Comic books and graphic novels are popular for a reason: Their easy-to-read mix of text and visual content is engaging even for people with the shortest attention spans. This is no less true in the diabetes world than anywhere else.
Dr. Partha Kar, a well-known endocrinologist and advocate in the United Kingdom, has been a driving influence on a continuing comic book series focused on diabetes, published by Revolve Comics out of Northern Ireland. In December 2020, they published their third edition, focused on combating stigma in a spy thriller format.
“Inspired by the legend that is (Marvel Comics creator) Stan Lee and how he engaged so many young people with his creative allegories that would explore many issues in a fun way, this comic book series provides a means of spreading the type 1 diabetes message by using art,” the company explains.
“It is our hope that these stories will inform and educate anyone who reads them. For those readers who are newly-diagnosed, they will hopefully feel more empowered to look after themselves, if not already. It is possible to live a long, healthy life with type 1 diabetes,” the company says.
For his part, Kar tells DiabetesMine, “Comic books have always been ahead of their time, looking into deep issues and topics people face. There was always a narrative that I had of how these stories represent something more, bringing different people together and tackling tougher issues in society or life in general.”
If you’re a comic book fan, or just curious to see how this superhero genre could help people with type 1 diabetes (T1D), you’ll want to check out all three of Revolve’s diabetes titles, available for free download on their website:
“Type 1 Origins”: This initial 24-page issue released in October 2016 has a superhero theme that tackles the basics of T1D, personifying different aspects of D-life into fun characters.
“Attack of the Ketones”: It’s the second, 24-page issue published for World Diabetes Day in November 2018. It uses a film noir-style genre to focus on the dangers of high blood sugar, ketones and DKA (diabetes ketoacidosis), how hospitals and healthcare professionals can sometimes miss diagnoses, as well as diabetes tech that can help keep blood glucose levels in check.
“Mission S.T.I.G.M.A.”: The newest 25-page issue published using a spy theme to deal with the many psychosocial concerns involved with T1D and in particular how stigma can create challenges in traveling through airports with diabetes supplies and gadgets. It also features a storyline on the dangers of low blood sugars (hypoglycemia), and mentions the importance of #LanguageMatters and the mental health side of life with diabetes.
Their first issue was paid for by Kar and a group of other doctors, out of their pockets. Following the success of more than 10,000 downloads, the second issue got the green light and secured funding from National Health Service England. The creators studied downloaded patterns including location and age, and analyzed reader feedback on the first edition to shape what the second issue would focus on — ketones and wearable diabetes tech.
Kar lights up when talking about comic books in general, noting he’s a huge fan of Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.
An idea for a diabetes-themed comic first arose during a clinical visit with one of his teenage patients.
The teen remarked how T1D often reminds him of the Incredible Hulk series, in which the fictional character Bruce Banner is given unwanted superhuman strength, but sees this more as a burden than an asset.
In the series, Banner cycles through anger and fits of rage because he never asked for this to begin with. He spends most of his life trying to find a cure, but eventually realizes there is no cure on the horizon and this is something that must be lived with. He finds camaraderie with other superheroes along the way, and eventually becomes more comfortable with his power. He even transitions into “Professor Hulk” by merging strength and smarts to become a more effective superhero.
“That’s such a good thought and drawn out analogy,” Kar recalls. “You have to make the best of what you have when you have type 1.”
Kar later met up with a colleague, Dr. Mayank Patel in England, who knew of a talented graphic artist in Ireland who might be able to create a diabetes-themed comic book that could help patients. They brought together a group of people with T1D who also like comics, and tasked them with shaping the story-board for an initial comic.
What came from that was the first Revolve Comics diabetes edition, published in 2016 to raise awareness about T1D but also highlight what it’s like to live with this condition.
“They’ve been well-received and it’s been good fun doing it, to be honest,” Kar says. “If you take a step back, it’s about using different mediums to reach people and raise the profile and awareness.”
