Ebru Ustundag is a critical feminist geographer interested in intersections of health/care and social justice as these relations unfold in various urban spaces. She is an Associate Professor of Geography at Brock University. In St. Catharines, Ontario, she collaborates with various community partners and social agencies to facilitate radical collective action by building solidarities and alliances. Ebru is also a member of the executive board of the Graphic Medicine International Collective.
Comics: From underground culture to health care facilitation
Once considered underground media, comics, manga, and zines have more recently been shown to be dynamic tools for conveying complex socio-economic and environmental challenges, by contesting singular understandings. By re-orienting time and space in novel ways, comics ask the reader to actively engage with the material in front of them. These narrative possibilities invite readers to imagine temporal and spatial ‘realities’ in unique ways that other forms of textual consumption do not support. Over the last decade, comics, zines, and graphic novels have played increasingly prominent roles in communicating complexities that are not divided, linear, or discipline-specific. For example, the comic titled “Climate Changes Health” provides a multidimensional and holistic approach to understanding the impacts of climate on our physical and mental health, as well as on our natural environment. It was created by the Climate Health Action Team of Seattle and King County’s (WA-SA) Public Health, with artwork by Mita Mahato and writing by Meredith Li-Vollmer. For readers who might not be familiar with the multi-dimensional impacts of the climate crisis on our everyday lives, the comic offers a novel opportunity to critically examine the social, political, and environmental implications.. It provokes its readers to make meaning by relating climate change to various standpoints.
Located in faculties including business, arts and humanities, natural and applied sciences, medical sciences, and social sciences, academic disciplines like biology, mathematics, geography, sociology, and psychology emerged almost two centuries ago to advance understandings of the natural, physical, and social environments. While the inquiries of these disciplines are often quite similar, they differ in contextualization (area of investigation), theories (systematic frameworks), research methods (practical approaches), and epistemologies (models of knowledge production). Building on their specific discipline’s previous body of research, scholars in these disciplines accumulate a particular body of knowledge (new ideas, research, and findings) with domain-specific theoretical, methodological, and conceptual frameworks.
Discipline-specific knowledge production has been dominant in Western, masculine, and colonial scholarship for three centuries, though it has been contested by feminist, anti-racist, queer, Indigenous, and decolonial scholars, as well as activists and communities within and outside of academia over the last couple of decades. To address the complexities of the social, economic, political, and medical crises of our times calls for pushing the boundaries of discipline-specific approaches to assemble sustainable and equitable solutions. This is what transdisciplinarity offers. By producing knowledge across and beyond academic disciplines, transdisciplinary research can provide new conceptual, theoretical, and methodological approaches to bridge disciplines and tackle challenging problems by fostering collaboration, co-operation, and collective knowledge dissemination. Despite the individual and institutional barriers, there have been increasing initiatives to foster knowledge mobilization to support transdisciplinary research and teaching within and outside of academic institutions.
For example, arts and humanities-based transdisciplinary approaches to health, health care, and well-being have been widely used in medicine and medical education. Recently, comics have been used to engage patients, family members, caregivers, physicians, and other health professionals through literary and visual representations of complex challenges of health (Czerwiec et al. 2015). Educators, librarians, and scholars have also incorporated comics into the dissemination of complex medical information. These novel approaches aim to present a unique and nuanced understanding of our complicated experiences of illness by fostering empathy, compassion, and altruism in medical education and practice. In 2012, physician and comic artist Ian Williams coined the term “graphic medicine” to refer to the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourses of health, illness, disability, and caregiving.
- What are the benefits and limitations of earning your degree in a particular discipline?
- Why do you think our current socio-political and environmental challenges require transdisciplinary approaches? Identify one specific challenge, and consider the benefits of addressing it through a transdisciplinary lens.
- In what ways do you think comics can reduce barriers to accessing information?
- Read the comic Toxic Inheritance and discuss how comics convey a different form of meaning making, compared to other media (i.e., text, photographs, videos).
Graphic Medicine International Collective’s Drawing Together archive provides several examples and prompts to claim your inner artist. You can try these by yourself, friends, and family members.
Czerviec, M.K., Williams, I., Squier, S. M., Green, M.J., Myers, K.R. and Smith, S.T. (2015). Graphic Medicine Manifesto. PA: Penn State Press.
Dittmer, J. (2010). Comic book visualities: A methodological manifesto on geography, montage and narration. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35: 222-236.
Dittmer, J. and Latham, A. (2015). The rut and the gutter: Space and time in graphic narrative. Cultural Geographies, 22(3): 427-444.
Donovan, C. and Ustundag, E. (2017). Graphic narratives, trauma and social justice. Studies in Social Justice, 11(2): 221-237.
Green, M. and Myers, K. (2010). Graphic medicine: Use of comics in medical education and patient care. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 340 (7746): 574-577.
Fall, J. (2021). Worlds of vision: Thinking geographically through comics. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 20(1).
Peterle, G. (2017). Comic book cartographies: A cartocentred reading of City of Glass, the graphic novel. Cultural Geographies, 24(1): 43-68.
Rifkind, C. and Christopher, B. (2019). How comics work. uwinnipeg.ca/1B19.