“Superheroes are anything but fiction”: Two new collaborative comic books highlight real-life stories of AHN nurses and EMS workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Ashlee Green

Northsider Frank Dreyer, principal user experience (UX) designer at Highmark Health, has spent the last year working on all of the web, app, and other digital campaign design for the company’s COVID-19 response. Late last year, though, his job took a new, more creative spin.

“[We were] setting up all of these COVID-19 systems: ‘What do you do? How do you get tested?’” he explains. “There’s an army of people behind the scenes trying to make this stuff work, from appointments and vaccinations to testing and the logistics around healthcare and insurance. It’s quite remarkable.” 

A new campaign to recognize and to pay tribute to nurses’ heroic efforts was pitched by Allegheny Health Network’s (AHN) marketing team, Doner, to Marvel Entertainment and the result was a comic book called “The Vitals – True Nurse Stories.” Dreyer’s job was to manage the digital side of it, making sure that the connection between Marvel and both AHN.org and Highmark.com was seamless.

A look inside the new comic book collaboration between AHN and Marvel Entertainment: “The Vitals – True EMS Stories.” Courtesy of AHN

It took the stories of healthcare heroes to new heights in three separate tales written by Marvel’s Sean Ryan: “Cut Through the Noise,” about an exhausted nurse who buzzes her hair off in a symbolic act of determination for her job; “Can’t Stop,” which shows nurses’ endurance amidst a constant onslaught of lifesaving COVID-19 care; and “Smiling Eyes,” about the daily company and comfort a nurse provides to one of her bedridden patients.

“At Marvel, we tell stories about heroes every day,” Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Entertainment, said in a press release. “But this story is special. It tells a story about our everyday heroes—the nurses and healthcare professionals working tirelessly and courageously to save lives.” Dreyer agrees. 

“It was inspiring to see a tribute to the workers as a Marvel story—to have [Marvel’s] authentic writers and illustrators just owning it,” he says. “It was truly engaging and extremely popular around the world.”

The back cover of the newest comic book collaboration between Allegheny Health Network and Marvel Entertainment: “The Vitals – True EMS Stories.” Courtesy of AHN

Following the success of the first comic book campaign, AHN partnered with Marvel again—this time to honor EMS providers during National EMS Week, which took place May 16 to 22, 2021. The resulting comic book, entitled “The Vitals – True EMS Stories,” features three stories as well, also written by Ryan. “In Good Hands” is about the comradery and adaptability of EMS workers; “Alone in a Storm” chronicles how a LifeFlight pilot stays calm in both a literal and figurative storm; and “Love, Mom” showcases the pain of an EMS worker who cannot hug her daughter due to her day-to-day proximity to the virus. 

Dreyer, who throughout his career has produced concert films for big names such as Quincy Jones, Massive Attack, and Elvis Costello and designed beer can labels for Allegheny City Brewing, calls both Marvel comic book projects “authentic” and “compelling.”

“I’m a big believer in transmedia or omnichannel storytelling and trying to bring that strategy to the actual stories that our patients and coworkers go through every day,” says Dreyer. “Both comic books just give you a real sense of empathy about living life on the front lines.”

You can find out more about the comics and read them on the AHN website.

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