Real Time Responses to THE LADY DOCTOR by Ian Williams

This year’s Graphic Medicine conference took place in Brighton, England on July 11–13…and I could not attend. So, I took to Twitter and asked whether I should live-tweet my reactions and thoughts on a work of Graphic Medicine, either Ian Williams’s The Lady Doctor or Lucy Knisley’s Kid Gloves.

The Lady Doctor narrowly beat out Kid Gloves, and so I got down to work. What follows are my posts over the next several days, followed in some cases by responses from Williams (aka @TheBadDoctor) himself. I have edited the posts only lightly for obvious spelling errors and typos.

The live-tweet of THE LADY DOCTOR (#GMLadyDr) by Ian Williams begins!

Inside covers feature a number of molecular models. Do they link to the ring of pills surrounding the main character on the cover? Pharma and/or overprescribing (even addiction) foreshadowed? #GraphicMedicine

Opening splash page at “Meddygfa Llangandida” (translation?) sets scene with 2 men outside (1 w/cane, 1 w/phone or cigs?) and 2 animals: a crow and a fox, both trickster figures. Semi-rural or suburban setting. Non-U.S., likely U.K. Same place as THE BAD DOCTOR?

Art by Ian Williams

(It’s premature, but I’m already tempted to see links not only between the animals & the men but also just in terms of the men. The man with the cane and hat stoops to pick up something — trash? — while the other — bald? — seems more self-involved.)

We meet the titular “Lady Doctor,” already being pressed for meds and receiving male (patient) anger. Seated at computer, she hides her frustration, holding firmly to policies and procedures. Male patient blames her and his ex-girlfriend.

CORRECTION: The patient blames his “stupid bitch” *current* girlfriend for losing his epilepsy meds. (Note: this reads differently on the same week that Disney star #CameronBoyce did, reportedly, die from an epileptic seizure in his sleep.)

Lois, the LADY DOCTOR, steps outside for a smoke. The crow lurks atop a propane gas tank. The earlier man with the cane is Ned, with whom Lois shares “a fag.” She warns him to be wary of the tank, a nice metaphor for imminent catastrophic illness. (The crow disappears.)

But, her ‘by the book’ demeanor in the previous scene is already challenged, though she looks to keep up appearances. “You tell no one about this, understand?” “Dave” texts. Ned has a chest condition.

Enter Robert and Iwan from THE BAD DOCTOR. Iwan expresses friendly concern to Lois, while Robert only grunts at her; the two men then confer privately about whether she’s dating “Dave the vet” and her likelihood of getting pregnant. Icky.

Does Iwan look a little different from THE BAD DOCTOR? Slightly different hair, more pronounced nose… Perhaps THE LADY DOCTOR is occurring before/after that other story. Or maybe it’s a stylistic choice by @TheBadDr. (Or, always a possibility, I’m over-reading.)

stylistic choice

Art by Ian Williams

Iwan is the first to say the a-word: addict. He and Lois discuss “benzos,” benzodiazepines like valium or lorazepam (which I used to take!). Iwan drinks from a mug branded Zyprozia: “Big Pharma makes a killing.”

(In some ways, I’m surprised I didn’t develop an addiction to lorazepam in my youth, as it was nearly the only medication that was effective. At the same time, it was for an acute #anxiety disorder, so maybe I was also quite worried about that!)

Distinct change in the scene coloring as Lois shifts from work to her home life. Meets with Geeta. “Everyone has their drug of choice,” including (the feeling of) power.

Becoming a partner in the practice would be “a bit more money and a lot more stress,” though Geeta notes the news for good GPs. “More serious than getting married,” which Lois already was. (Speaking of mates, Dave texts again.) Committed to Potkin, her dog.

Art by Ian Williams

The Department of Genitourinary Medicine (i.e. of the genitals and urinary) at Mansea Royal Infirmary is cast in a rosy pink. A bit filthy outside, though. Perhaps that’s appropriate. Inside: Pinocchio dick.

“He doesn’t tell so many lies, nowadays.” Ha! And we arrive at the first plot twist: someone is taking pictures of Lois without her knowledge. Penri from the office? Mark Leach the drug-seeker? Dave the vet? Perhaps even Ned?

Genuine question for @TheBadDr: Are THE BAD DOCTOR & THE LADY DOCTOR definitely in the same narrative ‘universe,’ the same storyworld? Plz rule out any musings about parallel timelines, alternative selves, the multiverse, multicursal narrative, revamps, reboots, etc.

Yes, although the different structure of the two books might make it seem otherwise. Why? [Oh, just to keep me from ridiculously over-reaching as I read and reflect on them. Too much @avengers #Endgame or SLIDING DOORS on my mind.] There is a slight ambiguity wrt timeline between the two books

Shifting back to the blue of the Health Centre. (Do the hues denote purely setting or mood?) Patient Kate Borsey takes the PHQ-9 questionnaire suggesting depression. “[U]nfortunately, there’s a waiting list for everything these days.”

