Beyond Words: Paying Attention to the Visual with The New Yorkercartoonist, Benjamin Schwartz
March 22, 2016 - Boston, MA
“I try to think of myself as a comic enthusiast and not a comic supremacist,” says Benjamin Schwartz, cartoonist for The New Yorker and faculty at the Center for Narrative Practice. Like one would imagine a highbrow cartoonist to be, Ben’s humor is dry, wittily astute and sometimes absurd. So how did a comic-man become a lecturer and workshop leader for medical students?
“Well, cartooning was just always something that I wanted to do,” says Ben. “Most kids are into cartoons, but I realized early on that my passion for it ran a little deeper for it than my peers. Maybe I’m just stunted, but when they matured and went onto other stuff, I was still into it. But I had no idea how to make it a career. Meanwhile, I had this competing interest in medicine, mostly resulting from my admiration for my father, who was and still is, a physician. I could tell he had a passion for his work. He was helping people and it seemed like a noble career and profession. I knew that you could apply to medical school, so I chose to go down the path that was most clear to me.”
Ben was accepted into medical school at Columbia, where he was introduced to the work of narrative medicine. “That was the first hint to me that there was maybe a way to combine my interest in medicine and my interest in comics. That stuck with me even later into my medical career as I was realizing that being a doctor wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing,” says Ben.
So dropping out of his residency program, Ben committed to giving the artist thing a shot - and actually made it happen. His comics got accepted into The New Yorker and he was able to make a name for himself as a cartoonist. “Then I was able to reconnect with Columbia and start teaching the medical students in the narrative medicine track.”
“A big key to why I think comics work in this context is because people are not as well-versed in communicating visually. It hopefully makes them have to look deeper into their own process of how they tell stories, how they lay out information when they can’t use the tools that they are used to using,” says Ben. It’s certainly been a goal of the Center for Narrative Practice to bring in visual artists and teachers like Ben to open up new pathways of thinking.
“I use the cartoons primarily as a way to teach medical students about their role as storytellers,” says Ben. “It’s mostly just a gimmick to get them thinking about these deeper questions of their role and how they’re going to relate to their patients. How to get at thinking about patients more holistically, not just as a set of pathologies.”
Many of Ben’s students haven’t put pen to paper for the purpose of drawing in at least a decade, which can have some surprising results. In one of his exercises, Ben has students try to draw Mickey Mouse from memory. “It’s surprisingly difficult to remember how to draw Mickey Mouse because it’s something you feel very familiar with,” says Ben. “You think, ‘I know exactly what Mickey Mouse looks like!’ But then when you try to put it on the page you realize that there is a lot that you don’t know about how Mickey looks. And you think, maybe there’s other things that I’m not paying attention to.”
The art of devising comics involves openness and skill in both the head and the hand. When Ben wants to make a comic, he says, “I begin by sitting down with a blank piece of paper, numbering it one to ten and just trying to think of silly things. I sort of - it’s hard to describe because a lot of it is pre-verbal in my mind. I’ve learned how to follow hunches. So something in my brain will say, ‘There’s something funny about the grim reaper...’ And then you just sort of free associate with yourself - what about the evolution of the grim reaper? What if he broke his scythe? Or what if he isn’t’ swiping his scythe, but swiping on Tinder?”
What does Ben think about working in this strange intersection of medicine and comics? “It’s been weird, but a lot of fun.”
Benjamin Schwartz, M.D. is a staff cartoonist at The New Yorker Magazine, faculty at the Center for Narrative Practice, and a Narrative Medicine Lecturer at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.