Monday, October 23, 2006

Graphic Lit: "Cancer Vixen" and "Dungeon"

According to the American Cancer Society every three minutes a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Some of the women who contract this insidious disease will, through surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments, survive. Some will not.

They are our mothers, daughters, wives and friends. Attention must be paid to their plight, and we need to honor those who have lost their lives as we work toward a cure.

But does that mean every patient wants her story to be told? In 224-page detail? With lots of asides on what sort of shoes your oncologist wears?

I ask these questions having just read “Cancer Vixen,” a new, hugely hyped graphic novel from New Yorker cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto (a movie version has already been greenlighted with Cate Blanchett in the leading role).

In 2004, Marchetto discovered a lump in her breast that turned out to be cancerous. Of course, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. At age 43 she had finally met the man of her dreams and was in the midst of planning her wedding.

The fact that she had let her insurance lapse didn’t make things any easier.

Marchetto provides a good deal of backdrop about her pre-cancer lifestyle and how she met her fabulous husband-to-be, celebrity restaurateur Silvano Marchetto.

Too much detail in fact, as we get page after page of her eating great food, obsessing about her looks and weight and fending off obnoxious models hitting on her fiance. The rest of us should have it so bad.

The book is filled with references to fashion, models and shoes. Just about every cliche about trendy New Yorkers can be found in these pages. “Sex and the City” parallels are far too obvious for me to make them here.

When she’s dealing with the nitty gritty details of her cancer treatment, Marchetto is on solid ground. The sections on her chemo treatment, or detailing how her family handled her bad news are well-done and involving.

When she tries to reach for a more profound insight, however, she comes up with empty New Age spoutings like “When you light a candle, you illuminate a soul.”

Marchetto also tends to go for obvious metaphors. The disease is portrayed as the Grim Reaper. Cancer cells look like “Mr. Yuck” stickers. White blood cells are happy smiley faces. She calls her mother her (s)mother. (Get it?) And so on.

I don’t mean to suggest that the book is awful. I liked Marchetto’s loose, sketchy style, and she often writes with a good deal of self-effacing humor. It’s just that I kept tripping up on the more awkward moments for me to wholeheartedly recommend the work.

That said, those who are members of “the Cancer Club” will no doubt get a great deal more from this book than I did.

I salute Marchetto for telling her story with bravery and humor. I’m just not sure I came away from it with anything I didn’t already know. Beyond what sort of shoes an oncologist wears, I mean.


When Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim began the “Donjon” series in France back in 1998, few knew how ambitious their vision would be.

The simple fact that two alternative cartoonists were publishing a sword and sorcery parody for a major publisher was odd enough. The comparison would be if Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch decided to collaborate on a big-budget superhero film.

But what at first came off as a simple parody soon became a universe unto itself.

Not content with the initial story line, involving a cowardly duck, a warrior dragon and a labyrinthian dungeon that attracts good business, Sfar and Trondheim have expanded their series into 20 volumes so far.

Some of them are mere spin-off tales involving secondary characters, while others delve back into the dungeon’s past and future.

The latest U.S. volume, “Dungeon Twilight Vol. 2: Armageddon” (NBM, 96 pages, $14.95), is out now and continues the high level of imagination and wit the series is known for.

The “Twilight” stories take place many, many years after the main “Dungeon” saga. Here, Herbert the duck, who was little more than an office boy in the first volume, has become an evil sorcerer.

His friend Marvin the dragon is now blind and armless and desperate to find his family. Meanwhile, their planet is in danger of literally falling to pieces.

Anyone who’s handled a 20-sided die, even in passing, will appreciate the jokes being thrown around here.

But you don’t have to have a degree in high geekery to enjoy this series. There’s enough smart characterization and emotional involvement to win over even the fantasy-averse soul.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


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