Graphic Diabetes: Comics of Life with Type 1 Diabetes

There is a rich tradition of comics that capture the nuances and complexities of life with diabetes.



In the last few decades, there has been an explosion of patient narratives within the public sphere. Not only are patient narratives topping best-seller lists (think, for instance, of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air or Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour), some medical schools are encouraging trainees to read these texts to better discern the experiences of their patients. A few, like Columbia University, are even encouraging medical students to write their own stories of being a patient.

More recently, healthcare professionals, advocates, and artists have turned attention toward the comics form specifically. There is a growing movement of “Graphic Medicine,” which advocates for the medium of comics in clinical and other therapeutic settings. Curious about the potential of this movement for diabetes care, I did a little research. And it turns out there are many works of “Graphic Diabetes,” some dating back to the 1920s. Here’s a quick survey of comics about T1D life. This list is not comprehensive, but it will give you a sense of the innovative ways in which individuals within the community are using the word-image form to narrate the nuances of life with diabetes.

Guy Rainsford’s Comics at the Joslin Diabetes Center

Guy Rainsford was one of the first patients to receive insulin in the early  twentieth century. He was an unmarried travelling salesman from Maine, who  sent postcard depictions of T1D life to his world-famous physician, Dr. Elliott Joslin. Rainsford created humorous caricatures of his daily struggles—for instance, managing diabetes by himself on the road. One of his postcards shows  the salesman sound asleep in a hotel bedroom. There is a placard on the wall with instructions on how to escape in case of fire. Near to this sign is a handwritten note, which says, “If I look as if I am dying or in a coma, please call Dr. Joslin…” There are other notes throughout that establish the impossible situation. (In case of both an external and diabetes emergency, this T1D is SOL.) Rainsford cleverly used visual details to convey to Dr. Joslin the irony and complications of life with diabetes.

 

Nomi Kane, author of Sugar Baby and “My Life with a Pre-Existing Condition”

Nomi Kane is the author of Sugar Baby, a short graphic memoir about her  childhood after a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis. This book presents poignant and  amusing snapshots of Kane’s adolescence, when she knew no other individuals with the same disease. In one comic, Cartoon Nomi visits a friend’s house, where she is offered a soda. When she asks for a “Diet Coke” due to her diabetes, her friend expresses bewilderment, as her only frame of reference for diabetes is a grandparent (presumed to have Type 2). In another scene, Nomi is depicted injecting insulin at a restaurant, while two female characters hurry out the door, commenting that “this place has really gone downhill.” More recently, Kane authored an online comic about the consequences of repealing the Affordable Care Act. It is titled “My Life with a Pre-existing Condition” and subtitled “Our bodies are ticking time bombs, and Trumpcare could be the detonator.” (You can read that piece here.) This piece demonstrates comics’ expository strength–their ability to explain and inform while simultaneously engaging the reader. The reader is compelled to read actively by noticing details, contradictions, and other meanings in the spaces between.

Ann M. Martin and Raina Tegemeier’s The Truth About Stacey and The Summer Before

In 2015, the illustrator Raina Tegemeier created a graphic version of Ann M. Martin’s The Truth About Stacey, which is one of the first books in Martin’s bestselling Babysitter’s Club Series. The book sticks to the original plot, telling the story of Stacey McGill’s struggles to cope with Type 1 diabetes. One of the character’s primary narrative conflicts involves her parents’ sending her to a quack doctor in New York. This graphic version demonstrates comics’ capacity to show contradiction. Often, there is tension between written text and visual images. For instance, Stacey may be saying one thing, while her body language says something else entirely. There may also be tension between captions and dialogue or between one panel and the next. Tegemeier also produced a graphic version of The Summer Before, another volume in The Babysitter’s Club series.

Kim Viasnik, founder of “Texting My Pancreas”

Kim Viasnik founded the blog “Texting My Pancreas,” which includes written posts and cartoons about her life with Type 1 diabetes. One of these features a cartoon Kim with the headline, “Let’s do all of the things!” But the next frame shows an exhausted Kim, surrounding by text commands like, “Donate! Donate! Donate!” “Sign my petition,” “Share this video,” and “Call your congressman.” No doubt, many in the community can relate, as there is increased pressure to advocate for the cause on top of managing the disease. Viasnik informed Insulin Nation that she is no longer actively drawing. Still, you can see more of her work here.

Diabetes Mine’s “Sunday Funnies” 

Diabetes Mine regularly features cartoons in its “Sunday Funnies” section. Some of these cartoons resemble New Yorker-style cartoons—a single scene with a caption and/or speech bubbles that make brief, satirical points about life with diabetes. Others are more meme-style, with a caption overlaying an image. The best part about this series? In addition to featuring the work of DMine regulars like Jerry King, Jon Carter (see example), and Brad Slaight, “Sunday Funnies” also showcases artists and individuals from across the community. You can check out the series here.

Many thanks to the Joslin Diabetes Center for permission to reprint images.

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Audrey Farley is a D-mom and the Editor of Insulin Nation. Before joining IN, she taught literature and composition at University of Maryland, College Park, where she earned a PhD in English. She is currently working on a historical novel about one of the first patients to receive insulin shortly after its discovery in 1921. You can follow her on Twitter @AudreyCFarley.