Comic Epidemic: Cartoons, Caricatures and Graphic Novels

16 February 2018 - 17 February 2018

SG1 and SG2, Alison Richard Building

Registration for this conference is now closed. The conference's keynote lecture by Sara Kenney will be open to all, free of charge.  



Lukas Engelmann (University of Edinburgh)

Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)



The ushering in of the modern epidemiological age was marked not only by the invasion of Europe and America by cholera and other pathogens, but equally by a public commentary on epidemics through the use of caricatures and comic strips. Graphic figures of speech, visual condensations and sketched comparisons provide shortcuts to the 'hardened political metaphors' (Gombrich) at stake in epidemic crises. As such, this popular mode of communication, debate and critique, was soon taken up by epidemic deniers, health critics and by governments and international agencies in public health education campaigns. Since then the use of comics both by journalists, doctors and governments, has only proliferated becoming a key component of what Charles Briggs has recently called the contested field of biocommunicability. Most recently, the US Centers of Disease Control (CDC) launched a vast epidemic preparedness campaign using a two-volume graphic novel specially designed to familiarize the general public with the principles and responsibilities of epidemic control via the story of a zombie pandemic striking America.

Both allowing governments to reach broad and diverse audiences, and critics of governmental policies to effectively undermine dominant outbreak narratives, comics are perhaps the most democratic and creative mode of fixing and destabilising truth as regards epidemic crises like SARS, Ebola or Zika in the twenty-first century. At the same time 'comic epidemics' have risen to be a popular theme in the realm of graphic novels proper, with works like The Walking Dead or the Argentinean best-seller Dengue dwelling upon the graphic narration of imaginary outbreaks to communicate commentaries on social collapse, survival ethics and the human condition at large.

Though often illustrating historical or anthropological works of epidemic disease, the comic figuration of epidemics has remained an analytically unexamined area. 


Keynote speaker: Sara Kenney (Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow / Wowbagger Productions; Surgeon X comic book series)




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), and the University of Edinburgh.


Administrative assistance:


Unfortunately, we are unable to arrange or book accommodation for registrants. The following websites may be of help:

Day 1 - Friday 16 February

10.00 - 10.30


10.30 - 11.00

Welcome and Introduction

11.00 - 12.30

Panel 1 - Heroes, Villains and Viruses

Discussant: Nicholas Evans (London School of Economics)


Predrag Duric (Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh)

'"Doctor Justice" as an example of epidemic response in comics'


Adam F. Kola (Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland)

'Imagining Typhus: Two Modalities'

12.30 - 13.30


13.30 - 15.00

Panel 2  -  Emotional Inkscapes

Discussant: Abhijit Sarkar (University of St Andrews)


Jacob Steere Williams (College of Charleston)

'Moral Panics, Monarchy, and Victorian Popular Media'


Anna Manicka (National Museum in Warsaw)

'Everything you always wanted to know about the war today'

15.00 - 15.30


15.30 - 17.00

Panel 3 -  Drawing and Shaping Disease

Discussant: Branwyn Poleykett (University of Cambridge)


Cristina Moreno Lozano (Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain)

'Superbugs, superheroes, and antimicrobial resistance: Enduring warfare metaphors in comic form'


Luana Casseli & Luca Laboli (

'Doctor G: a graphic medicine project promoting statistical literacy to contrast the epidemic of overdiagnosis and overtreatment'

17.00 - 17.30


17.30 - 18.30



Sara Kenney (Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow / Wowbagger Productions; Surgeon X comic book series)

'Surgeon X: Scientific problems are never just a problem for science'

Day 2 - Saturday 17 February

9.30 - 11.00

Panel 4 – Health Interventions

Discussant: Lukas Engelmann (University of Edinburgh)


Agnes Arnold-Forster (University of Roehampton)

'The "Cancer Epidemic" in Motion: Educational Animations in Anglo-American Culture'


Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)

'Visual Synergy: Comics, Photography and Ratproofing in the USA'

11.00 - 11.30


11.30 - 13.30

Panel 5 - Pathogenic Worlds

Discussant: Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)


Sylva Reznik (University of St Andrews)

'Metaphors in the Czech cartoon Mor (Plague)'


