guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

May/June 2006

Brian Fies, Mom’s Cancer (Abrams Image, 2006). 128 pp. (hardcover) $12.95

by Jared Gardner

Mom’s Cancer
began its life as a web comic (which won the 2005 Eisner for best digital comic) before arriving at what is an increasingly common destination of late for the best digital comics: the book. This spring Abrams published the complete graphic narrative of one family’s struggle with the most dreaded words in any patient’s lexicon: “inoperable cancer.” In the case of Brian Fies’ mother, it was lung cancer (the result, all too predictably, of a lifetime of smoking) and a brain tumor (the result, tragically, of the lung cancer’s metastization). But this is not Death be not Proud: the Comic. This is a story full of everything that makes comics what they are: humor in the face of pain, complicated shifts in tone and perspective, and (most surprising of all) genuine silliness. Not that Fies ever makes light of his mother’s or his family’s (or his own) pain throughout their long ordeal. But he finds a way to share with his readers the absurdity of life and death (and especially of the medical establishment that stands as Cerberus guarding the gates of both portals).

And given that many of Fies’ readers are themselves patients and family members (and even doctors seeking to understand, at last, something of the experience of what it is to be a patient), this is a powerful gift indeed. The power to find laughter in the heart of the darkness of disease is everything. Other books have tried, but perhaps it took a comic to do it with just the right touch. The serial webcomic structure of the original militated against the kind of extended meditations and heartfelt soul-searching that by necessity dominate the prose memoir; even more happily, it refuses the paper-thin melodrama of the familiar death-bed screenplay. Instead, Fies is forced to pinpoint with the accuracy of a surgeon those moments when everything changed for the family (and with cancer, it changes so many times). Fies focuses his energies on the places where things went off script: communication breaks down, decision-making goes wrong, the vision of what is coming up proves to be woefully inadequate, or the family loses its humor and turns on itself like a rabid dog. Over and over again, even as he recounts heartbreakingly painful moments in the course of the disease and its treatment, the book’s overarching message remains clear.  In the face of death, strength and survival lie in each other—in our ability to laugh in the face of death and doctors and in our confidence in our own judgment (cynical though it might be).

The book gently and lovingly teases the family’s fantasies, both mom’s and the kids’—fantasies that they can cure her inoperable cancer with internet research or by riding herd over the nurses and everyone else in their paths. And it teases, equally gently and almost as lovingly, the doctors: the oncologist playing videogames with Mom’s brain; the doctor whose fake smile in the face of the grimmest of situations almost results in her getting decked; and the endless stream of contradictory advice and mixed messages.

Not everyone will be immediately at ease with Fies’ light contemporary Sunday comics graphic style, which at first glance feels better suited to the kinds of topics (ice cream and sassy tots) at the heart of a comicstrip like “One Big Happy.” But Fies’ dead-on syndicated comicstrip style is precisely what allows him bounce so effortlessly around the margins of “acceptable” ways of talking about the grimmest of subjects. How else could he have managed to address the issue of inoperable cancer through a representation of Mom as the board-game
Operation (“repeat until better or dead”) or the siblings fighting amongst themselves as an epic battle of self-important superheroes? It is in part Fies’ ability to make both the writing and the drawing of Mom’s Cancer look so effortless, so easy, that lies at the heart of its profound sense of honesty and its genuine humanity in the face of dehumanizing conditions.

I recently took
Mom’s Cancer  with me to a week-long visit to the Mayo Clinic, where I was scheduled for a seemingly endless round of painful tests, brusque consultations with doctors who seemed incapable of listening, and of course the waiting, waiting, waiting. And even though my own health issues are the thinnest gossamer compared to what Mom and her family went through, this book was a source of camaraderie and companionship during what turned out to be one of my loneliest and most frustrating weeks. It is a book that I will take with me to waiting rooms to come, and I am a better, happier, and more assertive patient for having read it. I’m not sure, however, that my (ex-)doctor would agree.