Medical Psychodrama: Fear Of Failure

Posted by on November 15th, 2010 at 5:43 AM

Rob reviews the first issue of Thom Ferrier’s insider comic on medicine, Fear of Failure.

Thom Ferrier is the nom de plume of a Welsh physician who is also a cartoonist.  His Fear of Failure series (serialized online as well as in minicomics form) is about a physician named Lois Pritchard and her assorted ups and downs working in her medical practice.  Virtually every comic I’ve read about medicine has been from the point of view of the patient and the mysteriousness of the world into which they’ve entered.  It’s a world of jargon and deconstructing people into symptoms.  Pritchard is the US equivalent of a general practitioner, with the key difference being that medicine in the U.K. is free and run by the National Health Service (NHS Wales, in this case). While doctors still maintain their mystique as healers, in the U.K. their societal status is a bit different than in the U.S.

Where this comic is at its best is when it sticks to the quotidian details of the day in the life of a doctor and the conflicts that can erupt between partners in a practice.  The soap opera aspects of the strip (her long-lost mother showing up out of the blow, a series of phone calls left unanswered, etc.) leaned a bit too much on melodrama.  On the other hand, the pages where Ferrier crams in a few dozen panels of injections, examinations, sores, genitals, etc. were effective both in getting the reader to understand just what it is a GP does all day, how exhausting it can be and how it can warp one’s sense of time so profoundly. Of course, much of what she has to do is navigate medical bureaucracy, sometimes not knowing whether or not she’s doing the right thing.  The anecdote where she is unnerved by a patient’s smile after helping her remove a “personality disorder” tag from her medical record is especially unsettling.

The conflict between Lois (a single woman who’s an atheist) and Barry (a blowhard, hyper-religious family man) was interesting as well, highlighting the ways in which peers frequently don’t have a real way of mediating significant differences of belief in the workplace.  When everyone’s an equal partner (but some perhaps more equal than others), resentment builds from both sides of an issue.  Ferrier perhaps stacks the deck a bit in the way he depicts Barry and his wife (a transcriptionist at the practice) as myopic fanatics with an axe to grind, but that’s not to say that such folks don’t exist.

As a cartoonist, Ferrier has a long way to go to find his ideal style.  His pages are frequently cramped, both in terms of the number of panels he’ll cram into a page but also the size of the panels as well as the thickness of his line.  He over-renders at times, using a thick line where a clearer one would have told the story better.  His character design is serviceable but unremarkable, doing enough to carry the story along.  Going small in terms of panel design works to his advantage on those pages with a few dozen panels, because he doesn’t have to worry about drawing that many faces with a great deal of detail.  In general, working a little bigger and in a more consistent grid (9 or preferably 6 panels) would also likely help him in the long run.  I do hope to see more personal anecdotes about practicing medicine from Ferrier in the future; his anecdote about his periodic fainting spells spoke to the empathy he has for the patient experience, given his own navigation of the system.

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