Cover of graphic novel
Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner at the time of the book
Dear friends and readers,
As those people who read my Sylvia blog know, my husband, Jim (“the Admiral”), was diagnosed with esophageal cancer this past April 28th, and he and I have been coping ever since. He had major surgery on June 3rd, and has been slowly recovering; it is probable he will have to endure chemotherapy and radiation when his natural body processes have re-asserted themselves.
During this time I have been told many success stories about people who survived nearly inoperable cancer. I have heard of a few who died. I’ve also had recommended to me books to read — to pass the time, to teach and sustain me. One stood out & I bought a copy of the graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, text by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, pictures by Frank Stack. Pekar is famous for his powerful because truthful American Splendor comics, adapted for film.
I find I often respond to graphic novels very directly and can get irritated by them in ways I wouldn’t by a sheerly written text. Have others found this? does this genre enter into people’s lives at some sore angle? I found I had a direct visceral personal response to this graphic novel about an experience of malignant cancer in the husband, Harvey, that he and his (third) wife Joyce, are sharing which Jim and I are now analogously experiencing. Harvey and Joyce live in a run-down apartment in Cleveland — the way the real Harvey and Joyce did. They have many books, about the number Jim and I probably had when we lived in an apartment.
Here they are told by the super they will have to move and argue about it
The super will later be shown to be a man trying to cheat them at every turn, trying to set up a kickback situation for himself at the same time. That this may be common shows why some people who persist in this property cherishing DIY.
I am interested in the genre of graphic novel and how it differs on the one hand from comic books and on the other from textual novels. It has depths the comic book does not have: not just the drawings which can be artful, but the text itself comes in at an angle different from that of text. There is an implied authorial and an implied illustrator presence. It is a collaborative and complex new sub-genre of the novel.
Thus far I’ve read adapted graphic novels (from Austen’s (S&S, P&P, NA), and from Radcliffe’s Udolpho; three original great ones by Posy Simmons (Tamara Drew, Gemma Bovery and Literary Life), two powerful gothics by Audrey Neiffenegger’s (Night Bookmobile and The Incestuous Sisters), and a couple of women’s memoirs (Persian whose author’s name and title I can never remember, the pictures too tiny, the writing too dense; Jewish, Bechtel’s which is really half-lies not simply autobiography with imagination; and Phoebe Potts’s Good Eggs, which I found unreadable and ludicrous). This book is closest to these memoirs by women but reaches the level of Posy Simmons’ work at moments.
Moments from early in the book (my reading & gazing experience):
Well I’m well into the book, and as yet Harvey has not gotten himself to go the doctor, undergo surgery, to find out what his lump near his prostate gland is. He knows of the lump (near his prostate) and has thought of cancer. But (we are told) he had surgery once and it was a disaster. Their lives are busy: she politically active (traveling to Israel, to Palestine); he’s a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital and writes. They make a striking contrast to Jim and my own as we were not at risk of being thrown out of our apartment, not being driven to buy a house above what we could afford, not politically activist, now armchair socialists.
Harvey and Joyce must move as the apartment house they are in will be condemned when its present owner gives it up — which he’s about to do. Harvey hates to buy a house, he is one of these US people who think the house owns them, and she agrees, but Joyce says that she will hire a handy man. (Glad to do this act it seems.) They are about to close the deal on the house, and Joyce goes to Israel because while at a conference she got herself involved with some people and takes this so seriously, she travels to this country and attempts to (in effect) interfere with their lives. She is astonished these conference friends are responding hostilely to her, differently than at said conference. Whole real contexts, experiences of their lives comes out.
She did not realize that there would be Palestinians who side with Saddam Hussein: after all the US lets Israel take over the West Bank and do what it pleases; why should Iraq not have access to the oil rich fields of Kuwaiti? The gassing of people by Saddam is brought up, but not how the US has crushed all social movements in the Middle East ruthlessly.
What gets me here is not these larger issues but that Joyce leaves Harvey in a lurch after promising she would be there for this house she wants and he doesn’t. He’s bad at email and computers. This is irresponsible given that she has reason to believe he is ill.
The airport scene where she leaves him
He thinks about it
We cannot tell from the pictures or the text where the implied author stands in all this. I suspect we are to take Joyce’s action as right. Later when Harvey persists in carrying things to show how strong he is, part of life (is this the way we measure being part of life), while she waxes exasperated it’s clear this behavior is admired. But when he wants to throw himself out a window, all he gets is anger.
I would not respond this way to most books – it’s not just the incident but how I am made to feel somehow viscerally — yet the pictures are not great (nothing like Posy Simmons) nor the dialogue — which for once is not that self-involved I suppose. It’s a kind of stubborn stupidity, deserting the person she is attached to for people, when if she only understood reality is not her concern in this way. Have others had this experience (I wonder).
