Stand Up, Comics

Getting the hang of graphic novels

I'm glad to be female when I say that comic books have never been part of my reading list. Because if I were a guy, I'd pretty much have to admit that I read Spider-Man and Archie as a kid, X-Menand Love and Rockets as a teenager, The Sandman and the Acme Novelty Library series as an adult (not to mention that I'd have to have watched Ultraman and Speed Racer and played lots of videogames). All boys read comics, right? Sure, and all men miss reading them, too.

It's stereotypes like these that have kept me from reading comics and their long-form variation, graphic novels, for years. Most of my old excuses no longer fly. I can't say I don't like the art, because there's so much variety that anyone with eyes can find a style she likes. I can't say the stories don't speak to me, because that would be like saying that books don't speak to me — there's no uniform story, any more than there's one type of novel. And now I can't even say that I don't know where to start, because I already have: Before I even knew there was a graphic novel "movement" I was reading Maus and Persepolis. Yet there I stalled, put off by the inscrutability of Chris Ware and the violence of S. Clay Wilson among other impediments (Wilson appears tonight at 7 at the Edinburgh Castle).

So when a friend recommended Cancer Made Me a Shallower Personby San Francisco's Miriam Engelberg (just published in May), I figured it was as good a time as any to pick up the trail again. What I didn't know is that it would lead me down a path that would open out into a whole new field, as if I'd gotten glasses for the first time. Oh, the trees have leaves on them? Amazing!

Before I get into Shallower and the places it has taken me, let me clarify the term "graphic novel." Plenty of artists whose work would appear in the graphic novel section of a bookstore would object to the phrase, coined in 1964 by critic and publisher Richard Kyle. He meant to distinguish a new, longer form he saw coming out of Europe and Japan from the cheap, single-issue comic books then in circulation in the United States, but it has come to imply, for some people, an aesthetic or literary improvement over plain old "comics." In fact, there's too much overlap to separate them that distinctly. Graphic novels are neither always "graphic" — by which I mean explicit or hand-drawn (some are computer-generated) — nor always novels (the label encompasses memoirs, anthologies, and story collections, not just continuous narrative works of fiction). Into this morass steps Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, appropriately subtitled A Memoir in Comics.

The most important thing to know about Shallower is that it's funny. The title alone should tell you that, but people see the word "cancer" and assume it's depressing. Yes, the back story is unavoidably sad: At age 43, Engelberg, a writer, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She's now 48 and in hospice care at home (during a phone interview she says, only half joking, that she wants to live long enough to see how Project Runway ends). She started writing and drawing the book — a series of vignettes told in words and pictures — as part therapy, part legacy. She doesn't consider it a graphic novel, and that seems right: She says she's always felt "more like a writer than a drawer" anyway.

The style of Shallower is simple black line drawings (NPR's Melissa Block called it "primitive," which is insulting), but as Engelberg explains, "It's perfect for what I want to say." Many of the 51 titled strips made me laugh out loud. I particularly like the one in which Miriam gets an MRI, but the machine's odd noises make her imagine that it's really just the Monty Python crew creating sound effects. I've had an MRI, so I can relate, but Shallower isn't just for people who've been through what the author's been through: As Engelberg explains, "When I wrote it, I really did mean it as just a book about life, for everybody."

In researching Shallower, I found that it was often reviewed with another book in a similar vein, Mom's Cancer by Santa Rosa's Brian Fies. Fies first started publishing the richly illustrated stories about his mother's battle with lung cancer anonymously on the Web in 2004; the next year the series won the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic, a category that hadn't existed the year before. This March, Abrams brought the whole shebang out as a regular trade hardcover, which has been nominated for a Quill Book Award in the Graphic Novel category (to be announced on Oct. 10). It's not a novel, either.

Mom's Cancer is more cinematic than Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, which is to say that it tells a more-or-less linear story with greater visual variety. It's also more pointed than Shallower, and made me cry in places. But it made me laugh, too; one of the rare colored strips, for instance, takes off on a quote from Fies' wife: "When people face an emergency, they just become more of what they already are. Like they get superpowers." The panel shows Fies and his two younger sisters as superheroes — he as a masked man in tights armed with a giant pen, his middle sister as a nurse robot, and his youngest sister as an invisible woman — duking it out over his mom's care.

Even these two titles aren't the only graphic novels about cancer. Harvey Pekar (of American Splendorfame) and his wife, Joyce Brabner, wrote Our Cancer Year in 1994 (illustrated by Frank Stack). The wicked, outrageous Cancer Vixen: A True Story by Marisa Acocella Marchetto of New York, came out just this week. (Engelberg says her publisher pushed the release of her book up to beat Cancer Vixen: "Just because you have cancer doesn't mean you're noble; you're still doing marketing.") And I'm sure there are even more books along these lines.

But rather than continue in the direction of disease memoirs, I decided to educate myself more broadly: I picked up a copy of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life by London's Paul Gravett, which came out last November. Whether you're new to the genre or an old hand, you'll appreciate his sensible, visual, enthusiastic take on the past, present, and future of the form. I came away from it wanting to read about 10 other graphic novels, and that's more than I can say for, hell, The New York Times Book Review.

The frustrating thing about being a graphic novel newbie is that I haven't had anyone to lead me into the field. Reviews are scanty unless you look for them in unconventional places. Booksellers don't seem to push outstanding graphic titles the way they do even mediocre novels (The Kite Runner, anyone?). An e-mail to a well-known comics critic, Heidi MacDonald — whose blog, "The Beat," is now part of Publishers Weekly — netted some good suggestions (including Gravett's book), as well as a push to visit a couple of local comics stores. But this girl isn't quite ready for that. For now, I'm just going to read what's next on the list: Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi, the author of Persepolis. Maybe I haven't come that far after all.

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