Maurits Weerwijk (University of St Andrews)

'Vector and Virus: The Comic Representation of Dengue'


Tim Pilcher (writer/editor,

'The Personification and Vilification of Disease in Graphic Narratives'

13.30 - 14.30


14.30 - 15.30

Final Discussion

Agnes Arnold-Forster (University of Roehampton)

‘The “Cancer Epidemic” in Motion: Educational Animations in Anglo-American Culture’

The human-shaped human cells in the 1946 animation, The Traitor Within, sway their hips in harmony, passing buckets of blood from worker to worker. Cell deaths are easily dealt with, and their labour works in harmony – keeping the body-industry moving to the beat. Until one cell goes rogue, transforms into a malignant ‘traitor’, multiplies, steals blood buckets, and sets off in boats on lymph rivers to distant organ-factories. Cartoons like this one – made by the American Society for the Control of Cancer (later the American Cancer Society) – have been subjected to some historical attention, particularly in the work of David Cantor who has explored their institutional context and development, the narrative structure of these film, and contemporaneous anxieties about their efficacy (Cantor, 2007; 2008; 2009). In contrast, however, British cancer education films remain under-examined.

This paper will, therefore, draw comparisons between British and American animated cancer education films from the 1920s to the 1960s to explore their variant moral, emotional, and metaphorical repertoires. Assessing the two side by side can tell us much about what is and is not shared by the visual and medical cultures of the two nations. This paper will argue that in both Britain and the United States, animations abstracted cancer, stripping the disease of its visceral nature and its attendant pain and suffering. The films owe much to a nineteenth-century medical and cultural landscape – yet also marked the development of a new epoch in the disease’s history. Both, too, emphasised cancer’s agency and moral malevolence – situating the malady and its opponents within an industrial and imperial setting. However, while American animations emphasised prevention – constructing gendered ideals of individual responsibility and emotional labour; British films portrayed a sophisticated landscape of therapy and research, focusing on treatment and drawing their audiences into a variety of settings including the laboratory, the hospital ward, and the operating theatre.


Luana Casselli & Luca Laboli (

Doctor G: a graphic medicine project promoting statistical literacy to contrast the epidemic of overdiagnosis and overtreatment’

Overdiagnosis is the diagnosis of 'disease' that will never cause symptoms or death during a patient's lifetime. There’s growing scientific evidence suggesting many people are overdiagnosed across a lot of different conditions, including asthma, breast cancer and high blood pressure. When healthy people attend screening programs or receive tests during check-ups, they can be diagnosed and subsequently treated for the early form of a disease which would never in fact have harmed them. Another way in which overdiagnosis can happen is when the definitions of diseases are broadened so much that people with very mild problems, or people at very low risk of future illness, are classified as being sick.

How to deal with the epidemic of overdiagnosis? Efficient health care requires informed people; however, many doctors and most patients fail to understand the available medical evidence due to statistical illiteracy, that is the inability to catch risks and probabilities. Hence, promoting health literacy is crucial to reduce the number of unnecessary or even potentially harmful tests and treatments. How to communicate numbers, probabilities and odds in a simple and efficient way?

Comics represent a popular way to communicate, characterized by a synthetic style which catch people's interest and imagination. Moreover, comics increase learning as information is supported by a combination of text and images typically referring to a shared social context. This latter aspect is crucial to lower people's defensive attitude against complex topics.

We recently published a book entitled Doctor G, a 132 pages graphic novel containing 5 health statistics episodes intermingled with 3 forensic statistics episodes. The story deals with the importance of being informed while making decisions and gives many examples of how numbers can be misleading. Inspired by real medical events and people in the field of medicine, the book aims at imparting to readers the message that medicine is not an exact science and may cause overdiagnosis and overtreatments.

The goal of our project is twofold. On one hand, helping health professionals fully understand risks and benefits of any treatment. On the other hand, giving patients the concepts to develop a critical point of view useful for asking the right questions and making informed decisions.

Statistical thinking is not for few chosen people, but rather a tool for everyone. We believe that comics can help people better understand this point and that effective risk communication can reduce overdiagnosis, improving the quality of health care.


