When Bodies Need Stories in Pictures

Authored by: Arthur W. Frank

The Routledge History of Disease

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415720014
eBook ISBN: 9781315543420
Adobe ISBN: 9781134857876


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This chapter discusses how people represent their experiences of illness in graphic novels; the broader issue is how representations of suffering affect living with disease and finding forms of healing. Humanity’s earliest known work of sustained storytelling, the Gilgamesh epic, is a kind of guide to the suffering of mortality. 2 It depicts the fear and anxiety of Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu as he realizes he is dying, and Gilgamesh’s grief for Enkidu drives the plot of the epic’s second half. Sophocles’ Philoctetes is about a level of pain that can be expressed only in screams. 3 But Philoctetes suffers more than the pain of the festering wound on his foot. He suffers the isolation that humans have inflicted on him in response to his wound. Disgusted by the stench of his wound and distracted by his screams, Philoctetes’ comrades in the war against Troy abandoned him on an isolated island, with only his bow to sustain him. Thus, the physical reality of disease, including dying, has always had a complement in the suffering caused by others’ responses to that disease, injury, or disability. The representation of suffering – telling the story of how one came to suffer and how others’ responses shaped this suffering – seems to be a fundamental human need. The media of telling often change, and today the graphic novel is increasingly popular. But the need to tell stories of suffering persists.

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