The United States is having a hell of a time right now: the country is facing high inflation (Smialek), increased CEO pay relative to workers (Jacoby 128-129), and the loss of abortion rights in many states ("Tracking the States"). The country's medical care system is yet another example of this hellishness.
Although the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, increased access to medical care in the United States—from 2010 to 2016, the number of uninsured Americans decreased from 48.2 to 28.2 million ("New HHS Data Show More Americans")—many are still uninsured, and many still face medical debt. The CDC reports that 9.7% of the American population (31.6 million people) lacks health insurance as of 2020 (Cha and Cohen 6). And, according to a 2019 survey by the US Census, 17.1% of Americans have medical debt (Debt for Households). The Kaiser Family Foundation claims that the actual percentage of Americans with medical debt may be substantially higher—41% (Lopes et al.). Obamacare lowers costs for “households with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level” (“Summary of Benefits and Coverage”), yet Americans still often pay for medical care out of their personal pockets. The scholars Jonathan Oberlander and Theodore R. Marmor note that, in contrast to early hopes in the '60s regarding Medicare expansion to a universal healthcare system, Obamacare is more capitalist than the publicly-funded, single-payer insurance of Canada. The Affordable Care Act’s “health reform model [has]… a reliance on private plans, consumer choice, means-tested subsidies, and employer financing” (Oberlander and Marmor 69). Though the American medical system covers more people than it used to, it remains distant from the universal healthcare that the UK and Canada provide their people.
Dori Seda was a comic artist who would look at our modern healthcare system and economic situation and say, “I told you so.” Her short science-fiction story “Hospital Hell!!”, published in Cannibal Romance #1 (Last Gasp) in 1986, argues that Ronald Reagan’s presidency signaled or coincided with several items: the destruction of the possibility of universal healthcare, the decreasing power of the middle class, the might that careerist women could obtain in the workplace (unfortunately by enslaving other women), and the changing of the middle and lower classes into commodifiable “tumors” from which the wealthy could profit. Although Seda’s version of 2013 in her story is slightly more dystopian than America’s current 2022, the awareness of economic and healthcare matters of the '80s in “Hospital Hell!!” makes Seda’s story a relevant criticism of the United States’ current inequity. In this analysis, I review what is missing in Dori Seda scholarship, historically situate Seda’s “How My Family Encouraged Me to Become an Artist!”, and, most importantly, perform a thorough overview of how Dori Seda’s under-analyzed and prophetic story “Hospital Hell!!” fits into the governmental and economic shifts of the Reagan era.
Dori Seda was an influential cartoonist of the '80s alternative comic scene. Crafting comic art almost exclusively during Reagan’s presidency, Seda had many works published in R. Crumb's anthology Weirdo (Cooke 38; Friedman 7), and she contributed to four and edited one issue of the all-women's comic anthology Wimmen's Comix (Kryttre and Seda 406). The often-studied cartoonist Julie Doucet lists Seda as one of her favorite artists in issue 210 of The Comics Journal (“Beyond the Grid” 111–12). And the comics scholar Charles Hatfield credits her, along with Justin Green and Harvey Pekar, as a primary inspiration for many of the autobiographical comic artists of the late 20th century (ch. 4). Seda died in 1988 before she could see the true ascendency of autobiographical comics.
Unfortunately, despite her influence and her many stories critical of the '80s rise in conservatism, no scholar has ever analyzed Seda’s treatment of the economic alterations of the Reagan era. The literary scholar James Zeigler has analyzed Seda’s work in the context of sexual shaming by the New Right of the late '70s and '80s, however. In the essay “For Shame!”, Zeigler argues that Seda’s work “Fuck Story” portrays the complex use of shame in contrast to the simplified shaming of feminists, kinksters, and homosexuals by the conservatives who got Ronald Reagan into power (Zeigler 252). Zeigler is right to focus on Seda’s sexual explicitness in opposition to the New Right because much of Seda’s work is sexually expressive. For example, the UK banned Seda’s Lonely Nights (Last Gasp, 1986) due to her anthology’s risqué nature, and her work contrasted with the “Meese Report” (“Month of Women”), an attorney-general established charter set up to censor and stop the spread of erotic works in the mid-'80s (Burger 437). Nonetheless, deep dives into Seda’s treatment of the New Right’s economic changes remain scarce.