Ireland-based illustrator Danny McLaughlin is known as the “Master and Commander” of Revolve Comics. He shared that in a fun nod to the healthcare professionals who’ve been part of this series, they’ve created comic personas for each of them — including Kar, who’s dubbed the “Kingsman” in the third edition.
“Once we began creating and promoting that the project was going on, it was extraordinary how many people noted that they were people with diabetes, or their loved ones had diabetes,” McLaughlin says.
“Comics have a culture that was becoming more popular, but it also was very much about independent reading and therefore independent learning. We thought our comics could engage young people… with a bit more of an educational narrative with a hopeful ending,” he adds.
Of course, Revolve Comics aren’t the only ones to create graphic novels for diabetes over the years.
DiabetesMine has covered a slew of them — from the “MediKidz” series, to “Kara and the (not so) Dire Beastie,” and “Even Superheroes Get Diabetes.” On a more serious note, there was the SugarLand series tackling the insulin affordability and access crisis in the United States. And going way back, there was the work of Guy Rainsford, who lived with diabetes in the early days of insulin and created graphic art illustrations of Dr. Eliot Joslin at his now-famous clinic in Boston.
If there were a Stan Lee-style superhero for our Diabetes Community, many would say it would be
You might say Banting is to insulin, as Lee is to modern comics.
That’s why it’s so cool that through the years, Banting’s been featured in three different comics. One of those remains on sale from the Banting House museum in London, Ontario, Canada — known as the “birthplace of insulin” where Banting first came up with the idea for insulin in late 1920.
That eight-page, full-color comic was printed in the second issue of World Famous Heroes Magazine, published by the Comic Corporation of America (aka Centaur) in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1941. This happened just 10 months after Banting’s death. The illustrator was Bob Lubbers, a legend in the comic industry. He drew for several comic publishing companies, including Fiction House, Marvel, and DC.
This brief comic offers a graphic illustration of the public record of Banting’s life, from his post-World War I time to working on insulin (with Marjorie the Dog), and eventually, his other research. The Globe and Mail Custom Content Group shares more about the other comics Dr. Banting was featured in through the years.
There’s something magical about comic books and graphic novels as ways to present serious health conditions differently that feels less scary.
That seems to be what attracts those who are behind these illustrated stories, whether they have a personal connection to diabetes or not.
Kim Chaloner and her husband Nick Bertozzi are keenly aware of this. They took to the graphic novel format to offer diabetes education and some basics in diabetes care.
Diagnosed with T1D as a teenager at 16 years old in 1984, Chaloner has spent more than two decades as a middle school science teacher as well as a dean at a private school in New York, New York. Clearly, diabetes and education go hand-in-hand for her. Her husband’s name may sound familiar, as Nick Bertozzi is not only a teacher himself but a pretty well-known cartoonist whose work has appeared in many venues.
In 2013, they published “Diabetes and Me: An Essential Guide for Kids and Parents,” a 176-page graphic novel focused on diabetes self-care in a Cathy-style (for those who remember that weekly comic strip). It’s complete with a brief personal intro from Chaloner and a full glossary of diabetes terms.
Some well-known diabetes authorities even vouched for it, including Dr. Bill Polonsky, founder of the Behavioral Diabetes Institute in San Diego, California, fellow T1D and diabetes care and education specialist Gary Scheiner, and T1D advocate and Divabetic founder Max Szadek.
Their novel is packed full of D-101, broken down into six chapters that talk disease basics, healthcare team, blood sugar nuances, meal and exercise topics, and the critical support aspects of living with diabetes.
Chaloner tells DiabetesMine that when friends suggested that they collaborate on a graphic novel about diabetes, she was thrilled about the idea of using artwork to tell stories that could empower kids, whether they’re newly diagnosed with T1D or they want to manage their health more.
“Anything that can help kids move from a frightening diagnosis to a place of feeling empowered and informed, seemed like it was worth a shot,” she says.
“It was fun to work on this project, and to create characters kids can relate to. Retelling and shaping the story of my experiences as a person with diabetes helped me think about how children today need ways to process their experiences, and share their struggles and triumphs,” Chaloner says.