‘From now on everything is just going to get worse’ by Rikke Platz Cortsen

30 Sep

‘From now on everything is just going to get worse’ [1]

This is the message that the unsuspecting infant receives from its caretaker right at the threshold of life in Sara Granér’s one panel drawing from the book Det är bara lite AIDS [It is only a little bit of AIDS]. The book is a collection of mostly one panel gags which use a combination of expressive line, vivid colours and absurdist dialogue to point to the problematic relationship subjects often share with authorities, society and each other. As the title suggests it offers surprising statements concerning illness and uses these to circumvent the idea of the hospital as a place of care and comfort. Usually, the birth of a child is an event of joy and celebration, and it is assumed that the child has a long and hopefully healthy life ahead of it. But the depressing forecast from the nurse deflates this happy note and underlines the potentially distorted power balance in any discourse between doctor and patient. From the moment we enter society at birth, what the authority says holds the potential to determine our fate indiscriminately; we are born into the power structures inherent in our society.

The patient/doctor relationship is established throughout Granér’s work as an unequal one because the patient is in need of help and has to rely on the doctor’s good intention of giving it, and there are several roads the reader can travel to better grasp this situation. One of them is through a conceptualizing of the spatial frame in which the situation plays out, as when Michel Foucault talks about ‘other spaces’ in his essay of the same name. When Foucault speaks of ‘heterotopias of deviance’, he explicitly mentions psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes and cemeteries, but even a regular hospital can be seen as a place where ‘individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed’.[2] The hospital is at least temporarily a place where the people who are deviating from the healthy norm go to get fixed, so they can hopefully reenter the norm again in the surrounding space.

A further characteristic of this heterotopia is its complicated system of opening and closing, which makes it not freely accessible, but still lets people in, ‘(…) we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded’.[3] As a heterotopia, the hospital is accessible, but you only enter if there is something ‘wrong’ with you, if your body or mind is deviating from the healthy norm, or alternately, if you are visiting someone. In the latter case, you are only in this space for a short time and can return to society unscathed, as you are only deviant by association.

In Sara Granér’s version, the heterotopia of deviance is clearly delineated and fenced off from the rest of society by the thick, black frame around the cartoon. The space is painted in the sickly, stereotypical green and grey of public institutions and everywhere the individual is caught in the grid of the sterile tiles, which can easily be hosed down to erase any trace of the messy illness that the patients carry. When a patient wearing nothing but underwear receives the troubling message: ‘Oh, it is not that dangerous, it is only a little bit of AIDS’ [4] from a doctor who is smiling manically, the complex pattern of the signature tiles are towering above him, covering the whole frame and adding to the coldness of the space and the message. The tartan tile system emphasizes the subjective feeling of being subdued and overpowered by the enormous consequences of the doctor’s comment for the individual, whose perspective is entirely overlooked in the way the doctor articulates the news. Here, illness is the norm, and the patient is trapped in the panel with the anxiety of having a sick body which the system doesn’t even recognize as problematic and hence not curable.

Granér’s tableaus are nightmare visions of a healthcare system populated by unfeeling monsters, who instead of representing rational medical science misuse their authority to commit verbal and actual assaults on people who are no longer in charge of their own life. Often it is a case of communication breakdown where the individual subjective experience does not align with the objectivity of the representatives for the system in power. Foucault says of the sites, he is interested in that they: ‘(…) have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, reflect. These spaces, as it were, which are linked with all the others, which however contradict all the other sites (…)’.[5] The internal power relations within the hospital arise through its subversion of the surrounding society. The hospital is part of society and has a function, but this is an extension of the normalizing state. The unequal power relation the patient enters is legitimized by the effort to make him or her normal again, so there is a chance of being reintegrated in society. No matter how absurdly the system might treat the individual, the heterotopia of the hospital is justified by its function as a space where deviance is segregated and hopefully normalized.

In two different cartoons Sara Granér explicitly addresses the disproportionate value and legitimacy attached to the statements given by doctors and patients respectively, both of which illuminate the difference between subjective experience and objective assessment involved in the discourse of power in the hospital. In the first of these, two doctors are examining a man who is missing his leg and bleeding heavily from the wound. ‘My spontaneous guess is of course that it is the leg, but it might as well be something psycho-somatic,’ [6] says the first doctor, unconvincingly. This situation highlights how the patient’s pain might be written off as unreal and imagined. However, the visual evidence helps undermine the doctor’s speech balloon and lets the reader wonder whether a professional who can be in doubt when it concerns a case this obvious might not also make ill judgments is cases where the truth is more subtle.

The validity of the patient’s experience and statements are also questioned by the authority in the second cartoon which depicts a patient on a stretcher with both legs cut off above the knee. ‘I AM IN SO MUCH PAIN, I am in so much pain,’ the patient screams, and the doctor estimates the case perfectly by determining the real truth: ‘Oh, that is just how it feels’.[7] The authority figure is always right, but this doesn’t lessen the pain for the individual. No matter how much the patient acknowledges the subjective character of the pain, it will still be actually present and hurt like hell. Either way, in both instances the doctor fails to understand the patient’s perspective in an eager attempt to make them less deviant. The doctor has trouble curing AIDS, but there is always the possibility of downplaying its importance, even if it is one of the diseases which carries with it the risk of exclusion from society.

In Granér’s hospital world, the characters are anthropomorphic yellow bears which add another emphatic point, when the cute teddy bear is submitted to the horrific statements of roaring doctors with bulging eyes and distorted gaping mouths. Granér’s cartoons depict the relationship between doctor and patient from the point of view of the patient, who feels alone, vulnerable and exposed, and who in the heterotopia of the hospital experiences a loss of power which enters the situation through discourse and the space in which it takes place. It is a space where doctors police the tile-covered rooms with charts and patient journals under their arms, their words being the law both written and spoken. Granér’s depiction of the healthcare professionals distinguishes them from the patients by their white coats and square little hats with a Red Cross logo, so their authority is visually established as well. The situations might be outrageous and grotesquely exaggerated, but as it often happens with humour, they are funny because there is an element of truth in them. Even if the situations themselves are constructed in a way that makes us laugh uncomfortably by overdoing the point, they convey the subjective feelings patients might experience in the meeting with the system. It is not just their illness which makes them deviant, it is the way the heterotopia of the hospital is structured which takes away the patient’s agency and places him or her firmly within a deviant space patrolled by health personnel but governed by an invisible power which in an attempt to control deviancy only enforces it.

Rikke Platz Cortsen is a PhD scholar at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Arts and Cultural Studies working on a thesis concerning time and in comics. She has written articles and presented papers on various aspects of comics, including Scandinavian artists and the works of Alan Moore. She is a founding member of the Nordic Network for Comics Research and on the editorial board of the forthcoming Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art.

[1] – Sara Granér: Det är bara lite AIDS. Sweden: Galago, p.8

[2] – Michel Foucault: ”Of Other Spaces” in Diacritics (trans. By. Jay Miskowiec), vol.16, no.1 (spring 1986), pp. 22-27: 25

[3] – Foucault, p.26

[4] – Granér, p.20

[5] – Foucault, p.24

[6] – Granér, p.9

[7] – Granér, p.104

Read more about medicine in comics in our Graphic Medicine column, accessible through the website archive.


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