Julinda Morrow Interviews Dr. Ian Williams
I bumped into Dr. Ian Williams (a.k.a. Thom Ferrier) on the last day of the 2012 Toronto Comic Art Festival. We fell into a conversation in the short course of which his genuine humility and delicious sense of humour were already evident.
One wonders how Ian manages to balance his roles as a dedicated medical practitioner, writer and comics artist – not to mention his passions for painting, printmaking, cycling and mountaineering. Ian has also created a website, GraphicMedicine.org, that very thoughtfully and creatively explores relationships between comics and health.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to introduce Ian Williams’ work and passions to a broader audience.
Julinda Morrow: You were interested in art before you became a doctor. What schooling or training in art did you receive? What led you to comics and sequential art, as opposed to other artistic media or idioms?
Ian Williams: I was always “into” art. I won prizes at school for art. My art teacher wanted me to go to art school but I was headstrong and idealistic and set on becoming a doctor, as I saw it as a noble vocation, and a chance to “do good”, whereas I didn’t think much of the art students I had met. I also understood that medical students threw wild parties. Before medical school my only training was at school but after I qualified, and after taking up painting seriously and starting to exhibit my self-taught art, I went part time to art school in Chester and took a postgraduate certificate in fine art. I was painting, but my tutors were a printmaker and a textile designer, both working in a minimalist style, and this changed my paintings considerably. I went to art school because I thought I needed some critical feedback. Self taught artists don’t know what they don’t know and sometimes lack the contextual framework in which to place their art. I had been working instinctively, developing a style but not really knowing what to say about my work.
Over many years I developed a side career as a painter and printmaker, exhibiting widely and selling my work through a number of galleries. I was working part time in medicine and although this was a comfortable arrangement I felt rather split. Medicine was important to me and making art was more than just a hobby, but I had no language to link the two, so I undertook an MA in Medical Humanities: a discipline that examines medicine and healthcare using the conceptual tools of the arts and humanities. I thought I would end up writing a dissertation about medical art but I actually found the confluence of my two careers lay in graphic novels and comics with medical themes, so I wrote about illness narrative in comics and, as I was generating lots of notes, I put them online as the website GraphicMedicine.org, coining the phrase to refer to the interaction between comics and medicine.
JM: Do you find it particularly challenging, emotionally or practically, to balance the demands of being a doctor with the needs of a graphic novelist and with your interests in craft and website building?
IW: For the last few years I have given preference to comics. I took eighteen months off medicine, leaving my former job as a general practitioner. I now work part time in [the field of] sexual health to pay the bills although, actually, I have found that I like my new adoptive specialty and am enjoying working in the clinic. It’s a lot less demanding than general practice, which is an exceedingly difficult and draining – if high paying – job. So at the moment I have a fairly good balance. Making comics takes a lot of time and it would be very hard to do anything substantial while holding down a full time post in medicine, but a doctor’s job involves listening to a lot of stories and medical practice is full of wonderful material. It is a great privilege to have people tell you their life stories and most intimate secrets. Of course it can also be distressing, frustrating or downright boring, but I need contact with people to feed my imagination, and medicine provides very direct contact.
JM: Please tell our readers a little about how the discipline of medical humanities has helped you in your efforts to incorporate sequential art into your practice of medicine.
IW: Medical Humanities is both a field of study and a movement for change. It is populated by scholars from diverse backgrounds: from literature, history, geography, psychology, cultural studies, fine art and music as well as from medicine, nursing and other healthcare specialities. The main goal, as I see it, is an intellectual and critical one, namely, to comment on the discourse of medicine from the outside; apply the theoretical frameworks of other disciplines to work out what it is that medicine, in its broadest sense, does. For instance, if you want to know about the work of hospital porters, you could use an ethnographic approach to study their role as a participant observer, which would reveal very different data from simply asking the head of portering services what they do and receiving some sort of job description or performance statistics. Medical Humanities tends to use qualitative – rather than quantitative – research methods and there is something of a critical atmosphere within the discipline; a need to counterbalance the reductive processes of biomedicine, and challenge the practices of the medico-industrial complex. It is not, in my view, about “humanizing” healthcare workers, and it is not about educating doctors or sticking art on the walls of hospitals to make patients feel better, although there is certainly a role for interesting hospital art and the exploration of way that art is influenced by, and can influence, healthcare.
