Type 1: Origins is a freely available (here), digital comic from publisher Revolve Comics – and is exactly the type of comic I have been hoping to see come out of the graphic medicine movement. It combines the relatable, everyman quality of a high-school age teenage boy (think early Spider-Man) with the overwhelming turmoil of a life-altering diagnosis in a way that makes you long for more once you’ve reached the end. (Here’s hoping this is just the beginning for this tale, seriously!)
Creators Dr. Partha Kar and Dr. Mayank Patel* smartly begin with a narrative explaining how the comic came about and why they felt the medium, and the superhero genre in particular, are a perfect way to explore the onset of type 1 diabetes. The short of it is summed up perfectly, I think, by the comparison to the Incredible Hulk – a character who learns to live with his new reality (diabetes in this case) while never giving up hope for a cure. Using the well-established tropes and appeal of superhero narratives allows the creators to breathe life into a difficult, and often mind-numbingly complex, topic in a way that only comics can allow.
The references to the world of superhero comics don’t end with the introductory narrative – Type 1 is full of regular talk of both Marvel and DC superheroes, my favorite being the creation of H.E.A.L.E.D. (Health Eating and Living Education for Diabetes), an on-the-nose homage to Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.. The complete immersion into comics culture is achieved by making Gary, Type 1’s protagonist, a relative outsider and fan of all things comic and “nerd” culture, to the point that he visualizes his disease as transforming into a Hulk-like rage monster and frames his discussions with his doctor in terms of the X-Men. For a huge comic fan, this immersion was both amusing and helpful in understanding Gary’s turmoil, but I do fear that it may have been too much at times for those who may be unfamiliar with all of the characters referenced.
Perhaps the most valuable thing Type 1 brings to the table is the openness with which the artist illustrates Gary’s experience with his insulin. I cannot recall ever seeing a mainstream comic panel that included a character injecting themselves with a legitimate medicine – there are plenty of instances of power-up drugs, such as Hourman’s Miraclo or Mutant Growth Hormone (MGH) – but if real medicine is ever injected, it is rare indeed. The very next page illustrates why this representation is important, as Gary is mocked and berated by his schoolmates for “shooting up”. The more well-represented and understood the need for insulin is, the less real-life individuals will have to suffer mocking and insensitivity by ill-informed peers.
Another key element to Gary’s progress with his new normal is his growing understanding that he isn’t alone and that it is always okay to ask for help. You see this understanding grow and mature from the moment of his diagnosis (receiving aid from a doctor), to his parents helping him with shots, and to looking for a community online (a fantastic chat filled with other comic-obsessed type 1’ers). This comes to full fruition when, after a night wrought with health mistakes, Gary is introduced to a face-to-face support group that includes teachers and friends who he never even realized were diabetic. This not only showed the value of support, but reminds the reader that diabetes, when well-managed, is often invisible to the naked eye. (For more on invisible illness, see here.)
I won’t say any more about the comic plot – to do so would be to ruin it – but I want to end where the the book does: with a list of further resources. This is why I said at the start that Type 1 is exactly what I want to see out of graphic medicine, because not only is it an engaging, well-conceived comic: it is also a valuable health resource in the traditional sense. First, you are introduced to the disease – Type 1 diabetes – and are provided with a narrative that will engage your empathetic mind, giving you a reason to care about Gary and what is happening to him. Then, once you are “in”, the creators provide you with a guide on where to find more information. This could be help finding a support group in your area (in this case, the United Kingdom) or it could be suggestions for finding evidence-based medical advice. Type 1’s “Further Advice and Help” page does a great job of providing resources that both parents and young-adults would find acceptable, from organizational websites to Facebook groups just for people with diabetes – an important mix that is often difficult to achieve. Be sure to visit the T1 Resources website referenced in the comic for even more helpful information.
Short of it: I highly recommend giving this a chance and I hope to see more, both of Type 1 and similar comics for other conditions!
*Full credits, as taken from the comic, also belong to: Joe Griffiths, Andy Broomhead, Danny McLaughlin, Laura Cleverly, and Jen Blackwell, with special acknowledgements for Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust and University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.