Graphic Medicine and the Critique of Contemporary U.S. Healthcare

  • Sathyaraj VenkatesanEmail author
  • Chinmay Murali


Comics has always had a critical engagement with socio-political and cultural issues and hence evolved into a medium with a subversive power to challenge the status quo. Staying true to the criticality of the medium, graphic medicine (where comics intersects with the discourse of healthcare) critiques the exploitative and unethical practices in the field of healthcare, thereby creating a critical consciousness in the reader. In close reading select graphic pathographies such as Gabby Schulz's Sick (2016), Emily Steinberg's Broken Eggs (2014), Ellen Forney's Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me (2012) and Marisa Marchetto's Cancer Vixen (2009), the present article delineates how graphic medicine interrogates the larger than life forces in the field of healthcare. Drawing specific instances from the aforementioned graphic texts, the essay demonstrates that graphic medicine scrutinizes the political economy of health under capitalism. In so doing, the article illustrates how the pharmaceutical corporations, insurance companies, medical technology, and healthcare corporations marketize and commoditize health in the neoliberal era. Finally, the article attempts to theorize how graphic pathographies, mediating subjective experiences, generate a new critical literacy through the conflation of the personal and the political in the verbovisual medium of comics.


Healthcare Capitalism Pharmacy Insurance Profit 



1 Growing popularity of comics as an anti-establishment medium of creative expression in the early twentieth century created a cultural panic among conservative intelligentsia who viewed comics as “part of a youthful rebellion that promoted loose morals and violence and resistance to authority” (Carleton 2014, 73). Subsequently, conservative critics led a crusade against comics for its controversial content. Particularly, Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), held comics responsible for juvenile delinquency which eventually led to the creation of the infamous Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954.

2 Comics such as Jim Vance and Dan Burr’s Kings in Disguise (1988) and Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (1988) address issues that are socio-cultural in nature. During this period, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980) which documents the horrors of Nazism and Holocaust earned the medium of comics a distinct cultural legitimacy to handle socio-political issues. Since 2000, comics have addressed a wide range of socio-cultural issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dissent during the Iranian revolution with critically acclaimed works such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) and Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2001) demonstrating the power of comics to engage with contemporary political scenario with force and urgency.

3 Comics on Occupy Movement such as DC comics’ The Movement (2013-2014) and Black Mask’s Occupy Comics (2014), and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire (2008) which critiqued America’s foreign policy and imperialist expansionism set the ground for a new counter-cultural movement against capitalism and imperialism in the graphic form.

4 As comics theorist Scott McCloud (1994) in his Understanding Comics observes, “despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics. . .. Here in the limbo of the gutter human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea” (66). In reading comics, the reader connects the visual-verbal information available to him, which is fragmented by gutters and panels, to establish meaning. This readerly “act of mentally completing that which is incomplete” (Carleton 2014, 163) constitutes what comics scholars describe as closure.

5 National Health Service (NHS) refers to the public health services in the United Kingdom.

6 Coined by Thomas Couser, the term ‘autopathography’ refers to narratives about the author’s encounter with an illness.

7 In a welfare state, the state ensures the socio-economic wellbeing of its citizens.

8 Steinberg’s critique of healthcare in Broken Eggs is not restricted to pharmacy alone as she exposes other fraudulent and corrupt practices in the system. Abuse of biostatistics is another unscrupulous and profit-driven tendency that the author takes to task in the memoir. After the failure of each method of treatment, the greedy doctors cite statistical data to convince the author that undergoing another expensive treatment might yield positive results, thus coercing her to try “more drugs and a way more costly procedure” with “more desperate thousand dollar visits to Franklin pharmacy…” (n.p.).

9 Patented drugs are newly developed drugs by a pharmaceutical company and hence the rights of producing, pricing, and distributing remains with the manufacturer. Since the manufacturer has the right to fix the rate of patented drugs, they are highly expensive. When the patent protection for a drug expires, generic versions of the drug are manufactured with a considerable price reduction.

10 A Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) is a group of insurance providers that offers insurance coverage for a monthly or annual fee.