Juxtaposed scenes: The distance between patients’ “artificial drugs” and “natural” medicines feels akin to that between doctors’ “misplaced sentimentality” and “empathy.” How much is semantic and how much is quantifiable?

Lois: “Medicine screws us all in one way or another…We start off with hope and are then ground down by the reality. Constrained by the system. Working with limited means.”

Amazing example of deafness visualized — or, of not literal deafness, then a lack of real hearing. I wrote about “diagnosis deafness,” but this tuning out applies as well.

I’m glad you know what to call it!

Art by Ian Williams

I confess, I don’t think I’ve seen this kind of visual sign before with Tony’s shocked (and drunk) reaction to the unexpected labor of his girlfriend. Is this floating head common anywhere?

Art by Ian Williams

Lois’s estranged mother reaches out to her through a letter. As with the earlier patient, this blocks out much of Lois’s active listening. She reaches out to Greeta (but also lies to get Potkin fed).

Art by Ian Williams

Pink/peach = Brin Y Moch. And Gwenno. Aunt? Stepmom? She knows of Lois’s mother Cilla. “We are inquisitive mammals, Lois.”

Gwenno is the girlfriend of Lois’s late father.

Lois races to help choking woman, who then poops herself and tags Lois as the food is dislodged. This repulses Lois’s date rather than amaze him that she saved a life. “Heh. Shit happens.”

Was/is Cilla an addict?

At home (hued with an almost-emerald green) and freshly showered (@TheBadDr does not display Lois’s fully nude body), she reviews old pictures from Gwenno. “Coal Not Dole” campaign, pix w/Dad, pet turtle named Archie, graduation, and… mother?

Nicely metanarrative moment: After an array of patients, Lois tells Iwan of her mother’s attempts to contact her. She feels she must: “We do respond. We are responders.” So, Lois chooses to text her. She quips, “Break into Act Two.”

At coffee shop (near her home? colored similar emerald), Lois meets Garry, a visiting DP. The tight shot on each of their faces and eyes suggests attraction. At home later, she receives mother’s response and agrees to meet. Leaves message for Geeta, smokes, drinks.

Confirmed: The photo from earlier doe appear to have been Cilla — likely with baby Lois. Notably, it was pushed to the side, almost off panel.

What’s with the ducks? Some warning of a “quack” doctor?

Art by Ian Williams

Lois’s mother needs a liver transplant; Lois suspects it’s either due to alcohol or hepatitis. “[S]he led a pretty bohemian lifestyle.” Pictures her abusing drugs. (Influenced by latest drug-seeking efforts of Mark Leach?)

After seeing a number of patients (ranging distinctly in medical needs and lifestyles), Lois meets again with Cilla and the penny drops: she want a piece of her liver. Angrily, Lois assumes its due to drinking, but Cilla says it’s Hep-C from a man.

New twist: Cilla is staying in the guest house run by Mark Leach and his girlfriend.

  1. Robert’s an asshole, but is he just a foil or a necessarily representative asshole?
  2. I appreciate the montages of various patients and body parts even if they have seem to have little direct bearing on the narrative. Indicative of the work, the mood, and the life.

I did not know that a failed liver can become cancerous. Has this become a #CancerComic?

Lois learns of her mother’s life, including relationships with both men and women. Cilla doesn’t care for labels nor has she arrived at any answers. Do we? (e.g. Mark Leach *just* a drug abuser, Robert just an asshole, etc.)

Readers left in suspense about troubling email from Lois’s ex — something concerning “Angela” and a “baby.” Does this affect Lois’s thinking on a liver transplant? Montage of patients seems to accelerate: more panels, tighter images.

Hm, I could Lois’s ex Chris and his “Angela” be raising a baby that Lois birthed? If so, it would be quite the echo of Lois and Cilla (and Gwenno).

Still unanswered photographer of Lois from earlier in book. My money is still on Penri, perhaps building a case against Lois’s professionalism, until subplot with Chris develops.

The “deafness” visual trope used again, this time to speed the reader through details we already know. Used to signify language being shared, the details of which are unheard. (Skimming past a detail reader may not yet know?)

Art by Ian Williams

(I could already envision a short paper with a title like “The Deafness of THE LADY DOCTOR” if it didn’t sound so pejorative.)

Lois is sporting another drug company coffee mug: Prolixia. Fictionally, I wonder what it’s prescribed to treat/do? The irony in the following panel, as one who prescribes meds and drinks from their brands, is awesome.

Lois tells partners about Cilla’s request. I need a smarter comics studies scholar than myself to unpack the visual sign systems in this panel. The “deafness” chatter (certainly heard), the exclamation point, then the capitalized and syllabic “IN-SANE.” Wow!

