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Miriam Engelberg, 48; cartoonist drew on dark humor of her cancer journey

October 24, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

After learning that cancer had spread to her brain and no treatment could stop it, cartoonist Miriam Engelberg shared the prognosis with readers in a blog entry headed "Bad News." Then she promised them another comic strip.

"While my other scans were stable, my brain MRI was not," Engelberg wrote Aug. 22. "I'm going into a home hospice program. I'm taking steroids to make me feel better, but so far no luck. Meanwhile I'm going to try to put up a new comic of the week .... "

At every stage of her fight with cancer -- from the diagnosis, to the good days and the bad news -- Engelberg shared her experiences through deeply honest, funny and poignant comics.

Engelberg died Oct. 17 from complications of cancer at her home in San Francisco. She was 48.

Her book, "Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics," resonated with readers and, many said, left them feeling less alone.

"We just don't think anyone else is thinking those things," said friend and photographer Lynnly Labovitz, who is also a cancer patient. "She thought them and drew them and put them out. No matter what happened to her, she'd make a cartoon about it.... Sometimes you just have to laugh. She put her finger on that."

In 2001, Engelberg, then a 43-year-old wife and mother, sat in the hospital waiting for the results of a biopsy. As she waited, she drew her first cancer-related comic. In the years that followed, she continued drawing, "just trying to document what was happening in my life for my own sanity."

The diagnosis of breast cancer, the reaction of others, the chemotherapy all gave Engelberg much to write and draw about. Her work was a meditation on the absurd and the humorous, culled from real life.

"We'd get into these conversations," said Labovitz, who has metastatic breast cancer. "Do you ever think: 'Will I outlive these parking warrants?' "

Cancer may make some people more noble, but Engelberg did not see herself or the illness that way. Rather than meditate, write in a journal or "go inward," as some do, she preferred "pop culture distractions," she said -- bad TV and horror movies.

"Have I really become a shallower person since cancer?" she wrote. "Some of my friends beg to differ and state unequivocally that I was already shallow before cancer."

Engelberg was born Jan. 7, 1958, in Philadelphia but grew up mostly in Lexington, Ky. She earned a bachelor's degree in Russian from Indiana University, a master's in philosophy of education from Claremont Graduate School and a master's in theological studies from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley.

Before beginning her career as a cartoonist, she wrote and performed comic monologues, and with Gayle Schmitt wrote and performed a play about teaching called "Spit Out Your Gun: It's School Policy."

For 15 years, Engelberg worked as a computer trainer at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, a job that had "no connection to my various academic degrees," she wrote. But while there she started a Web-based cartoon strip about the nonprofit sector called "Planet 501c3" and developed a following.

About two years ago, Engelberg submitted her collection of comics dealing with cancer to HarperCollins, which published it earlier this year.

"This is a paperback, original graphic novel about cancer -- all things that made it potentially difficult to sell," said Clare Graff, Engelberg's publicist at HarperCollins. "But everyone knows someone with cancer. I think all you have to do is know a person with cancer to get that this kind of book is necessary sometimes."

The book garnered national attention and has been well received by readers, some of whom sent Engelberg e-mail.

"Just wanted you to know how much your book really lifted me up," wrote Rachael Wise. "It felt so good to know that other people got depressed, didn't have that spiritual revelation, and also couldn't help staring into the laser aperture of the MRI machine.... You need to stick around for a very long time. We need more Miriam Engelberg cartoons!"

Engelberg belonged to a support group dubbed "Mets in the City," a group of women with metastatic breast cancer, many of whom appreciated her work, said Labovitz, who is also a member.

"Miriam is now the fourth in our Mets in the City group to pass this year -- and perhaps I've come to expect that when one lives with metastatic breast cancer, one comes to accept loss as part of a life shared with other survivor/cancer warriors," Labovitz said. "But I guess I was particularly undone by her passing, as she was especially dear to me and the work she did make such a difference to so many of us."

On her blog, Engelberg shared some of her life with readers. On her website, miriamengelberg.com, she posted a "comic of the week."

But one topic was difficult for her to tackle: Comics that include her family are rare. Engelberg is survived by her husband, Jim Gormley; a son, Aaron Gormley, 9; her parents, Joe and Judy Engelberg; and a sister, Elise Engelberg.

"I can make fun of the three-armed gown, the MRI," Engelberg told a reporter for National Public Radio in June.

"But when it comes to family ... it's much harder because that's the point where it really does feel very scary and heartbreaking to me. And it's harder for me to find a comic twist that I can put on that."

jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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