Seda often wrote about the poverty of artistry. For example, in "How My Family Encouraged Me to Become an Artist!” (published in Weirdo #20 in 1987), Seda points out the economic challenges that being an artist presented to her in the '80s: “After my father’s death, my mother continued to encourage my art. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t as good as the mystique” (Seda 136). Wondering if a café will “take food stamps for a refill of coffee” and unable to afford clothes that satisfy her mother’s bourgeois expectations, Seda explains that many members of her family discourage their children from creating art based on Seda’s lack of economic success (Seda 137) (see fig. 2).
Seda’s portrayal of her poverty differentiates her from many alternative women comic artists of the '80s. As Angela Bocage notes in my interview with her, many contributors to Wimmen's Comix came from wealthy families or had well-off partners supporting them (“Bring Your Artistic Perceptions to Any Subject”). Many artists in Wimmen's ignored the economic challenges of being an artist because they could. Although occasionally supported by her (not rich) partner Don Donahue (Donahue 40), Seda was conscious of economic hardship, and one can see this in "How My Family Encouraged Me to Become an Artist!"
The exhibition of an artist’s poverty in “How My Family Encouraged Me to Become an Artist!” also has historical precedent. Though Seda does not mention it in the piece, the US government increasingly attacked art in the '80s. With its desire to engage in “New Federalism”, the Reagan administration sought “major reductions in Medicare as well as all other social welfare and domestic spending programs” (Wing 783). One of these “domestic spending programs” was the National Endowment for the Arts. The Reagan administration not only decreased funding to the National Endowment in the administration’s early years, but also planned on phasing the endowment out completely (Weber). The National Endowment often provides funding for poor and rural art centers, so the endowment’s defunding would have affected impoverished artists like Seda (Horwitz). The stereotype of the starving artist was not new in the '80s, but Seda’s “How My Family Encouraged Me” can be read in the context of a newly neoliberal government disinterested in the liberal funding granted to the arts throughout the mid-20th century.
In spite of the deeper meaning of “How My Family Encouraged Me” in its Reagan-era historical context, Seda is more overt in her criticisms of the president in “Hospital Hell!!”. “Hospital Hell!!” shows a 2013 ruled by Ronald Reagan’s brain “hooked up to a Disney-land robot.” In this world, Ronald Reagan banned “free elections” in 1988 and renamed the United States “Ronniopolis” (Seda 70). From the beginning of the story, Seda critiques Reagan as a corporatized president: he speaks through a robot manufactured by an entertainment company rather than having to deal with material reality how the average person does. While the denizens of “Hospital Hell!!” must contend with rampant disease, Reagan’s brain is hermetically sealed in a container away from “waste dumps” that spill constant illness-creating chemicals into the air. In the first panel of the comic, Reagan’s robot body and his brain are surrounded by a pristinely white room in a televised area, whereas two patients speaking to each other (a computer nerd man and a woman) have silhouettes of the waste dumps behind them (see fig. 3).
The Lost Possibility of a Universal Healthcare System
"Hospital Hell!!" does not merely have Reagan loom over the nation in a one-off gag about entertainment corporations crafting the body of the president. The comic also shows how Ronald Reagan (and the neoliberal '80s more broadly) negatively affects how the main character of “Hospital Hell!!” receives healthcare. The main character of Seda’s piece is “Joe Smith”, a man with a tumor growing on the side of his stomach. After getting fellatio from a nurse who is supposedly “curin’” him, the nurse informs Joe, “[y]ou don't have hospital insurance, and Medi-Cal was outlawed yesterday. The new government policy is to let people in your income bracket die in the streets” (Seda 71). In part because Seda lived in California throughout much of the '80s (Sternbergh 182), “Medi-Cal” is likely a reference to California’s division of the Medicaid program (“California Medicaid”). Medicaid is a medical insurance program somewhat funded by the American federal government; the program (in theory) grants extensive funding to low-income people in need of medical aid (Cohen et al. 247-248). The Reagan administration derided federal Medicaid funding and the program’s benefits. Reagan had been hired by the AMA to speak out against “socialized medicine” in the '60s (“Ronald Reagan Speaks”). And his administration’s proposed Program for Economic Recovery (1981) argued that the eligibility for the program was too high and that it gave too many benefits to enrollees (“Revise Entitlements to Eliminate Unintended Benefits” 15). The administration was terrified of (implicitly racialized) thieving “welfare queens” abusing governmental funds (Brocknell), so it decreased Federal matching to state funding of Medicaid programs throughout the early '80s (Klemm 108).