Art by Ian Williams

Lois deals with sexist crap from her partners (mostly Robert but Iwan is complicit) and her patients. Is the possibility of working (or being fired) for Virgin and Richard Branson its own expression of sexist patriarchy?

Oof, the hospital signage where Lois and Cilla go for initial liver information feels pointed. This way for eating, opposite way for illness, back the original way for death.

Art by Ian Williams

True, @TheBadDr’s style may appear simple, but the expressions in this panel speak volumes. Lois will have to lie in order to help her estranged mother, not unlike the way patients may dissemble to her. Cilla’s face registers the added wrinkle.

Art by Ian Williams

Lois reports events to Gwenno who herself remains guarded against Cilla without being overtly hostile. Lois goes to vape outside — instead of a cigarette, a half-step toward the liver surgery? — which visually resembles the shocked bloke-father from earlier.

So, Lois is “not judging” Gwenno’s surprising use of “magic mushrooms,” but she did associate them with “crusties and ravers.” Sounds a bit judgmental. Gwenno: “Lois, you’re so damned medical. Why are doctors so obsessed with ‘drug users’?”

Geeta echoes the question to Lois that Gwenno posed: How’s alcohol so different from drugs? Shouldn’t Lois experiment? “Doctors give ‘advice’ about lots of things of which they have no experience,” she admits/deflects.

Lois treats an actuary — engaged in several risky activities that likely affect his actuarial tables! How different is he from Lois, really? (A good deal, but metaphorically…)

Since I have not read PORTRAIT OF A LADY, I appreciate Williams (by way of Cilla) explaining how it fits thematically.

Art by Ian Williams

Aha! Cilla was the one who took the mysterious photograph of Lois: “I suppose I was stalking you. But that’s the only photo I have of you.” Could have been much more sinister, I suppose.

Reading about a clinical trial of magic mushrooms on depression seems to give Lois the permission she needs to try them. Gwenno will not lead her to them, though. “[F]ind yourself a guide.”

Pragmatically, Lois considers the living far more dangerous than the dead (e.g. ghosts). Some drunken men — one with a conspicuously named shirt — interrupt the women’s conversation AND prove Lois’s point. Conversation shifts to Lois shagging Garry.

Art by Ian Williams

A workplace quickie with Garry goes totally awry and he must be taken, with Iwan’s help, in an ambulance to the hospital. Once there, Lois feels compelled to lie to the doctor about the circumstances. Her (lack of) shoes are on the other foot, so to speak.

Jody from the transplant team tells Lois that they cannot proceed. Psychological concerns and abnormal liver enzymes make it inadvisable. Lois, once stoically plowing through errant sexcapade, is now visible saddened.

Though in no condition to do so, Lois goes on to see patients. For that matter, would patients ever be seen if doctors had to be in the ‘right’ condition? (There’s that suspicious Penri again. I don’t like him.)

Full page: Dog therapy. Wiser course than drinking, smoking, or random sex. (Genuine question: Is animal comfort ever prescribed?)

I think some places have ‘healing dogs’ and there are ‘emotional support animals’.

Art by Ian Williams

Are Dr. Jenkins and his daughter crossover characters from THE BAD DOCTOR or am I inventing that in my head?

Also: the contract goes to Virgin. “The NHS is being sold off, under our noses.”

As if on cue, Gwenno dies.

Mourning, angry, guilty, and now drunk, Lois sleeps with Vinnie Delapesto (who’s not all bad — but still pretty bad).

Lois fears going to the clinic to be tested for an STD lest it be made public. If not a doctor, who can safely and without shame go to a clinic, then?

Lois chides Robert for unprofessional behavior while she engages in her own, treating the possible STD herself. As she questions an alcoholic about her drinking, Lois could likely have answered the questions the same way.

Of course, this raises the question of whether we need or could reasonably expect our doctors or healthcare professionals to be saints themselves. But at what point must a doc ‘heal thyself’ before impacting patients?

The mushroom gods smile on Lois as she finds her own Liberty Bells, “magic mushrooms.” (Another man insinuates himself into her business, priding himself of totally weeding his lawn of those “toadstools.”)

Williams blasts the background with (psychedelic) colors and patterns, rollercoasters and belts and plant life before Lois has a conversation with her inner self. And she sees Cilla’s view, especially with Lois’s father. She is connected with them all.

Lois has a break-through. She doesn’t want to be a partner (no matter how panicked that leaves Robert), she doesn’t want to drink, and Mark Leach commends her for standing firm against his drug habit — even as a drug helped her. They are neither good nor evil.

Of course, Mark Leach backslides. And Cilla contracts cancer. But Lois decides to be at her mother’s side — and not to take any more shit from Leach (not give extra antibiotics to Ned). Some things change, some things do not.

Final thoughts: We live in a web of chemicals, and perhaps we always have. They may affect us as potently as our social, sexual, and financial webs, for good or for ill. Love while you can, forgive who you can, savor what you can — & do your best to avoid the rest.

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