The Bad Doctor
An inspiring debut from a pretty good doctor…
Victor Von Doom, Black Jack, Lucy Van Pelt. There’ve been some Doctors portrayed in comics whose bedside manner was surely less than consoling. But in Ian Williams’ The Bad Doctor we’re introduced to the entirely human, flawed and assuring character of Iwan James, a GP who runs a rural surgery somewhere in Wales, and is, one has to assume, a thinly veiled avatar of Ian Williams himself.
Illness in autobio comics has become something of a tragic cliché, a sadly routine right of passage, tortured cartoonists unloading catalogues of grimness – the horrors of chemo, infertility, depression, anorexia, lupus, epilepsy – I’ve a nearly unquenchable taste for the autobio genre, but these days have to steel myself in the face of yet another epic tome of personal misery. Though it’s pretty hard to fault any individual work in the sub-genre of medical memoir, the focus, understandably, tends to be interior, with medics often shadowy outsiders and the narratives played out through internal dramas and private nightmares.
Which is not to say that The Bad Doctor is free of introspection – Dr Iwan James is a man beset by doubts and haunted by his own imagined demons, but, although these doubts are central to the comic, this is a mostly outward looking portrait, not just of the Doctor himself, but of his patients, colleagues and community as well.
And, it must be said, these are extraordinarily generous and kind portraits. Iwan, and I suppose we’d best assume Ian Williams himself, are wrestling daily with what it really is to try to care for people, to put them and their interests first, no matter how smelly or mad or rude. The patients we’re introduced to are not all lovely, grateful, recipients of care – some of them are scary, some intolerant, some just plain incapable. But Williams never condescends or attempts to reduce them to a set of symptoms or pathologies – everyone is treated by the Doctors, (the fictional doctor and the cartoonist) as whole, complicated human beings – fully demanding and deserving of our respect and compassion.
A similar amount of care is put into Williams’ evocation of the world Iwan he lives in. He’s not a slick cartoonist at all, but the sense of place, of a real Wales, with real houses, pubs, valleys, roads, bridges, and surgeries is concrete. The same can be said of his character drawing – it’s superficially quite rough, but once you’re in the flow of the comic they become real, expressive, individuals.
The Bad Doctor must have been a hard comic to write. It’s very honest, for a start, and it deals with doubts and a certain kind of spirituality – a longing for good and justice in the face of death and an indifferent universe. It’s unwaveringly fair and unflinching in its depiction of illness, misery and mortality yet it leavens this with such generous compassion and empathy that, despite the grim subject matter, is life affirming and inspiring.
Tags: Art Comics, Autobio, health, medcine, wales