of these culture-bound attitudes and actions.

Autobiographical accounts of illness experiences showcase behaviors towards being sick and seeking or receiving treatment over a course of time. As Rita Charon reminds us, people in their newfound roles as patients are often stuck in a “timeless enduring,” a perception of an illness progressing or treatment unfolding without much of their doing, or without certainty about the impact of their actions. In order to make sense of their plight, autobiographers may then portray and recast their illness as a quest or tell a story of restitution rather than chaos (Frank; Couser).

Many critics have argued that there seems to be something special about representing ways of being sick in graphic memoirs. This paper wants to explore this claim by pursuing two analytical routes: different autobiographical personas we find in comics and medium-specific ways of engaging with temporality. Drawing from a range of North-American alternative comics, we might see differences in represented illness behaviors depending on whether works are rooted in indie diary comics or prose illness narrative traditions. Inherent markers of seriality, genre conventions, and the spatio-temporal nature of graphic

Putting on a Good Face: Secrets, Stratecies, and Shame in the Depiction of Depression - Peaco Todd

My mother hid her descent into clinical depression from everyone except her husband and child.  She did it by “putting on a good face” – a strategy she had learned as a young woman steeped in the decorous traditions of the South, where raw emotion was synonymous with messiness and lack of control tantamount to a failure of manners (a mortal sin).  It was a heartfelt lesson she passed down to me, her daughter.  I hid my mother’s depression from everyone: my closest friends, my teachers: revealing her condition felt like betrayal.  Depression, with its attendant rages and chaotic misery, was our family’s most closely guarded secret.  And its secret heart was shame.

Shame – the notion that someone is defective in his/her very nature –is too often an adjunct to illness.  Illness is a kind of disorder: systems fall apart and vulnerability can devolve into indignity.  This can be particularly true in cases of mental illness, when one’s very identity can seem exposed and defenseless, open to scrutiny and judgment.   My mother felt that her deep depression was the manifestation of a self intrinsically flawed – she was ashamed of being mentally ill, a condition she considered a weakness, one she should have been able to “rise above.” In graphic memoir, the page becomes the stage, a place where ultimately the masks that patients assume to obscure what can feel like intolerable truth can be examined and erased.  In this presentation, based on new work on my graphic memoir-in-progress Table for One

, I will explore the role that shame plays in depression: the erosion of self, the strategies for concealment as well as the possibility of rejecting shame and accepting instead the vulnerabilities that make us all human. 


avatar for Kimberly Myers

Kimberly Myers

Director of first-year Medical Humanities course; Director of Competency-Based Assessment and Reflective Learning, Penn State College of Medicine

avatar for Bob Bossin

Bob Bossin

the goodle days
avatar for Madeline Gangnes

Madeline Gangnes

PhD Student, University of Florida
Madeline Gangnes is a PhD student in English at the University of Florida and a graduate of the University of Dundee's MLitt in Comics Studies program. Her research focuses on the relationship between image-text works (comics, graphic novels, illustrated fiction, and so forth) and... Read More →
avatar for Christina Maria Koch

Christina Maria Koch

Christina Maria Koch is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Philipps University of Marburg, Germany, where she studies how medium-specific traits of graphic illness memoirs shape representations of illness experiences and their socio-cultural dimensions. Her research interests... Read More →
avatar for Elizabeth Shefrin

Elizabeth Shefrin

I played as a toddler in the galleries of Italy and have been creating art ever since. Embroidered Cancer Comic is the story of our family life after Bob's cancer diagnosis. All the original art work is embroidered. Talk to me about why I've called my web site Stitching for Social... Read More →
avatar for Peaco Todd

Peaco Todd

dauphin, Earth Comix, Inc. & peacotoons
I'm a writer/cartoonist working on two graphic medicine projects: a memoir (Table for One) about my mother's depression, and a memoir (McCancer) about thyroid cancer. In addition, I'm part of a non-profit -- Earth Comix -- whose purpose is to use cartoons to raise awareness about... Read More →

Friday July 8, 2016 14:50 - 16:20 BST
Lecture Theatre 3

Attendees (7)