27 Jan 2020
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.
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!
Jared Gardner is a professor and patient at the Ohio State University.