Comics Aren’t Just For Laughs: White River Junction Hosts International Conference

200 people are wearing name tags hanging from their necks and carrying tote bags that identify them as attendees at the sold-out 9th International Comics and Medicine Conference taking place in the Upper Valley this weekend. The annual meeting includes 75 scheduled sessions and 3 keynoters, including Norwich VT’s MacArthur Fellow David Macaulay, author of The Way We Work. Formerly held in places like London, Toronto, and Chicago, this year’s conference is spread throughout White River Junction VT on Friday and Hanover NH on Saturday. Or as someone (Kurt Shaffert, more on him later) put it, the conference will move from the Center for Cartoon Studies to Geisel, the only medical school named for a cartoonist. 

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I had a “wait, what?” moment when first spotting a sign announcing the conference. I knew just enough to realize that this involved more than wry cartoons about doctors in operating rooms published in the likes of The New Yorker. Cartoons are often used to convey information in simple, eye-catching and non-textual ways. Drawings in place of words. Your doctor’s sketch of what happens during cataract surgery, maybe, instead of verbiage. 

Some lucky conferees who found Thyme Restaurant for lunch.

Wandering into CATV in the Tip Top Building, I found Kurt Shaffert, a Fellow in Applied Cartooning at the Center for Cartoon Studies, preparing for his upcoming panel presentation. In our few moments together, he provided a wealth of information about how cartoons are used. In therapeutic settings—Shaffert is also a chaplain—he engages in “playback cartooning.”  If I tell him that I am nervous about losing vision in my right eye, he might, as a first step, respond by sketching a face (me) with a furrowed brow. (I called it “pictorial active listening;” he said he was going to steal the term for his presentation, which pleased us both.)

Kurt Shaffert browses through an anthology of military veterans’ stories, told in cartoon form, that he helped to create.

Shaffert has worked with art therapists at the local VA Hospital, and with veterans in cartooning workshops to develop and publish some of the veterans’ work. As if there is no end to the uses of cartooning, Shaffert showed me a handout (below) of a reading he had prepared in his role as interim pastor of the Warren United Church of Christ in Warren, VT. 

Scratch the surface of a Friday afternoon in White River Junction VT, and you’ll find yourself breathing in the most unexpected and interesting ideas.


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