The portrayal of an “outlawed” governmental health insurance in “Hospital Hell!!” remains relevant. Though the Reagan administration would later expand Medicaid to include more pregnant women, children, disabled people, and the elderly—groups already covered by the program (Klemm 108)—the administration did not try to expand the healthcare services of either Medicaid or Medicare to new groups, of whom Seda would have been a part (Oberlander and Marmor 66). The rise of Reagan signaled a change in the federal approach to government spending and increased disdain toward the welfare state. Jonathan Oberlander and Theodore R. Marmor argue that “[t]he election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency furthered the ascendance of conservatism…. The Reagan administration sought to cut taxes, privatize the welfare state, and constrain federal expenditures” (65). Thus, the possibility of universal healthcare ended with the increased power of conservatism in the '80 (Oberlander and Marmor 65). Ted Kennedy’s proposals in the '70s for universal healthcare were no longer possible by the time that Reagan took office (Oberlander and Marmor 63-64). One can contextualize the Obama administration’s economically moderate medical expansion in a world where the rise of conservatism in the late '70s and '80s continues to affect national politics. America’s medical care in 2022 is far too much like Seda’s postulated medical care in 2013.
Seda’s death coincides with Reagan’s disinterest in establishing universal healthcare. Due to her lack of access to Medicaid, Dori Seda tragically died in 1988. That year, she suffered from flu and lung problems that a car accident exacerbated (Sternbergh 182). Leslie Sternbergh, writing in the posthumous Seda collection Dori Stories (Last Gasp, 1999), even believes that Seda might have had a punctured lung from the accident. Being an example of a starving artist, Seda did not seek out more medical assistance after her accident because she was ineligible for Medi-Cal. She had "a fear of incurring more medical expenses," Sternbergh writes.
The Decreasing Power of the Middle Class
Seda also critiques Reagan’s larger changes to the United States’ economy, emphasizing Joe Smith’s lowered class status. Smith is poor but used to be middle class. The nurse who gives Joe a blowjob notes that Smith is part of a low “income bracket.” Yet, while getting free surgery at a place called “Hospital Hell”, Joe “dream[s] of [his] middle-class childhood… [T]he middle class in Ronniopolis had vanished by the time [Smith] reached puberty" (Seda 75). Smith had been middle class, but Seda points out that, under Reagan’s continued presidency, Smith lost his middle-class status. Moreover, Seda implies that Smith is unemployed. Seda never shows Smith at a job or has Smith talk about one, and Seda only shows Smith traveling to and from the hospital and his girlfriend’s place. Smith seems as if he should be employable: he is physically fit, good-looking, and does not appear to have an intellectual disability. Multiple women make come-ons to Smith throughout the comic (he has sex with at least four different women); the fellating nurse recommends Smith to “Hospital Hell” because he is “such a hunk” (Seda 71); and Seda showcases his attractive, muscular body in several panels (see fig. 4). Inexplicitly, Seda is criticizing the Reagan administration’s handling of unions through Smith’s poverty.
Before the '80s, fit men without education, like the un-uniquely named “Joe Smith”, were employable and often well-paid. According to the economist Robert Reich, from the '50s to the end of the '70s, many blue-collar men without a college education could easily obtain jobs with unions that would fight for middle-class pay and benefits (Reich 60). Before Reagan's economic changes, Smith would have fit into this category of laborer: Smith likely does not have a college degree because the middle-class of Ronniopolis "vanished by the time [he] reached puberty," and his body is fit enough for physical labor.