Predrag Duric (Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh)

‘“Doctor Justice” as an example of epidemic response in comics’

‘Doctor Justice’ is a comic developed by Jean Ollivier and Carlo Marcello in 1970. During the next 24 years 155 episodes were published in France (in PIF magazine, with several hundred thousand readers, in the magazine ‘Dr. Justice’ and in comic albums), but also in Germany, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and probably in some other countries. It became one of the most popular comics of that time. A same-name movie was recorded in France in 1975.

The leading character of the comics is Dr. Benjamin Justice, a doctor who works for the World Health Organisation (WHO). His role is described at the beginning of each episode: “My name is Justice. Doctor Benjamin Justice. I am a doctor attached to WHO. Somehow a flying doctor, subscriber of international flights”.

In each episode, we follow Dr. Justice in a field mission, like fighting epidemics (e.g. malaria in Oman, yellow fever in Indonesia, cholera in the Philippines, smallpox in Colombia and pandemic influenza in Europe), participates in international conferences or provides technical or financial support to health systems all over the world. However, during the missions Dr. Justice is a witness of health inequities, human trafficking, orphanages, smuggling of medicines, corruption or unethical behaviour of pharmaceutic companies and governments.

While comics and graphic novels have been recently used in patient care, health education and the social critique of medical profession, 'Doctor Justice’ is one of the rare examples of using an adventure comics to promote the role of the WHO in global health governance and presenting outbreak response in different settings. The particular value of ‘Doctor Justice’ is the fact that a didactical approach to describe epidemic control is avoided. The comics rather emphasises social and other contextual factors that prevent an effective epidemic response.  Epidemics are usually only a background for adventures. This approach makes the comics very attractive for a broad audience. However, this approach does not use epidemic response just as décor: readers can understand the importance of vaccination during outbreaks, clinical case management (e.g. building cholera treatment centres), social mobilisation and behavioural change.


Adam Kola (Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland)

‘Imagining Typhus: Two Modalities’

The paper aims to present two modalities present in representations of the typhus epidemic in the first half of the twentieth century. On the one hand, we have images of the epidemic and illness used for political purposes, which played a special role in interwar European anti-Semitic policies, including in Poland. Lice, typhus, and Jews are juxtaposed in political cartoons, propaganda posters, pamphlets, and in discursive representations. On the other hand, the interwar period saw increasing advances in the fight against typhus around the world. One of the heroes of this global struggle was the inventor of the anti-typhus vaccine, Rudolf Weigl from Lwow. Many times cited as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, honoured with countless distinctions (in Belgium, Serbia, etc.), he was also a public figure in interwar Poland. Scientific or popular science articles and press reports on the fight against typhus were illustrated with documentary material presenting Weigl’s work. Thus, parallel to political pamphlets targeting the Jewish community and associating it with typhus, there was a story about the practical aspects of combating the disease, epidemic, etc. At the forefront of this story were photographs from the laboratory, diagrams concerning the technical side of producing the vaccine, etc. It is interesting that these contradictory representations did not contribute to a type of collective dissonance, nor were they even critically analysed by intellectuals, doctors, politicians, etc. In this sense, we can talk about two modes or modalities of visual representation and two ways in which these representations of typhus functioned in the social sphere, responding to different needs. These modalities also reflect different social emotions behind the fear of the disease and the epidemic. On the one hand, this fear was translated into a search for a scapegoat that could be blamed for a community’s misfortunes. On the other hand, we see a fascination with modernity in the medical procedures and discoveries, making Weigl into a quasi-mythical hero (as he appears in inter-war cartoons) who brings hopes of conquering the disease. The aim of the paper will be to explore the architecture and conceptual grammar of typhus representations in both of these modalities.


Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)

'Visual Synergy: Comics, Photography and Ratproofing in the USA'

This paper examines the image of the rat as developed in Rat-Borne Disease: Prevention and Control published in February 1949 by the Federal Security Agency's Communicable disease Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. More than 300 pages long, this exhaustive manual was heavily illustrated by means of a wide range of visual means: photographs, diagrams, graphs, floor plans, maps, drawings, comic strips and caricatures. The paper will discuss the aesthetic and epistemological interaction between photographic and cartoonish representations of the rat, showing how these are not simply complementary but lead up to a visual hybrid at the heart of the manual's visual strategy.