The pictures are however good enough and differ from cartoons in comic books. First they resemble the people (look above, the photo of Pekar and Brabner). Second, when the characters (for are they not characters? or is this is a diary in comic form?) when the characters are miserable, they writhe; the kind of strokes change from average comic looks to blackness, or anguished lines on white. There are many close-ups of anxious vexed faces.
Harvey Can’t Sleep
The above is typical. Intimate. The drawings of places, of the offices, the hospital, of things are all resolutely naturalistic. Stack had to work closely with Brabner and Pekar: his drawings give rise to their thoughts and vice versa.
Finally Joyce drives Harvey to go to a doctor and he has a procedure. That he was anxious about this lump after all is shown by his getting up hours early — before dawn — to get to the hospital, and even after Joyce refuses to go at 3 am, getting her up way too early still and getting there at least an hour early. We see her the first instance of how she is not extra-nice or good to him, but impatient immediately.
This is not emphasized by any narrator, but is clearly meant to be there, so we have an implicit author presence. It’s not clear who is it. Often the story is told from Brabner’s point of view (that of the care-giver) and yet there is a double-author. This is another instance of the presence of the dual author different from the text in front of me.
Joyce finally hires a handywoman to fix her house continually; they bond over memories of her mother’s cancer
In the middle of the story when they finally face he had cancer what struck me is how once they are told he has lymphoma, they at first treat cancer almost as if it was just like any other of their problems. They do go BANANAs over the words and we get several frames where the word is put in GIGANTIC caps as the two characters take this information in but then they don’t proceed really to discuss the new development in any terms different than say their moving. This did astonish me. But among the stories I’ve been told I’ve recently come across one where the couple appear to be doing just that. That they are cannot be discerned.
People behave outwardly as if cancer is just another problem. They never mention the word death. I wonder if their doctors play this silence game with them. I know in hospital the usual greeting is “how are you” very brightly and the expectation is you’ll say “fine!” If you don’t, they ask why. The crass unreality of this false brightness is justified I suppose because otherwise emotionally such places would soon be messes of criss-cross uncontrolled emotions.
Well, Harvey and Joyce’s unexamined notion they must fix the house they are getting well beyond what the code violations require is what takes possession of the narrators’ minds. This leads to Joyce’s hiring their super as I said; but now he turns out to be crook and is subtracting and collecting “finders’ fees.’ That’s a kickback Joyce says. Hundreds of dollars will be spent, but she does have brains and fires him and finds a handy-woman after my own heart who confronted with a “solution” that costs $600 prefers a fix that costs $49.95. In that frame I wondered if the author saw what her characters don’t: how absurd they are in this fixing business. I can’t tell for then they go on with the renovations. Further (as in the pictures directly above), the handywoman is presented idealistically. She never talks about whether things match. The handywoman is not imbued with ideas of fashion or what “re-sell.” She is not believable.
Meanwhile the man in the story and real life too has cancer and it begins to dominate their lives will-they nill-they. They are going to chemotherapy sessions, love to talk about doctors and medicines continually (we are told). Joyce is given a schedule as a nurse like the one I had — totally indifferent to her needs. Should she quit her job, she asks. Answer: It’s up to you, with a refusal to acknowledge money or her personal fulfillment is involved here.
I note there is little open discussion between them and none with the doctors that amounts to any acknowledgement of what is at stake on any level. In our case the doctors did discuss this — maybe because we did. We did not and do not treat Jim’s cancer as if it were just another problem or vexation in our lives.
Fixing a house is a non-serious thing, cancer which brings death is not. Yet frame after frame does show the man suffering: he has to have chemotherapy and there are several frames where they are given this 12 week protocol which turns them both into continual nurses. Friends talk to them and sometimes give them mostly useless advice (go for alternative medicine) or nag at them in a scolding fashion (I would not tolerate this kind of thing for an instant), or tell stories of who died and who lived – the latter we’ve had.
On the contrary, I found neighbors gave good advice, or they tell sensible stories, or they smile and stay away
There are similar scenes of his times at chemotherapy clinics and in the waiting room.
As the book progressed towards its end, I admit I became appalled, more shocked than I usually am at stories of thousands massacred and raped.
Where the nurse cares more about disinfecting the chair than her patient and wants to eject him because his blood count is too low for his chemotherapy
As Harvey declines in strength, is subject to the pains and miseries of chemotherapy, the cold indifference and indignities of the staff: one nurse demands he be sicker or she’ll throw him out; when he does vomit from his treatment, she throws him out in disgust for that. Joyce’s unkind behavior to her husband was not just unforgivable but something I could not understand. Her mother pointed it out to here, and she justified this as “this is the way I am” and Harvey would not like anything else.