However, the Reagan administration's anti-union policies would go on to decrease the power of likely blue-collar men like Smith. In 1981, Reagan fired around 11,000 striking air traffic controllers whom the Federal Aviation Administration employed (McCartin 301). The labor historian Joseph McCartin writes that throughout the '80s, and fortified by the president's stance against the air traffic control strikers, private companies like Hormel, Continental Airlines, the Chicago Tribune, and International Paper would hire replacement workers during strikes to display their company’s power over unions (349). Moreover, the number of work stoppages per year decreased substantially due to Reagan’s decision to fire the aviation strikers. McCartin writes, ”After 1981… [t]he United States never again saw the annual number of major work stoppages reach even one-third of pre-[air traffic controller union] levels. During the 1980s, the annual average plummeted to eighty-three; during the 1990s it sank to thirty-four; during the 2000s it was twenty” (351). Also, in the '80s, many middle-class industrial union jobs were replaced with nonunionized "clerical and service jobs that did not pay enough to provide middle-class income" (Pressman 184). Business analysts such as Gerald F. Davis note that union power is tied to high-quality private insurance, which Smith does not have, and that lower union power equates to higher medical expenses in the modern day for many would-be middle-class laborers (7700). Smith represents the new underemployed, underpaid, and benefit-less lower-class male who emerged during the Reagan administration and who increased in number thereafter.
“Hospital Hell!!” also critiques the increasing restriction of wealth to the already rich in the '80s, having one of the few affluent characters in the comic be an heir. Manica, the doctor who removes Smith's tumor, is a "wealthy heiress" (Seda 71) (see fig. 5). City University of New York professor Miles Corak notes that, since the late 1970s and '80s, the intergenerational retention of capital has increased in the United States (88). Robert Reich blames this development on "[l]egal changes implemented under the Reagan administration [that] led many states to extend [family trusts] in perpetuity" (182). Moreover, many credit Reagan with decreasing “the maximum estate tax [a tax on inherited money or property] rate from 70% to 55%” (Kent). Indeed, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 would decrease the maximum tax rate on estate tax to 55% by 1984 (United States 300). Reich argues that the restriction of the upper-class’s wealth to the already upper-class during the Reagan era negatively impacted the poor's ability to join and thus grow the middle class. Inherited wealth and the United States' overall economic size inflate despite recessions, but the wealth of America increasingly remains only in the hands of the rich due to prevalent inheritance (Reich 182). Manica is one of the only wealthy people—along with robotized Reagan—whom Seda shows the reader. In consideration of the story's eradicated middle class, Manica serves as an accurate representation of a neo-aristocracy that, due to legal changes in the '80s, inherits more and more of its money.
The Problems with Careerist Women Replicating the Patriarchy’s Flaws
Seda also uses Manica to criticize how the increased number of careerist women in the Reagan era would repeat the patriarchy's flaws. Manica is a liberated woman. She herself coerces Joe into having sex with her after his surgery: "Well, big boy, ya wanna fuck?" (Seda 75). And Manica dresses in skimpy, erotic clothing throughout the story (see fig. 6). However, beyond a one-off fling with Joe, Manica uses sex for her economic benefit: the "hospital" that she owns, the titular "Hospital Hell", also serves as Manica's semi-brothel. Joe has an “orgy” before the real tumor removal, and this orgy is done with a nurse/dominatrix hybrid, or what Manica describes as a "girl… nurse… slut… whatever!" (Seda 72). Thus, Manica sexually exploits other women for her economic gain. Moreover, when Joe requests recovery time after his surgery (and after he and Manica have sex), Manica rebuffs him, stating: "No Honey. If you're healthy enough to fuck my brains out, you're healthy enough to go home" (Seda 76). Manica is sexually "liberated" and takes on a demanding career despite her wealth, but she does not help the lower class in the world of "Hospital Hell!!"
Through Manica's economic and sexual liberation at the expense of others, Seda critiques the development of the '80s career woman. Caryn Leschen, an artist who worked with Seda for Wimmen's Comix, notes that a change in women's employment occurred in the '80s, stating that the decade was the first time "for it to be commonplace that [one] might have a woman boss" (25:51-25:55). The percentage of American female workers in executive, administrative, or managerial positions increased in the decade: from 31% in 1980 to 40% in 1990 (“Detailed Occupation and Other Characteristics”; “Detailed Occupation of the Experienced Civilian Labor Force”). Manica serves as a critique of many feminist encouragements for women to get out and work: while second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan justly advanced intellectual stimulation and a life beyond raising babies for women (356-358), through Manica, Seda highlights that many women (especially those who inherited wealth) would use their encouraged economic freedom in the '80s to profit off of other women’s work and not help the needy.