Anna Manicka (National Museum in Warsaw)

‘Everything you always wanted to know about the war today’

Bronisław Linke (1906-1962), Polish painter and cartoonist was famous of his metaphors and methonimies, which defined his art during his whole life. During the cold war in Europe he was working for the newspapers discussing the problem of biological weapons, i.e. micro-organisms or toxins derived from living organisms, which could be used to kill the whole communities. Linke’s drawings with the personifications of the bacteria and viruses are the part of his cycle Atom (devoted mostly to the nuclear mass destruction weapons). Their shapes were not only artist’s imagination, he was also inspired by the photos from the encyclopaedia. His drawings were more grotesque than educative and that’s why his commentators were so critical, they were sure, his portraits of the terrible bacteria were rather horrifying than warning, and the satire in this time on this side if the iron curtain was rather infantile and it had to warn a little bit, but not to make anyone terrified.


Maurits Meerwijk (University of St Andrews)

‘Vector and Virus: The Comic Representation of Dengue

The recently published graphic novel Dengue is set in near-future South America where "the skies are black and buzzing" with mosquitoes, winter won’t come, and lethal, rampant dengue fever has forced humans indoors – giving rise to scenes redolent of medieval plague. Beginning with the murder of a prominent dengue researcher, the plot thickens to reveal that survivors of sequential infection with dengue virus have mutated into humanoid mosquitoes.

Despite the title, the central threat of the novel is neither the virus nor the disease. From page one, the anxiety of characters towards dengue is geared towards its vector. Mosquitoes – both the original and the anthropomorphic – represent the threat of the dengue menace. Dengue serves as a warning of things to come, as well as a social critique. The dystopian future is presented as the outcome of government corruption, corporate greed, and unchecked environmental change.

In this paper, I study how Dengue perpetuates and adapts representations of this disease through the mosquito. In particular, I focus on the fear engendered by the mosquito among the characters. In the process, I explore how the plot of the novel is rallied to comment on social decay and human nature in the face of an ongoing pandemic.


Cristina Moreno Lozano (Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain)

‘Superbugs, superheroes, and antimicrobial resistance: Enduring warfare metaphors in comic form’

This communication briefly considers the growing presence and potential of the comic genre and the cartoon in relation to the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Two recent examples of materials considering the burden AMR poses to modern medicine and the treatment of infection are analysed (though, not compared).

The graphic novel Surgeon X was published in 2015 by Sara Kenney. This dystopian story in the London of the future, presents a rather obscure horizon for the provision of medical care due to antibiotic shortage and the serious infections. What future awaits Western medicine and public health care in the wake of extremely resistant superbugs and scarce and rationalised antibiotics? In November 2017, IS Global, an important biomedical research centre based in Barcelona, published a health education tool in the form of a cartoon, for young children to learn how to use antibiotics responsibly. Although it lacks a plot to be considered an actual narrative, the way the issue is portrayed is interesting. Here, a group of superheroes explains the scientific reasons why, for instance, the flu won’t be cured using antibiotics.

The issue of AMR seems to increasingly receive attention by scientific experts, health professional and the general public. Arguably, the notion of AMR circulates in different forms, through different spaces and publics, providing us with shifting values for antibiotic therapy and the experience of infectious illness. Common imageries and metaphors may make this circulation possible. Evil bugs, warfare and magic bullets have commonly been found in descriptions of epidemic crises and infections through the history of modern medicine. Through this graphic storytelling, superbugs and superheroes seem to help us confront uncertainty. Does the war metaphor continue to endured? Who are we fighting?

We may have found a new enemy: it is not only the evil bug we ought to fight, it is AMR itself. However, how is AMR graphically portrayed in these two examples? Who are the protagonists in these stories? Superheroes, superbugs, antibiotics and AMR are all differently represented. On one hand, science-fiction, through dystopian futures like the one lived by Dr Rosa Scott, Surgeon X’s protagonist, presents a reflective fictional stance: how bad could it get if antibiotics become truly scarce by 2036? Will science find a solution? On the other hand, the superhero presented as a tool for health education ‘fights’ the problem of AMR through scientific expertise. Here, we will consider what implications these imageries may have in the making of AMR and the continuity of the war metaphor in understanding and experiencing infectious disease.