Medical Humanities has completely changed the way I think about medicine, opening my eyes to its many faults and limitations, broadening my mind to other ways of thinking. This, I hope, has made me a more rounded person and a more perceptive doctor, although I cannot be certain about the latter. It has made me question quite a lot of medical practice and the systems thought up by well meaning but blinkered functionaries, and to rage against the systems implemented by cynical administrators, who try to apply an industrial management model to the care of human beings.
JM: You’ve published rather extensively on the topic of “graphic medicine” and on the relationship, broadly speaking, between comics and medicine. Please tell our readers a little about that relationship; for instance, what part do comics play in the healing process?
IW: I have named the area where comics and medicine meet “graphic medicine”. I use this term to refer to the interaction of the medium of comics and the discourse of medicine in whatever form it might take. My personal interest is academic, rather than practical, in that I am fascinated by illness narratives, autobiography, and the way that comics artists portray themselves and their illness visually in comics. However, there are many aspects to this area that can be explored. The most obvious might be patient education; comics have served this purpose for many years, sometimes very effectively, sometimes pretty badly, and I think there is much potential to be explored in this area, although it is not my primary interest.
I am fascinated by the reasons that comics artists draw illness narratives. Naturally, the reasons for doing so will be multiple, and will include the growing popularity and sale-ability of the genre, but somewhere in there is often found a hope of catharsis, of achieving healing in laying out one’s story as a comic. This process has been referred to as “auto-therapy”, a form of self-help or creative healing. Some suggest that telling one’s illness story actually restructures the memory of the illness, or transforms it from free-floating testimony into a coherent narrative. Some artists who have aimed for catharsis have found the process brought further complications and some artists who had no expectation of healing have found that it brought unexpected benefits.
JM: How do you approach your creative process? How many hours a day do spend in development and process? What tools and supplies do you favour?
IW: That is very much dependent on what I have on at any one time. I have a lot of plates spinning, and I don’t make comics all the time – I am often working on the website, writing papers and presentations, preparing teaching material or doing some editing. Once I start on comics work, however, I can’t leave it alone and will work late into the night. I can’t switch off once I have an idea. I generally draw with India ink on Bristol board, using a dip pen or brush. I then scan in the drawing and color the page digitally in Photoshop. I use a Wacom tablet and I sometimes draw digitally. I am also increasingly using ink washes rather than digital colour. If I am scanning black-and-white line work I pencil in blue so I don’t have to erase it before scanning.
JM: Do you think of your art as an “autograph” of sorts and – to take the question further in the direction of your professional interests – as autotherapy?
IW: Well, it is often very personal but the character I inhabit in the loosely autobiographical strips and the authorial voice I use in the narration is only one aspect of me. He tends to be very cynical, nihilistic, and melancholic. I have all those traits but I am also caring, soppy, sentimental, warm-hearted, and happy. It’s just that those traits don’t make the kind of comics I like.
JM: Do you feel that your native region North Wales has had a part in shaping your style and your artistic vision? Would you say that an artist’s home – or where you grew up – is typically reflected in their creative work?
IW: I didn’t actually grow up here, and wasn’t born here, so while North Wales shapes some of the work – with respect to rural general practice – there are aspects of this region that do not play a part in the comics. For instance: where I live is a bilingual region in which fifty percent of the population speak Welsh as a first language, yet that plays little part in the strips, save for the punning place names I give locations, which are generally in Welsh and mean silly things when translated into English; these are just jokes to amuse myself: English speakers wont understand and Welsh speakers won’t bother to translate. I actually grew up in the North of England, in Yorkshire, a very different landscape – coal mining and heavy industry (although we actually lived in a pleasant, leafy village) and I’m sure this does influence me, yes, although I can’t say how it influences my style, which is probably influenced by other comics.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for an artist to have? Are there qualities that doctors and artists notably share?
