Wellcome Collection Stories:
by Dr Ian Williams
I was recently commissioned to draw twelve comic strips for the Wellcome Collection, as part of the Stories series on their website. I called the series Sorry To Keep You Waiting. With the NHS under pressure it is easy to see doctors (if you can actually get to see one…) as the detatched and privileged functionaries of a rather unwieldly and overloaded system. It is easy to forget that these individuals have their own histories of illness, trauma or emotional pain, as well as their own idiosyncrasies and blind spots, and that they are working, under trying conditions, within a framework designed by politicians, using computer software that can perpetuate stigma and social inequality. You don’t have to pity them, just understand why they are what they are.
My aim is to entertain, provoke conversations, poke fun and highlight human foibles, hypocrisy and questionable practice through wry humour.
I’ve written academic work and op-ed articles, but I found my voice through comics, and am currently working on my third graphic novel. My aim is to entertain, provoke conversations, poke fun and highlight human foibles, hypocrisy and questionable practice through wry humour. I like to investigate the areas of healthcare that are taboo or unacknowledged – such as the draconian attitude within mainstream medicine towards recreational drug use, whilst doctors routinely prescribe highly addictive medications, making themselves complicit in a national wave of prescription drug dependency. In this Wellcome series I covered such subjects as diagnostic coding (!), presenteeism and slow burn PTSD in healthcare workers.
The strips were generally well received, especially amongst healthcare professionals, and I had messages telling me they were ‘spot on’. I had forgotten, however, that the moment one publishes anything to a wide audience, there are a host of people eagerly waiting the opportunity to vent their spleen over some perceived outrage or cultural miss-step. Some of the aggrieved commentators seemed not to understand the concept of a satirical gag strip, mistaking it, perhaps, for a guide to best practice in healthcare. The editors, on the other hand, seemed delighted with the ‘public engagement’ on instagram and twitter as I found myself, once again, girding my loins and telling myself that if someone, somewhere, wasn’t enraged, the work was probably too anodyne and safe.
A few years ago I drew a weekly strip for The Guardian called Sick Notes, in which I responded to a health-related news story every week. It was hard work, and I had to get used to a regular hammering in the comments section – which web editors seem duty bound to include – from armchair commentators who had no idea what it is like to drag some humour out of a dull story and produce a topical cartoon, to a strict deadline, 48 hours after being given the brief by the editor. Sometimes it worked, sometimes the strip was not great. It’s not my greatest work, but doing a strip for a broadsheet had kudos. It was stressful, but it led to a career highlight, in which I managed to hide (barely), within a bar code, an expletive-ridden message to the Tory government of the day. Within moments of the strip going live online, readers had scanned it, and commented, but the papers had already been printed and were out for distribution. I remain proud of that particular achievement.
Ian Williams is a comics artist, writer and doctor who lives in Brighton. His graphic novel, The Bad Doctor, was published in 2014 and followed up in 2019 by The Lady Doctor. Both were critically acclaimed and he is working on his third, for the same publishers, entitled The Sick Doctor, which will be published in 2023. He studied Fine Art after medical school and then became involved in the Medical Humanities movement. He named the area of study called Graphic Medicine, building the eponymous website in 2007, which he currently co-edits and co-authored the Eisner-nominated Graphic Medicine Manifesto. He has been the recipient of several grants has contributed to numerous medical, humanities and comics publications. He is a founder of the not-for-profit Graphic Medicine International Collective, and has sat on the board of a number of arts and humanities organisations. He is also a member of CMNH.