New course explores representation of COVID-19 in graphic novels and comics

Cynthia Laborde, assistant professor of French, launches a new course this fall, Graphic Novels and the Medical World, where students will study the major works of graphic medicine from French and English-language artists. The course, taught in English and a hybrid format, incorporates a unit on how care providers and patients represent COVID-19 in graphic novels and web comics. The course culminates with a final project where students create their own comics inspired by the topics covered in class.

“Student comics will revolve around the theme of health – physical and mental. Some students may want to tackle COVID-19, or what the world is like during a global pandemic,” said Cynthia Laborde, assistant professor of French. “The assignment asks students to process questions such as, ‘How do you draw pain?’ and ‘How can comic books bring new insights to patient, healthcare, and clinical experiences?’” A comics scholar, Laborde is currently writing a book about the representation of health in autobiographical graphic novels. 

Laborde is using an online publication, Graphic Medicine, to source COVID-19 web comics written by care providers and patients.

“On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Within a week, dozens of comics about COVID-19 began coming across our news and social media feeds,” said Alice Jaggers, a contributor to Graphic Medicine and Outreach Coordinator for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Library. “We have tried to curate many of them here. The comics are educational, social justice-oriented, humorous/coping, or a combination of any and all of the above.”

One comic by Ryan Kellman and Kristen Radtke is based on physician Daniel Colón Hidalgo’s reflections on dying alone, an experience amplified by visitor restrictions during the COVID-19 outbreak.

MODL 4310 Graphic Novels and the Medical World satisfies a requirement of the new Medical Humanities Certificate offered in the College of Liberal Arts. The interdisciplinary certificate approaches medical issues such as illness, treatment, disability, death, and health policy – from historical, philosophical, literary, and cultural perspectives. The course also satisfies a requirement of the Disability Studies Minor.

“The storytelling in graphic novels is an effective method for medicine and healthcare education,” Laborde continued. “At a time like this when we are bombarded with statistics, the insight gained from comics can make the impact of the pandemic more significant and personal.”