Bringing superheroes into the fight against COVID-19 misinformation

11 February 2021
Anwar Chitrakar, a folk artist from Bengal, adapted the indigenous patachitra style to light-hearted COVID-19 art.
Anwar Chitrakar/Emami Art
Anwar Chitrakar, a folk artist from Bengal, adapted the indigenous patachitra style to light-hearted COVID-19 art.
Anwar Chitrakar/Emami Art

In March 2020, Indian comic book publisher Raj Comics released Nagraj Strikes: The Attack of Coronaman, a comic on how Coronaman, a hideous and insidious villain, takes over the fictional city of Mahanagar to infect people with COVID-19. The hero Nagraj’s efforts to destroy the Coronaman by spewing venomous breath fails. He then sees coronavirus prevention measures on television—wash hands often, cough into your elbow, don’t touch your face, keep safe distance from other people, stay home if you can. Nagraj finds that he does not have to save the people in his city. They have kept the Coronaman away by following isolation, distancing and sanitisation measures. 

Over the past year, artists, doctors, medical professionals, and international agencies such as the World Health Organisation have been using comics to communicate the risks of the SARS-CoV2 virus. The visual economy and a near-universal language of lines, balloons, and panels in comics makes them well suited to disseminate epidemic-related information to children and adults. 

The sudden emergence of the novel coronavirus, about which the world knew so little, was unfortunately also a perfect breeding ground for medical and public health misinformation. Myths about the coronavirus proliferated as fast as the pandemic spread around the world. Misleading content included fallacies such as the notion that eating meat can cause infection; that Ayurveda could cure infection; that consuming garlic or rinsing the nose with saline can prevent infection; that silver solution can kill coronavirus within 12 hours; that 5G mobile networks spread the coronavirus. Such fictions populated inboxes, WhatsApp chats, messengers, and social media feeds, especially in the early days of the pandemic and generated a lot of online engagement due to clickbait headers. Coronavirus hoaxes and conspiracy theories gained more traction in a post-truth world where the convening power of truth and facts have diminished.

However, comics have used the same principles of concise, easily shareable formats to relay medical facts through engaging visual storytelling. Comics like these are part of a genre of graphic narratives called graphic medicine which tell stories supported by hard medical data. Ian Williams, a British physician and a comic artist, coined the term “graphic medicine” in 2007. Williams was looking for a handy, all-encompassing term for the depiction of health and medicine in comics while he completed his master’s thesis on comics and healthcare. The phrase was acknowledged by Michael Green and Kimberley Myers in their article on the subject published in 2010 in the British Medical Journal

Sathyaraj Venkatesan is an associate professor and a comics enthusiast teaching at the department of humanities and social sciences, National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli. He is co-author of Gender, Eating Disorders and Graphic Medicine.

A David Lewis is an American graphic novel writer currently teaching at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston. His creative works include The Lone and Level Sands and Kismet, Man of Fate. He is an editorial board member for the International Journal of Comic Art

Keywords: comics COVID-19 coronavirus SARS-CoV2 Ministry of Health and Family Welfare World Health Organisation misinformation