Emi Gennis

I first encountered Emi Gennis in The Plunge (2016), a harrowing and ultimately gutting account of the attempt of Annie Edson Taylor to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901. I was impressed by the incredibly lively and cartooning, the extensive research that had obviously gone into the book, and with the storytelling itself. I marked her down as someone whose work I wanted to try and keep up with. A short time later I learned that Emi had been hired at Columbus College of Art and Design in my hometown, and since then I have had opportunities to work with her on programming for Cartoon Crossroads Columbus and other comics-related fun in town. But I still keep up with everything she does, because it is all really, really good, and articulated with a comics voice that feels genuinely original and deeply honest.

That honesty comes through in all her work, from her occasional autobiographical stories, like Baseline Blvd through her growing body of non-fiction. Because much of this latter category is devoted to one of my favorite topics—dubious medical cures and the people who love them and promote them—I knew she was a perfect subject for our first Drawing Blood interview. My first question, inevitably, was what it was that attracts her to unconventional medical cures, such as Trepenation, Urine and most recently (in the “Scams” issue of the Nib quarterly magazine) the Goat Gland Doctor.

Emi Gennis: The history of medicine is fascinating to me, as is the history of science more generally. There’s a great deal of trial and error, sometimes with very high stakes, lots of calamitous blunders, dogged pursuits of ideas we would find preposterous today, dramatic rivalries. etc. I think I’m especially drawn to medical history, in part, just because it’s morbid and gross and I’m into stuff like that. It’s also very intimate. There’s such vulnerability in the exploration of medicine. It is inherently personal, and often intertwined with the examination of existential questions.

I’m also very interested and passionate about pseudoscience, or rather, passionate in my opposition to pseudoscience. Some, perhaps most, pseudoscientific practices are relatively harmless, and it’s important when discussing medical pseudoscience to acknowledge that the placebo effect is very real and can be a great benefit to patients. That said, there is always a danger in promoting medical pseudoscience if there’s any chance it may discourage patients from seeking more effective, scientifically backed treatment options for serious conditions. I’m deeply offended by the more dangerous pseudoscientific procedures and modalities that can cause immediate harm to patients, as well as those that exploit people in their most desperate moments for profit. I find this morally repugnant, though I rarely, if ever, use my work as a soapbox to directly express this.
JG: Are there some things can comics do in telling these stories that other narrative media perhaps cannot do as well?
EG: I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. All media have their own strengths, and if those strengths are well utilized, any medium could probably tell these stories just as well. The difference is, perhaps, the audience that might be reached. Each medium is going to draw a particular audience, and comics may be more accessible to certain people.
JG: When writing about some particularly far-out alternative medical regimens, you strive for a non-judgmental tone in relation to your subjects. Even the practice of trepanation gets treated with care and a kind of measured respect, even as you are clearly not advocating for it. Surely you go into your research and exploration of these topics with all kinds of preconceptions and prejudices, but one would not know that in reading your work. Is this a conscious effort on your part—something you have to work hard to achieve—or do you find that respectful neutrality is where your research of these topics naturally takes you?
EG: The neutral tone is certainly a conscious choice, but you’re right that I go into my research with a great deal of bias. The topics I choose to write about are purposefully absurd, at least, I would imagine, to most readers’ standards. I select them because they are unmistakably pseudoscience, and I therefore don’t feel the need to draw any special attention to that. The facts speak for themselves, so I’d rather just trust the reader to make their own assessment. 
In addition to that, I’m very conscious that these ideas are not abstract. They are the practice of real people, some of whom have been gracious enough to take time to speak to me for my research. It feels natural to give them the respect of not making them the butt of a joke (although they understandably will be for many readers, I try not to embed that judgement into the work itself). Many of my interview subjects have been equally respectful and understanding of my skepticism, so it feels right to show them the same courtesy. In the case of the trepanation and urine therapy pieces, these are people who aren’t necessarily pushing their ideas onto others, or preying on vulnerable people for monetary gain, in my opinion. I might not take such a respectful tone with other subjects.
JG: Your most recent piece in this vein is in the current issue of the Nib quarterly magazine, an issue dedicated to the theme of scams. What made you settle on the topic of John R. Brinkley?
EG: The Brinkley story was an easy choice. It’s one of my favorite medical history stories, in part because it’s so ridiculous, and also because it extends far past just medicine, into the history of music, technology, politics, etc. It also has a special place in my heart as a Kansas story, since my first teaching position was in southeast Kansas.
Brinkley is the quintessential example of a medical charlatan, or really any con man. He was charismatic and smart. He was very astute at finding people’s insecurities, and charming them into believing he had just the thing to solve their problems. The goat-gland scheme is brilliant, really. His victims, men experiencing sexual dysfunction, were easy targets. Many of them were clearly willing to try anything, even something as hair-brained as having surgery to insert goat testicles into their scrotums. The placebo effect would have worked for just enough people to garner several glowing testimonials, but the patients for whom it didn’t work would likely be too ashamed to come forward. He very obviously didn’t care about the people he swindled, including those who suffered injuries or even death following the operation, and solely cared about money. He was vain and lived incredibly opulently, plastering his name all over everything: his mansion and his pool and his plane and his yachts and at least one of his fleet of Cadillacs. He made an outlandish amount of money, even at the height of the Depression, and had no qualms showing it off.
The Brinkley story felt especially relevant because his brief stint as a politician has so many haunting parallels to recent history. He entered the 1930 gubernatorial election as a rich guy nobody took seriously. He took a phony populist stance, declaring himself a “man of the people” at rallies he held all over the state (despite making grand entrance to those rallies in his private plane, wearing the finest diamond jewelry). He was a showman. He made ludicrous campaign promises he could never have kept. He spoke his mind. He railed against the current government to crowds whose livelihoods had been decimated by the Great Depression, people that felt they had been left behind. Many were shocked and appalled by his sudden rise in popularity, and Brinkley reveled in the onslaught of criticism he received. He loved to play the martyr, even going to so far as to compare himself to Jesus. He used the new technology of radio to speak directly to voters, and stoked their anger. When his supporters were ridiculed as “morons,” they began proudly referring to themselves using the same language. Reading about his campaign felt nauseatingly familiar. Brinkley only lost the race because the state changed its voting rules just days before the election. He almost was, and from a legal/constitutional standpoint probably should have been, the governor of Kansas.
But the political stuff is just a small part of a long, complicated, simultaneously harrowing and wacky tale. My only regret about the piece is that it had to be so short! There’s so much information I would have loved to include that had to be cut. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in learning more about Brinkley read the book Charlatan by Pope Brock. Penny Lane also has a documentary about Brinkley called Nuts! that is both entertaining and informative. It’s definitely a story worth digging into further. There are so many twists, and so much drama. It’s nearly unbelievable, which is exactly the kind of nonfiction I look for as both a reader and a creator.
Emi Gennis