Really? He liked being scolded and threatened? He is writhing on the floor, miserable in the chemotherapy clinic, going wild with fear an pain. So she scolds him to behave better. She presents this time as her being simply irritated at being coerced into taking care of Harvey and nothing else. After she shows a film about autistic adults as part of her do-good politics, Joyce is less adamant as long as Harvey represses his misery. She says the feeling against her seems to be, “How dare she?” as if this is wrong; it’s not. She changes his pants, and seems to think he owes her big for this but she takes advantage of his debilitated state. Joyce bullies and pushes Harvey throughout.
It’s not just the big things, but the small ones. Does she help him quietly and kindly and tactfully? Is she tender in gesture? it does not seem so; the gush of sudden togetherness happens periodically but that is not daily life for a person with a fatal painful disease trying to cope with treatment that is harsh and administered with indifference.
Here I thought about the source of genuine liberal generous politics. Joyce does practice this with her vote, but what is the source of her leftism? It seems to be a practical and social bent where she wants to interfere with others, have power intimately, experience other lives intimately, and yet she does not like if the other people really tell her what they are thinking and feeling.
One sequence shows her finding Harvey near paralyzed and she curses him, hits him, damns him for two pages, she hits him with her fist and asks him what is he doing to her? He’s doing nothing to her.
The man may be dying, surely now is the time to be courteous, forbearing. And he to her. He is merely silent — while Jim was cranky at moments. She does not after this sequence behave better to him. Again there are loving scenes; of her taking his wedding ring too big for him now and putting it round her neck. But when push comes to shove, she’s not with him.
My learning curve on these nurse duties was large — I am first of all miserable at machines. But it was all mechanical. I didn’t need to learn to be tolerant, courteous, kind. I read and followed instructions, I wrote everything out I was told I had to do. In the face of high risk, my husband simply behaved the way the doctors and nurses said to, and I helped and protected him. We never lied to one another, no mincing words, and no accepting that from physicians. We demanded a minimal from one another, kept up courtesy and made jokes. We did not regard cancer as just another problem nor did we look upon ourselves or any sick person as dispensable, a cog in a crew.
Again, her political activism seemed to me a species of interfering with other people. She was not as bad as the people in the clinic sometimes were — his job is gone and he has to learn the computer while so sick. Now she ignores him and cuts him little slack. The book ends with a visit she is having from her Israeli and Palestinian friends and one of her friends helping Harvey down the stairs. (That’s not in Joyce’s instincts you see.)
We are told in a closing note that they omitted many people who did help them. This reeks of “It Takes a Village” sentimental false pretenses. We do need help beyond ourselves; there is such a thing as a community, but only a minimum is given. The closing pictures are of the two of them overlooking a park and the new house and unkempt large yard-garden they will now have to cope with. At least that’s the way they see it.
One is left with many questions. How should one take the story of Joyce? Is it meant ironically? How literally true is it? Are we finally to see the story through Harvey’s point of view? His face is suddenly there in frames and many of the nicest pictures are of him. Many pictures and sequences are about his pain, his misery, his loss of his job, how he is just replaced after 20 and more years of working at the hospital as a lowly file clerk. It is insisted he learn the computer and take on a different function. Were he to have been more ambitious, risen higher would he have been treated better? This kind of specific question is not dealt with.
Their cancer year is a year of learning about many things beyond cancer but its core is the cancer. Why else name the book this way? to sell it? The book is as complicated as any textual novel but the authors are not people who question themselves or their culture deeply enough to have created a masterful novel. So they produce a book which imitates what makes people miserable but does not explain how this comes to be: it is grating and feeble (Joyce’s rage, Harvey’s refusal to buy a house all these years) where it should be exposing US values and its economic system which isolates and does not help this couple. They are a pair of victims (a very unpopular word and one not part of the vocabulary of this book). The artist, Stark, too does not have original pictorial insights — though he is capable of great expressivity with lines. Maybe he needed them (his authors) to see what was happening to them more clearly. In short it remains popular rather than important — as perhaps the movie American Splendor is.
There’s a wikipedia article on Harvey Pekar which tells of his death in 2010. It seems he died of an overdose of medicine after his cancer had recurred for the third time. (Or so the article says; we may suspect suicide.) This would be nearly 20 years later as Our Cancer Year seems to occur in 1992 or so. I’ve never read any of his comic books before nor did I see the film American Splendor.
Joyce survives him and she does look like her photo in this comic book: she remains politically active — brave woman who I find very irritating in what I’d call her neurotypical personality traits.
As for Frank Stack, he is an “underground cartoon artist” who has a very hard time surviving because he would like to practice a genuinely questioning art in the American south.
Frank Stack’s picture of himself, the last frame of the book
I do recommend the book to anyone who has experienced cancer, especially from the angle of the care-giver.
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