By Ian Williams
Ah, the exciting and varied life of a modern British GP. Or possibly not.
It’s far more likely that your average GP is a normal, ordinary person, struggling with all the usual things normal, ordinary people struggle with, just with all the added responsibility being the respectable member of the community brings. In many ways, your humble GP has assumed a place in modern society akin to a priest of old, a sounding board for the troubles of his medical flock, illness often secondary to the desire to simply chat, to moan, to share.
The day to day grind of a GP’s life, with a procession of patients, most of them ill, miserable and struggling, for eight hours a day, five days a week. Doesn’t that sound horrible?
Welcome to Dr. Iwan James’ world. He’s the ‘bad doctor’ of the title.
Thing is, he’s nothing like a bad doctor, even if he feels that way sometimes. In actual fact he’s more the sort of doctor we’d all rather like, a man who understands, empathises, takes a genuine interest in his patients and feels bad when he can’t do enough for them (most of the time anyway).
Case in point. Dashing out of surgery on an emergency can be a relief when faced with a particularly annoying old dear. And I imagine if we came back to the surgery to find her gone, we’d be pretty relieved as well….
Only to realise she’s behind the door having a look at one of your posters.
Oh, dear. That would definitely be a tick under the Bad Doctor column. But frankly, in Iwan’s shoes, I’d be feeling the same way.
Things are getting particularly trying for Iwan and life at surgery isn’t the best, his patients are troubling him, whether it’s the nice ones he can’t do enough for or the difficult, worrying, and frankly frightening ones looking to get shotgun licences renewed. Everything is grinding him down, the pettiness and neediness overwhelming. But it never comes across as simple whining, thanks to the empathy that’s here all the way through Williams’ really enjoyable and incisive graphic novel that perfectly illustrates just what the modern GP is faced with on a daily basis.
There’s a genuine heartfelt depth here, a varied, interesting mix of cases, from the comedic to the heartfelt, but no matter what, there’s an honesty here. Take this particularly heart-rending moment, a consultation with a recent widower:
Iwan’s reaction is so spot-on, sympathetic but also so relieved to see him gone…
“How was Mr Brown? Bit of a nightmare?”
“pfff… yeah! I dread seeing him, the poor bastard.”
That’s just how we’d be when faced with this, day in, day out.
Outside of surgery, Iwan’s one respite from it all is cycling, he’s one of those stereotyped MAMILs (middle aged man in lycra), meeting up with cycling mates, chatting enviously over ‘fixies’, wondering just how many bikes you need (or more likely how many you can get away with before your wife notices and complains). Three bikes already and wanting more. You know exactly his sort. As his best cycling buddy Arthur says …. “It’s a man thing, I guess“. Or to take a more reasoned perspective his wife has this to offer… “Ha! NEED! There’s always something else you ‘need’. When you start obsessing about gear, it’s usually a sign you’re not happy.”
And you know what? she’s actually spot on. Iwan isn’t happy. Hasn’t really been for the longest time. Hell, when even the patients are asking if you’re stressed, you know something’s not right…
In fact there’s a trail of trouble right back to his childhood, where a lifetime of attempting to deal with obsessive compulsive disorder started. It’s been with him, varying in severity since then, colouring every aspect of his life. Is it any wonder he’s able to empathise so well with those suffering with mental issues in the surgery?
There’s a moment halfway through when Iwan is reassuring a patient suffering from OCD to the extent that it’s crippling his relationship between his sister and her kids, it’s brave, honest, and says so much more about just what sort of a doctor Iwan is…
“If I tell you something, would you promise to keep it secret?”
“It’s just that, while doctors must keep their patients’ information confidential, there is no reciprocal agreement.
“I’ve had a few patients with OCD over the years but I’ve never told them any of them this…”
“Nor any of my partners, nor many friends, and I’m not sure why I feel like sharing this with you…
“… but I’m about the same age as you and I had OCD when I was younger.”
Iwan certainly has little problem recognising and diagnosing himself, understands that what he’s going through is far more than your average combination of dissatisfaction at work, more than a midlife crisis it feels more like a whole life crisis, where his own OCD and feelings of never really being good enough make him feel like the bad doctor of the title.
The sympathetic, empathetic ear of Iwan is only possible of course due to the excellent and understanding writing of Williams, capturing the often strange, sometimes sad, occasionally ridiculous nature of mental illness.
The art is stripped back, light on backgrounds for the most part, although this is more a stylistic touch than a deficiency on Williams’ part, when he chooses to, whether it’s the frequent flashbacks to his OCD throughout his early life, or the moments of freedom under the big sky out cycling, the backgrounds are detailed and lovely to look at. Williams’ page designs are just as simple with elegantly rounded panels and open speech balloons throughout. The simplicity extends to the characters, each face little more than a collection of lines, yet thanks to Williams, each character is easily identifiable. Never more so perhaps than this study of desperate resignation, a doctor overwhelmed by his knowledge, by the understanding that he can do no more…
That one panel really spoke to me, really got over the idea behind The Bad Doctor, the sense that the life of the GP is no picnic, a continuous stream of misery that can’t be good for the poor doc’s mental health. The strong focus on the white chair, the simple lines, the slumped shoulders, the expressive body language, and that almost Herge-esque vibe to it all – that’s how well Williams is delivering here.
The Bad Doctor tells of an ordinary life and that’s rather the point. The troubles in The Bad Doctor aren’t out of the ordinary, aren’t necessarily life-destroying, they’re things that can be treated, can be relieved, but only when we have the courage to face up to them. More and more, books that deal with the subject are doing away with the stigma traditionally associated with mental health issues. The Bad Doctor is the latest of these, and joins an illustrious list of comics that not only entertain, but educate, inform and possibly change attitudes. Not bad at all.
The Bad Doctor is released on the 26th June by Myriad Editions.