Tim Pilcher (

‘The Personification and Vilification of Disease in Graphic Narratives’

Disease, epidemics and pandemics have been used as classic tropes throughout comic book history. This paper sets out to explore some of the fictional diseases that have occurred and how they spread and treated, and how much they relate to actual real-world epidemics. More importantly this paper examines the difficulty in personifying a communicable disease in order to maintain dramatic tension and to drive a plot forward and the frequent utilisation of villains standing in as proxies for viruses, either as pernicious ‘Patient Zeroes’ unleashing infections deliberately on unsuspecting populations, or as victims of the infection who are then vilified as the living embodiment of the disease to be shunned. Using examples such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Biophage 13-X Virus in Final Incal, the zombie-like contagion in Garth Ennis’ Crossed, and the sexual transmitted G+ Virus in Monty Nero’s Death Sentence. I will examine how various diseases and epidemics are spread, and the subsequent social issues that arise in different universes from Brian K. Vaughn’s Y The Last Man and Block Mania, Grubb’s Disease and Lycanthropy in 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd strip to the M-Pox, Mox-Pox, Legacy Virus in the Marvel Universe. The paper will explore the various societies' psychological reactions to these diseases and their human surrogates, from immediate eradication to instinctual quarantines of the infected through social exclusion.   


Sylva Reznik (University of St Andrews)

'Metaphors in the Czech cartoon Mor (Plague)'

The cartoon Plague ('Mor'), authored by Milada Mašinová and Petra Josefina Stibitzová was issued in three volumes between 2014 and 2016. It is a story of a teenage girl Rósa who lives with her despotic father while her mother is hospitalized with tuberculosis. Rósa‘s mother does not return from the hospital and the epidemics of plague spreads out. Rósa‘s despotic father bullies her with ineffective and unnecessary 'preventive' measures.

In this paper, I explore the cartoon within the theoretical framework of critical discourse analysis and, in particular, the discourse-historical approach (Reisigl and Wodak 2001). I analyse the 'metaphorical associations' in the visual content (Machin 2012: 6-12). In accordance with Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006), I understand the 'visual structures' employed in the cartoon as pointing to 'particular interpretations of experience and forms of social interaction', similarly to 'linguistic structures' (Van Leeuwen 2006: 2). I adhere to Machin and Mayr’s view that analogically to language, social actors can be portrayed in visual design as classified, individualized and functionalized (2012: 77-102).

I point to the figurative linguistic expressions uttered by both verbal and visual means. These include the conceptual metaphor of the plague epidemics and the metonymies by which state power is depicted: authorities introducing quarantine and the despotic father illustrating the outreach of state power to private homes and family life. By employing the discourse-historical approach to my analysis, I conclude that the cartoon contains metaphorical allusions to the former communist totality in the Czech Republic.


Jacob Steere Williams (College of Charleston)

‘Moral Panics, Monarchy, and Victorian Popular Media’

On an atypically clear and sunny February day in Victorian London, crowds packed the London streets, jeering and jostling to catch a glimpse of a carriage whose contents included Queen Victoria alongside her son and heir to the throne, Prince Albert Edward (Bertie), later Edward VII. It was one of the most grandiose public spectacles of the entire nineteenth century, marked to celebrate Bertie’s recovery from a grave case of typhoid fever that had laid him for months on a supposed Sandringham death bed. Declared a national day of 'Thanksgiving', the event connected legions of Britons at home and across the empire, who participated in a reification of both the monarchy—in a moment of republican critique—and of the powers of British medicine and public health—in its own moment of uncertainty. This paper unpacks the contested and multiple meanings of the 1872 Thanksgiving as it was constructed in the visual culture of the nineteenth century popular and satirical press. Punch, Judy, and several proto-Victorian multi-modal comics extensively covered the event, creating what scholars call a ‘moral panic’, in this case personifying a jingoist discourse on infectious disease, state medicine, and the social body.