JG: Do you have anything else in the realm of medical history in the works?

EG: I haven’t been publishing much lately while I’ve been working on a book. I do have a piece coming out in the American Cult anthology, but it’s not really medicine related. Just weird cult stuff, haha. I suppose there’s some eugenics in there, which is related to my other work in a pseudo-sciencey way.

JG: Obviously both Baseline Blvd and The Plunge are very different works (as well as very different from each other), but are there ways in which you have conceived of connections between these and your medical history-related works?

EG: Perhaps with the exception of Baseline Blvd, if there’s any throughline in my work it’s probably failure. Maybe “failure” isn’t the right word, exactly. Looking back at the history and journalism pieces I’ve done in the last several years, I have noticed that all of them involve a misguided human impulse to reach for greatness, usually through hubris or desperation (or both), and falling short. Certainly that’s true in my history work. In The Plunge, Annie Taylor survives her trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but fails to achieve her goal of fame and money, which was the entire point of the stunt. In my upcoming piece about the Oneida community in American Cult, a religious commune starts out with laudable ideals only to devolve into an abusive eugenics cult. The pseudoscience pieces are maybe a bit less straightforward, but I think I’m drawn to them for similar reasons. These are people attempting to find answers, or a miracle, or just something bigger than themselves… and it leads to some pretty weird places, like drilling a hole in your head to achieve enlightenment, or drinking urine to cure all diseases. In the case of Brinkley, he knew he was selling snake oil, but he was only successful because patients wanted to believe that their youth and vitality could be restored. That’s a pretty lofty goal, most would say irrational. To be fair, a lot of progress and success stories have come out of people attempting the impossible though questionable, if not irrational means. I tend to make comics about instances when that didn’t quite work out, which is why I sometimes characterize my work as being about “failure.” I’m not entirely sure what keeps bringing me back to that theme–probably something to discuss with a therapist.

To learn more about Emi Gennis’ work (and to read many of her comics), visit her website at www.emigennis.com.

And as a special bonus, here is a picture from a video Emi shared at a recent reading, just in case anyone didn’t believe she actually drank her urine (we did). This is definitely a cartoonist who takes her research seriously!

Gennis reading