Visualizing Social Change: The Power of Graphic Arts

Originally published at Feminist Reflections on The Society Pages.


Graphic arts engage readers in a way text cannot. Told with sequences of pictures, along with narration and dialogue (often in the form of speech bubbles), graphic arts have become increasingly popular media for education and communication as well as social commentary. From disaster preparedness to questioning high-tech medical advancements, comics and other forms of graphic art are effective in sharing information and insight. For some, they are a more accessible format as they encourage readers to develop critical thinking, cultural literacy, and a motivation to engage in individual and social change.

Communication and Education

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a free downloadable comic book, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic, as a way to help prepare the public for general emergencies.

http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies_novella.htm

http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies_novella.htm

zombie SlideThe 40-page graphic novella tells the story of a young couple and their dog during an escalating zombie apocalypse who manage to stay safe with the help of the CDC’s disaster preparedness instructions. The vivid images focus the reader’s attention, and the story line is clear and compelling.

As the impending disaster approaches the characters receive frightening information from official channels. Julie hears a voice on the radio:

“Stay in your homes. Do not go outside. If you or your family begin showing symptoms such as slowed movement, slurred speech, or violent behaviors, quarantine them to a secure area of the house. Stay tuned for more information on where to go…Stay in your…”

The images and text are geared toward a range of literacy levels and cognitive abilities and together promote recognition and recall. Yes, we’ll stay right here and wait for instructions! The graphic tale conveys this specific information as it creates an emotional connection with readers to motivate behavior.

The CDC’s story is likely to be nonthreatening to most people (unless they believe in zombies), thereby encouraging open-mindedness toward the message. Man scratches chin and says:

“I’ve been thinking…we should really make an emergency kit in case something happened. What if we were stuck in the house or had to evacuate? We need to have a plan!”… “Ok, but I’m serious…I think we need to make an emergency kit.”

“I hear ya!”
Message sent, and received. People learn in different ways and for some, visualizing a message is more compelling than seeing words on a page.

Comics for Social Commentary

In a culture bombarded by images, we are increasingly conditioned to learn through visual entertainment. Graphic arts take the form of this “entertainment” to inform and engage, and to incite action. “Notification! You’ve Got Cancer” is a comic strip by Adam Bessie and Josh Neufeld that provokes critical inquiry into an important social issue, the rise in medical technology and biomedical surveillance.

The short comic strip suggests that advances in high-tech cancer detection might get so invasive that someone could potentially receive a text message about some new diagnosis via smart device. The narrative does not go into detail about the practical or emotional implications of such advancements. It merely suggests that biomedical surveillance has become so increasingly routine, with patents on new technologies emerging at record speed, that the technology of cancer detection is likely here to stay whether we’re prepared for it or not.

Bessie-You've Got cancer


Adam received his brain cancer diagnosis from a doctor. Imagine getting news of your cancer diagnosis on your watch while shopping for fruit! This take on technology’s reach is not far fetched. The comic strip makes mention of recent developments such as GOOGLE’s newly patented cancer detecting pill and the iT bra that supposedly detects breast cancer using a smart phone and cloud-based analysis.

A flippant sequence featuring the author moves the reader’s attention beyond the shock of impersonal, inopportune diagnosis toward another serious flaw: personalized detection technology outpaces successful treatment.

Bessie2-You've Got cancer


In pointing out this problem, Notification! raises a crucial question about the technological imperative, or the inevitability and necessity of new technologies. Namely, is it necessarily for the greater good?

The authors suggest that there may be little to gain in live-streaming one’s tumor and waiting to be saved. What’s more, the matter illuminates the uncertainty that inherently exists in technology and biomedicine.

Biomedical uncertainty refers to the ways in which knowledge is limited about how to prevent, diagnose, and treat a varied range of diseases and conditions. This shouldn’t be news. Talcott Parsons argued in 1951 in The Social System that the incessant advancement of science and medicine increases biomedical uncertainty as doctors rely more fully on scientific advancements and specialized technology to consult with patients and construct diagnostic and treatment protocols. Yet technological advancements march along while indeterminate diagnostics, controversial medical evidence, and ambiguous treatment outcomes are often a stark and surprising reality for the diagnosed.

As the biomedical enterprise colonizes greater expanses of health and illness domains, it must move ethical and practical considerations such as those discussed in this comic strip to the heart of its research and development. Otherwise Adam’s future stressed out descendants might find themselves live-streaming their tumors on their fit bits while recording their gradual demise on their Snapchat Spectacles.

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* GAYLE IN THE MEDIA *

"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause iafrica.com

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today

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