  1. Arya, Rina. 2014. Abjection and Representation: an Exploration of Abjection in the Visual Arts, Film and Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  2. Braveman, Paula. 2012. “Health Inequalities by Class and Race in the US: What Can We Learn from the Patterns?” Social Science & Medicine 74 (5): 665-667.Google Scholar
  3. Carleton, Sean. 2014. “Drawn to Change: Comics and Critical Consciousness.” Labour / Le Travail 73:151-177.Google Scholar
  4. Carroll, Aron E. 2016. Why the U.S. Still Trails Many Wealthy Nations in Access to Care. New York Times, Oct. 24. Accessed 10 April 2018.
  5. Chute, Hillary. 2008. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA. 123 (2): 452–465.Google Scholar
  6. Czerwiec, M.K, et al. 2015. Graphic Medicine Manifesto. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Forney, Ellen. 2012. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  8. Freire, Paulo. 1990. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.Google Scholar
  9. Glazer, S. 2015. “Graphic Medicine: Comics Turn a Critical Eye on Health Care.” Hastings Center Report 45 (3): 15-19.Google Scholar
  10. Glenza, Jessica. 2018. “States Consider Bringing Prescription Drugs from Canada to US as Prices Soar.” The Guardian, Mar. 1. Accessed 6 April 2018.
  11. Gottschalk, Marie. 2010. “US Health Reform and the Stockholm Syndrome.” In: Morbid Symptoms: Health Under Capitalism, edited by Leo Panitch and Collin Leys, 103-124. London: Merlin Press.Google Scholar
  12. Graphic Medicine. 2007. “Review of Janet and Me: An Illustrated Story of Love and Loss by Stan Mack.” Accessed 3 January 2018.
  13. Green, M.J., and K.R. Myers. 2010. “Graphic Medicine: Use of Comics in Medical Education and Patient Care.” The Veterinary Record: Journal of the British Veterinary Association 166 (11): 574-577.Google Scholar
  14. Himmelstein, David, and Steffie Woolhandler. 2018. “The Political Economy of Health Reform.” In: Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Healthcare, edited by Howard Waitzkin, 57-68. New York: Monthly Review Press.Google Scholar
  15. Johnson, Carolyn Y. 2017. “America is a World Leader in Health Inequality.” The Washington Post, June 5. Accessed 5 April 2018.
  16. Larsen, Wolf. 2011. Capitalism Sucks. Bloomington: Author House.Google Scholar
  17. Leys, Collin. 2010. “Health, Healthcare and Capitalism.” In: Morbid Symptoms: Health Under Capitalism, edited by Leo Panitch and Collin Leys, 1-28. London: Merlin Press.Google Scholar
  18. Maggio, J. 2007. “Comics and Cartoons: A Democratic Art-Form.” Political Science and Politics 40 (2): 237-239.Google Scholar
  19. Marchetto, Marisa A. 2009. Cancer Vixen: A True Story. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  20. McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  21. Morris, David B. 2007. Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  22. Pigg, Stacy Leigh. 2018. “Things Anthropologists Can Do with Comics.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 32 (1). Accessed 5 April 2018.
  23. Potts, Phoebe. 2010. Good Eggs. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  24. Rajan, Kaushik Sundar. 2017. Pharmocracy: Value, Politics & Knowledge in Global Biomedicine. London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Rosenthal, Elizabeth. 2017. “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back.” Lecture at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. March 6. Accessed 10 April 2018.
  26. Schmitt, Ronald. 1992. “Deconstructive Comics.” The Journal of Popular Culture 25 (9): 153-162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Schulz, Gabby. 2016. Sick. New York: Secret Acres.Google Scholar
  28. Steinberg, E. 2014. Broken Eggs. Cleaver, Sept. 10. Accessed 5 January 2018.
  29. Waitzkin, Howard, and Ida Hellander. 2018. “Obama Care: The Neoliberal Model Comes Home to Roost in the United States – If We Let It.” In: Health Care under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Healthcare, edited by Howard Waitzkin, 99-118. New York: Monthly Review Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Humanities and Social SciencesNational Institute of Technology (NIT) TrichyTrichyIndia

Personalised recommendations