IW: This is an interesting question and I have strong views about this. Doctors tend to be high achievers and often nurture talents alongside their professional work in medicine, but very few of them are willing to sacrifice money or status to pursue those other skills. Doctors tend to expect money, status and a high standard of living. They expect to be respected too, and these expectations will trap most of them in amateurism and dilettantism when it comes to pursuits outside of medicine. [I say that] because I think that to make art properly, one needs a great deal of time. One also needs to put the art before anything else and be prepared to make sacrifices for it, to work for long periods without recognition or financial gain. Money is the biggest sacrifice, because there is very little money in art, whichever discipline you choose. You also have to put up with a load of people saying what a shame it is you gave up your medical job. I gave up a highly paid professional practice to make comics – a ridiculous move really, a form of financial suicide. I now work a day and a half a week in medicine to help pay the bills, but mostly I am writing and drawing. I don’t know many doctors who would do that. I may be deluded, but I feel it is the right path for me. On the other hand, artists, are – on the whole – pretty much used to living in relative poverty. They do other jobs to make ends meet. I am fortunate in that my “other job” is interesting and relatively well paid. It certainly beats stacking shelves.
So to answer your question more directly: I’d say that both doctors and artists need resilience and determination, but artists need more than doctors, who tend to be cushioned by the structures around them. Artists are often working alone, in obscurity, on projects whose value they doubt. Doctors and artists both need to be able to handle uncertainty (and I feel much more comfortable with uncertainty than with certainty). For doctors this usually means uncertainty of diagnosis or prognosis, and this is usually with respect to someone else’s fate – the patient; it may cause anxiety in the doctor, but it is usually someone else who is going to bear the brunt of the suffering. For artists the uncertainty is to do with the value of their work, their own worth as artists, their career, success and how they are going to make a living. The artist’s life is filled with uncertainty, and this is true, I should imagine, even for successful, decently paid ones – they never know when that income is going to suddenly close down.
Bloody hell! That was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it? Sorry.
JM: What professional experience would you, as an artist, say is among your most valuable?
IW: Repeated rejection. It happens to all artists. Rejection is part of an artist’s life and, personally, it tends to spur me on to try harder and do better, partly through being riled, but it is hard.
JM: You’ve mentioned that you’re less inclined to read superhero comics than what Douglas Wolk has called “art comics”. Are there artists working in that idiom in particular that have influenced your work as a graphic artist? Are there artists in other genres – or other media – because you play guitar, music comes to mind – that influence or inspire you?
IW: John Porcellino talks about the DIY punk ethic – of getting your stuff out yourself, without relying on others, and irrespective of perceived skill levels; I wholeheartedly identify with this idea. Comics that are not made to make money are exciting and personal and untouched by the hand of a professional editor. I like indie and “alternative” stuff in all media – in film, music, magazines etc. That is what I am drawn to. I don’t like overly polished material, or big money productions, or things that pander to popular appeal. I don’t actually know the names of many superhero comic artists, so I can’t tell you which ones might influence me, other than the Marvel originals. I think film and music influence my sensibilities – I am a big fan of David Lynch, and I’m into surrealism, magic realism and anything bizarre and uncanny.
JM: Are you currently working on a project you’d like to tell our readers about? What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
IW: Yes, I’m working on a graphic novel that will be published by Myriad Editions in early 2014. The working title is Scrupulosity and it is about Iwan James, a GP in a small rural market town. It is a book with three strands: a present day “tales from the surgery” sequence of vignettes, a strand about cycling and an apparent memoir.
Iwan, like many of my characters, is a bit of a melancholic and seems incapable of separating the beautiful countryside surrounding him from the pathologies of the people who populate it. His dismay at the sufferings of his patients is further confounded by unrequited longing for his colleague, the enigmatic, and currently single, Dr Lois Pritchard, and by the divisive tactics of their partner, Dr Robert Smith, who will use any means to make Iwan look bad in her presence.
Iwan’s only relief from the pains of practice and patients are the cycling trips he makes with friend and mentor Arthur. The cycling serves as a bit of a metaphor: the rotation of the wheels and drive chain echo his circular thought processes, and it becomes clear that Iwan is also troubled by his own history of neurosis.
Although Iwan has largely overcome his illness, using his experience to empathise with and understand those of his patients, his recovery is put in question when he begins to treat an elderly patient whose life has been blighted by similar mental health problems.
I have most of it plotted out in storyboard form and am at the editing stage. I’m going to start drawing it properly once the editing is complete. The drawing will take me about a year.