Caron Walker,  Consultant in Public Health & Assistant Director at Calderdale Council

Caron Walker, Consultant in Public Health & Assistant Director at Calderdale Councilgives us the highlights from a recent Comics Roundtable.

I don’t venture south much these days, so was quite excited to be going to an event in the Blavatnik Building, the new part of the Tate Modern in London. You may say I don’t need to put ‘in London’ but for us Northerners we have our own Tate in Liverpool so I want to make clear that I was in the big city! 

The event was a Comics Roundtable with people from the field of comics creation, graphics, academia, health, local government and funding bodies, organised by the University of Liverpool in collaboration with Comics Youth CIC. I was there to represent RSPH as a member of its Special Interest Group on Arts and Health.

Although I have a longstanding interest in art in its broadest forms and its role in improving and addressing health, my knowledge of comics is somewhat limited by what my children read when they were younger - Raymond Briggs being my favourite - and my own childhood comics of the Beano, Dandy and Bunty for Girls with the back page cut out wardrobes (oh, how I railed against that one as a teenager and moved onto the slightly more sophisticated Jackie with its problem pages!).

I felt a bit apprehensive about what was expected of me but I was pleasantly surprised, and immensely relieved, that there would be no Question Time grilling but an open conversation about how comics and zines workshops and exhibitions might help us tell stories about our health and minds.

The session was co-chaired by David Hering from the University of Liverpool’s Literature Department and the founder and Director of Comics Youth, Rhiannon Griffiths who spoke passionately about her own experience of having a long term health condition and how the use of comics and comic art as a form of therapy helped her as a teenager who spent lots of time in hospital. We were also introduced to two graphic artists who would make a visual record of the minutes.

 

My attention was soon drawn away from tea and three large cakes to the plethora of important people in the room. I sat beside the person who ‘invented’ the term ‘Graphic Medicine, GP and comics artist Ian Williams, and met the current Comic Laureate, Hannah Berry. Also present included Peter Kessler, the organiser of The Lakes International Comic Arts Festival, Kieron Baroutchi, Illustration & Animation Course Leader from London Metropolitan University and Claire Lewis, the Arts Lead from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The hour long session raced past and ran over as the people in the room enthusiastically discussed their work and personal stories around the role of comic art as a therapeutic intervention that changed lives. There was some disagreement around whether or not comics and comic art was now more accepted and mainstream.

Some felt that it was still an ‘outsider’ medium and lacked recognition alongside art and literature whereas others in the room said that things had moved on massively. I couldn’t really comment on this but I did wonder if this perhaps reflected a geographical divide with London having sufficient critical mass to make a difference as it seemed to me that there were only isolated pockets, such as Liverpool, outside the capital that were developing this culture.  

There was general agreement that it was important that individuals owned their narrative and that this aspect of control was so important. There was talk about how comic art particularly appeals to introverts as a way of getting their feelings out and helped combat isolation and loneliness; it aids communication, not just mental health. So where words might be difficult to speak, drawings and story boards can create stories to express personal grief, trauma or tragedy.

One person described how drawings and comic art are amazing safeguarding tools in starting difficult conversations. Another explained how they had tried to use an online CBT course but found it difficult because it was based on describing feelings in words and imagine if this could be done through drawings? Would therapists be able to respond more appropriately?

Some highlighted how comics and comic art can also develop and improve a person’s analytical skills in a positive way. The important role of libraries was also raised and some libraries were good at promoting comics but this was identified as an area for development as this experience is not widespread. Having books without words is an obvious start, and I also raised the issue of easy read material and how drawings can be used to increase access to medical information.

Questions about how we might measure outcomes were raised but Comics UK have been developing some evaluation based on validated tools such as the Edinburgh-Warwick scale and this will be published at some point.

In tandem with the workshop was a lively exhibition led by a group of young people and artists in residence, including Shani Ali, from Room 13 - an independent art studio in the playground of Hareclive Primary School in Bristol. It’s run by the children that use it and is a place where they can express themselves, to do artwork and have fun.

They work in sketch books and on canvas and have worked on a wide range of projects, exhibitions, commissions and presentations. Room 13 is also like a business because they raise some of the money themselves and a have a Management Team of 8-12 children from Years 5 and 6 who run the studio. Room 13 is a different atmosphere to school because they follow their own ideas and aren’t told what to do.

The discussion was certainly illuminating and made me think about how I can develop some of these ideas in our work in local authorities. I enjoyed the discussion but was even more impressed by the young peoples’ work in the adjacent gallery space. If this is a reflection of our future leaders I feel in safer hands.