Friday, September 5, 2014

Awesome read for doctors AND vets: The Bad Doctor by Ian Williams

The Bad Doctor just might change the way you read books. You can order it here.

Ian Williams is a medical doctor, but also a cartoonist. I learned about his graphic novel, The Bad Doctor, from a tweet (another excellent reason to get on twitter – it turns up some absolute gems). The book is about the troubled Dr Iwan James, a general practitioner who deals with everyone from incontinent old ladies to potentially psychopathic loners. We follow Dr James, the blurb said, “as he tries to do his best in a world of limited time and budgetary constraints, and in which there are no easy answers”.

Well if that doesn’t sound like your average veterinary career, I don’t know what does!!!

I read further. “Iwan’s cycling trips with his friend Arthur provide some welcome relief, but even the landscape is imbued with his patients’ distress. As we explore the phantoms from Iwan’s past, we too begin to feel compassion for The Bad Doctor, and ask what is the dividing line between patient and provider?”

Naturally I ordered it immediately, staked out the postie daily (truth be told, my postie is used to this) and pounced on the book when it arrived. The great thing is this is not just a book, it is a graphic novel, or comic. But instead of being about some dude in a purple suit branding baddies with a skeleton ring, it’s about one of us.

Dr Williams made time for a skype interview with SAT so we could probe him further.

Cartoonist and doctor Ian Williams.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a cartoonist and a doctor. I studied medicine and qualified in 1989, and worked as a GP in North Wales, right out in the countryside, surrounded by agriculture and farm animals, for about twenty years. I was always into art and painting, and after medical school I did a post-grad certificate in fine art at Chester University and developed a side career as a painter and printmaker. I had solo exhibitions in galleries and sold over two hundred and fifty paintings and prints, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable. The language of fine art is very theoretical and different from the language of medicine which is very pragmatic. I did an MA in medical humanities to try to link the two sides of my career.

I was always into graphic novels and comics and I set up the website which looked at the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of medicine. After writing about comics, at some stage I thought “ooh, I could do that” which is a very doctor thing to think. I gave up general practice for about three years [to focus on art] then worked in sexual health to pay the bills. Then I moved to Brighton, and fell into a general practice job just across the road from my flat. I am now working as a GP for two days a week. In the brief time I gave up medicine I spent all the time in my studio and kind of got cabin fever, so I think that seeing patients is actually quite therapeutic for me.

What drew you into medicine in the first place?

I was really idealistic when I was young and wanted to do some good and always had slightly left-wing, anti-capitalist leanings, hating the thought of being ‘in business’ and making money for the sake of it. I know that medicine is a business, but it seemed a more noble calling. I was also influenced by TV programs. We had all these medical dramas and sit-coms on TV, one was called Doctor on the Go. It was about medical students having wild adventures, and I thought ‘I’d like a bit of that’.

How did you become involved in graphic medicine?

Me and a few colleagues really started the thing off and it has been gradually gaining momentum. I coined the term when I set up the website. As soon as I launched the site, people from all over the world started contacting me. It changed my life, quite literally. I organised the first international conference. We got together in London in 2010 and people came from The States, Canada, Japan, and The Caribbean. Since then we’ve had conferences in Chicago, Toronto, Brighton and we just had a conference at John’s Hopkins University at Baltimore, which is quite a coup. Medical academics are taking us seriously and people who wouldn’t have previously looked at graphic novels or literature are understanding what they are about. We’ve had a couple of delegates from Australia, and MK Czerwiec (with whom I run the website) have been invited to Melbourne as visiting scholars. We are hoping that that will happen in 2015 or 2016.

A scene from The Bad Doctor. We couldn't help but notice animals feature prominently...
Many people struggle to be left brain and right brain, but you manage to juggle a career as a doctor, cartoonist, print maker and writer. Is it tough?

No. Well, I think I struggled a bit at first but not now. When I was doing painting and print-making, which was very abstract, I found it hard to talk to doctors about the paintings and where they came from. If you resort to artspeak you can sound like a complete dork. But comics have a kind of universal appeal and cross loads of barriers. Everybody can understand them because they read them as a kid. They are so self reflective, and ironic, and anarchic and irreverent, and you can say anything you want in comics and people can understand it,maybe because it’s a hybrid between words and images. This is where I found my voice.

Critics have praised your portrayal of Dr Iwan James, the main character in The Bad Doctor, as an imperfect human being rather than a God-like doctor. Do you think doctors suffer from trying to be someone they really can’t be, e.g. God?

Maybe. Part of the motivation was to relieve doctors of those self-imposed expectations. I’ve never met a God-like doctor. I know lots of doctors who feel like they can’t make a mistake, they should know everything – which may be fine if you are a specialist but as a general practitioner it is impossible. Doctors can also be quite judgemental, and I don’t really understand that. They get a bit high and mighty about people who smoke or take drugs or drink, or people who don’t make it to appointments, and part of that judgement comes from the hassle those people cause us, but a lot of it is adopted from the media, or from medical tradition which tends to be very judgemental about certain groups of patients. These patients become stigmatised and discriminated against, which is, I think, often unfair. It is usually the underprivileged and the poor who get stigmatised.

How long did it take to write and draw?

The whole process was about two years, but the real hard work was a concentrated year – which got more and more concentrated. The last six months was solid drawing and revising. The first year was trying to find the story, trying out what worked. It was a hell of a lot of work.

The late Megan Williams.
Do you have any non-human companions?

I used to have a sheep dog, Megan, and  I was besotted with her, although she was extremely difficult in character. She died a couple of years ago. I would really like another dog.

Dave the vet is a friend of The Bad Doctor's Dr James. 
While it isn’t a central theme of your book, many of your characters have pets and you’ve even got a vet in there (hurrah!). Obviously the bond between humans and animals is important – to patients as well as doctors. Why do you think this is?

That wasn’t at all conscious and I was quite delighted when you pointed it out. I was working in a rural environment where I used to work and it was a cottage surrounded by fields. The neighbours were farmers so out the front were prize-winning cattle and sheep. I also used to like it when I would visit a patient and they had dogs. It was like a little bonus when you visited someone and they had a nice pet. 

"It was like a little bonus when you visited someone and they had a nice pet".
My own dog was a reject farm dog who was probably quite inbred, possibly brain damaged and verging on unmanageable. We had people who tried to train her but they gave up. It was like living with someone you really love and adore who causes a lot of hassle and trouble. I’ve always loved animals.

Animals are so important in comics. There is a real anthropomorphic tradition. Bryan Talbot, a well-known comic artist and graphic novelist, talks a lot about this tradition and why people do it. Art Spiegelman has talked widely about why he used animals in Maus. Using animals allowed him to subvert expectations and the iconography of the holocaust,  but also tell the story without worrying too much about visual accuracy, and also permits a bit of distancing and layering of reality.

Thanks Ian. For readers who are interested in exploring the genre of graphic medicine, The Bad Doctor is the perfect place to start. But via Ian’s graphic medicine website I also came across:

The Epileptic by David B. (What a fascinating insight into one family’s struggle with a devastating illness, and some really terrifying traditional and alternative medicine).

Cancer Vixen (a comic about “kicking cancer’s butt” by a New York socialite – but also a brilliant perspective on being diagnosed with and enduring treatment of the disease we all fear).

The Complete Maus (This was the hardest but in some ways most rewarding of the books to read but isn’t a lightweight. In fact I had several very sleepless nights thanks to this book, which retells the story of the holocaust from the point of view of cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s father).