Manica’s maltreatment of other women and men despite her own liberation replicates what many feminist critics see in the age of the “girlboss”. Although many modern businesswomen like Sheryl Sandberg might push the idea that more women at the top of the business hierarchy results in more equality for women at the bottom, feminists like bell hooks criticize corporate feminism for promoting the same masculinist hierarchies as the ones of the 20th century. Having Manica abuse the lower classes, Seda correctly shows that corporatization of women in the '80s would not result in radical equality that some second-wave feminists believed would arrive with more women in the workplace.
The Middle Class and Lower Classes Becoming Sellable “Tumors”
Manica's abuse of the poor is at its worst when she sells Smith's tumor as food. As part of a preliminary pay-out for Smith’s surgery, Manica gives Smith $1,000 (Seda 72). After he gets this money, Smith goes to the "Upscale's Gourmet Delight" (Seda 73). There, he finds food labeled only with numbers and gets his girlfriend a number 27 that his girlfriend calls "delicious" (Seda 73). During the operation on the tumor, Smith glimpses his removed cancerous growth, and Manica describes the tumor as "magnificent" while an ogre-like assistant states, "and malignant too! There will be more!" (Seda 75). Going back to the gourmet food store, Smith discovers that his tumor is for sale for $4,000 (Seda 76) (see fig. 7). Part of the reason that Manica had Smith have sex with her nurse/dominatrix hybrid was to make his tumor taste better. (Some think that happier pigs make better meat.)
The tumor is not literal within the story. The growth does not seem to be a real sickness, for Smith is not only physically fit but also capable of having rigorous sex with multiple women. Instead, the cancer serves as an allegory for what Seda saw would occur to many members of the formerly middle and lower classes: they would become poorly remunerated commodities from whom the already wealthy could make even more of a profit than they had in previous decades. Seda’s guess was correct. The Economic Policy Institute finds that “[f]rom 1978 to 2020, CEO pay based on realized compensation grew by 1,322%…. In contrast, compensation of the typical worker grew by just 18.0% from 1978 to 2020” (Mishel and Kandra). Smith's tumor represents the new lower class of the '80s and today (which includes the former middle class), not valued for its personhood but as "meat" for which members of the class give bare payment and from which the wealthiest Americans, like Manica, profit.
Seda’s pessimism at the future of wealth in America after the Reagan administration’s “end” also helps to explain how Seda draws the story. Seda exhibits every character as doll-like: her narrative’s people have big, mildly bobble-head-esque heads with elongated but small lower bodies; i.e., her figures look similar to Barbies. This resemblance to children’s toys goes against the individualistic power fantasies that Reagan’s tax cuts offered businesspeople. The economic situation of “Hospital Hell!!” controls the characters of the story like how children control their playthings. In contrast, superheroes of the '80s had muscular, realistically proportioned bodies and heads to display how powerful these un-communalist figures were.
By showing Joe Smith’s (in)access to healthcare, his lowered class status, and Manica’s cannibalistic abuse of the man in “Hospital Hell!!”, Dori Seda crafted a political comic that has many reverberations with America’s modern economic situation. Seda’s criticism of Reagan-era economic changes is incongruent with the opinion of many Americans in the '80s. With a (then) booming economy, Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, winning the popular vote with 16.9 million more person-by-person votes and 512 more electoral votes (“1984”). Seda’s critique of Reagan neither fits into the voting habits of Americans nor the often currently lionized picture of the former president.
However, in a private Twitter DM to me from Angela Bocage, Bocage reveals that, like many in San Francisco, Seda avoided televised news and the mainstream press (also see fig. 1). To develop scholarship about the alternative comic scene of the '80s further, future scholars should investigate non-mainstream news sources that many cartoonists were reading at the time. Works like Seda’s, World War 3 Illustrated, and the more left-leaning political works in Wimmen’s Comix’s post-hiatus years did not emerge from nothing, and it would be valuable to see where ideas so at odds with average American beliefs emerged.
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I thank Angela Bocage for her help in making this article. Furthermore, I would like to retrospectively thank the deceased Dr. Cheryl Hindrichs, for whom I made an original version of this article.
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