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BOOK REVIEW

Their battles with cancer, illustrated with humor

January 22, 2007|Nick Owchar | Times Staff Writer

Cancer Vixen

A True Story

Marisa Acocella Marchetto

Alfred A. Knopf: 216 pp., $22

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person

A Memoir in Comics

Miriam Engelberg

HarperCollins: 126 pp., $14.95 paper

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WHEN a jealous, skinny model learns that Marisa Acocella Marchetto is engaged to a suave, gentle Italian restaurateur whom she wants for herself, she strikes out in the most inhumane of ways. She mocks Marchetto for having breast cancer.

"I'm not sick," she tells Marchetto's fiance (in front of her). "Call me if you want a healthy relationship."

If only this weren't a memoir -- if only this cruelty weren't real.

But there is no telling how people will respond to someone else's cancer diagnosis. One of the powerful revelations of Marchetto's "Cancer Vixen," along with Miriam Engelberg's "Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person," is to remind us that cancer isn't just an individual diagnosis; it has a social dimension that can affect patients as much as the therapies they choose.

Over the last 10 years, the number of books by and about cancer survivors has exploded. There are so many, in fact, that Marchetto and Engelberg found a unique way to stand out from the rest: They turned their experiences into graphic novels. Both tell powerful stories about the terror of their breast cancer diagnoses and their struggles to cope -- but recorded in panels and frames normally reserved for the Sunday funnies.

A cartoonist for Glamour and the New Yorker, Marchetto gives us a vibrant, neon chronicle of her fears, her search for understanding and her efforts to cope with a diagnosis that arrives as she's planning her wedding. Oh, and there's plenty of attitude. "Cancer, I am going to kick your butt," she says in an image also on the book's cover, "And I'm gonna do it in killer 5-inch heels!"

Engelberg's illustration style won't knock you over like Marchetto's; her plain, scribbly drawings of cubicle culture (her day job was as a Bay Area computer consultant) give you just enough scenery to know where you are. Then, her humor takes over. When she complains about nausea and headaches from chemotherapy, an ex-hippie friend says, "You didn't do enough heavy drugs when you were younger." She gets fed up with self-help and holistic therapies. "Yeah -- I know I should be meditating and journaling and reflecting," she says, sitting in front of the TV, "but I don't feel like it.... I'm just going to watch 'Judge Judy' and read a magazine." Cancer memoirs can be profound, but at some point they may sound the same. It's not that each story isn't meaningful, it's just that language feels so limited; inevitably, we all resort to the same words. No phrase or expression could come close to capturing the depths of Marchetto's love for her husband and her saint-invoking mom or Engelberg's anxiety about the future and her family.

Instead these books give us imagery with a minimum of words. In comics, the most crucial moments, portraits of a moment, are the ones rendered, and no two artists' brushes are the same.

This is certainly true of Engelberg and Marchetto. Even though they touch on the same experiences (feeling insignificant and alone, dealing with unwanted advice or impersonal doctors) and even though they sometimes use the same imagery (the Grim Reaper, for instance, looms in both), you're not reading the same book twice.

The memoirs end on uncertain notes, for there is no easy closure where cancer is involved -- in fact, Engelberg died in October from complications of cancer. But each book remains a triumph of imagination and spirit.

Using the graphic novel approach to serious subjects isn't new; stories of the Holocaust have been told by illustrators such as Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman (whose most recent work is about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks), while Harvey Pekar described his struggle with lymphoma in "Our Cancer Year."

The fact is, the graphic-novel genre has been expanding and angling for an adult audience for some time. As "Cancer Vixen" and "Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person" suggest, more writers are realizing that a picture truly is worth a thousand words.

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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