Friday, March 03, 2006

Mom's Cancer

Even if you don’t normally pay attention to comics (graphic novels, sequential art, whatever term you prefer) I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be hearing at least something of Brian Fies book Mom’s Cancer in the coming months. Not just because it’s a wonderfully told story (it is) but also because the story behind the book is every bit as unique and fresh as the book itself.

Fies started creating what became Mom’s Cancer as a method for dealing with his real-life mother’s heart-wrenching, simultaneous battle with a brain tumor and lung cancer. After he created a few pages he submitted them anonymously to a few websites to receive critical feedback. The net being what it is, people across the globe started linking to it, reading it and wondering what would happen in the following installments. It was later reprinted by the Weekly Reader, a small publication out of San Francisco, and word spread even further, finally earning an Eisner Award for Fies. The various online versions have now all vanished, making way for the newly released print version that collects the entire 112 pages into one small volume.

The book covers the various stages of Mom’s disease, from its initial discovery and through all the various treatments. Along with Mom and an unnamed son who acts as narrator, this close family features two other main characters. With her professional background Nurse Sis wields a certain authority in making medical decisions while Kid Sis, who still lives with Mom, faces their mother’s deterioration on a daily basis. While certainly involved, as a professional journalist the narrator sits somewhat on the outside, uncertain of what to do and even how to act. The story focuses primarily on the family dynamic and how different people deal with the stress of death and illness in their own way. Despite the Everyman feel to the story, Fies does a good job in developing the clashing personalities of his family that we get a sense of them as real people.

With much of it written as it happened, Fies’s sharp ear for capturing dialogue brings a sense of immediacy and presence. The mostly black-and-white artwork is occasionally interrupted with pages of color for particular, often very cartoon, emphasis. For example, when Fies portrays his family dynamic by imagining himself and his two sisters wielding super-powers and battle each one another for the right to make decisions it’s delivered in a style that harkens back to superhero titles from the 1960’s.

But it’s Mom who really draws you in. Despite decades of research there is still no real cure for cancer, only treatment. Part of the problem is that each patient, and often times each separate cancer within each patient, responds to treatments differently. Each patient becomes a unique experiment with drugs, chemo and surgery. Fies manages to nail that feeling of complete powerlessness when faced with something so monstrous. Despite some dips into dark humor for a little levity, MC is not always an easy read. At points it’s downright heartbreaking, and for me was one of those stories that I wanted to step back from but still couldn’t put down until finished. Anyone who’s lived through something like this will relate to the emotions, while those who haven’t experienced anything like this have in MC a window into the complex issues cancer, illness and death can bring a family.

Being more a collection of serials, the book lacks the over-reaching narrative arcs, consistency and resolution one might normally expect from a long-form work. There’s also a rather odd subplot involving a grandfather that's not only unnecessary but a little distracting from the heart of the tale. But despite these small failures, you’ll keep reading because of Mom. It is Mom, in her decision to fight, who is the hero. And if there is a singular message to the work it’s that holding on to hope and fighting the disease, even if you fail, is well worth the effort.


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