Sunday, June 11, 2006

Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies

A new book took up residence in my medical humanities personal minilibrary this week: Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies. This is no ordinary pathography. It is a series of beautifully drawn, witty and poignant cartoons that tell the story, not only of Fies’s mom’s cancer, but also the effects that her illness has on him and his sisters. Mom’s Cancer started as a web comic in 2004 and it quickly garnered plaudits, winning the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic in July 2005. Mom's Cancer navigated its way through in-boxes and weblinks, not unlike an immortal cell line circulates around research laboratories. The intention in publishing it now as a book, according to the editor Charles Kochman, is to guarantee it a permanence that it might otherwise not had had if it remained solely in cyberspace. It’s well worth it. The volume is exquisitely produced with a cloth binding, tactile cover, and colour printing throughout on high-grade paper, in spite of most of the graphics being grayscale. In a nice touch, flashbacks are in sepia and there are the occasional forays into full colour. The production does justice to the quality of the content.

Fies is an outstanding artist and writer, but what makes the narrative so effective is Fies’s ability to conceptualise aspects of his topic in thought-provoking, allegorical visual vignettes. For example, Mom’s symptoms are shown in a visual parody of the game ‘Operation'. In Fies’s version it is called ‘Inoperable’. A particularly telling series of images show how people get ‘superpowers’ when they face an emergency: they become more of what they already are, with extra abilities to wound family members all trying to act in Mom’s best interests.

The book’s ‘emblem’ that patterns its endcovers is a chess pawn and a die. What could be more appropriate for a disease in which both strategy and chance play such important roles in the success or failure of treatment? The pawn is particularly apt, given the bewildering array of decisions, counter-decisions, advice and commands through which Mom’s family must try to guide her.

Mom’s Cancer is an inspirational work of great love and care. In spite of its serious subject matter, this is not a pathos-saturated book. Fies’s ability to universalise his particular and personal situation affords an authentic, original insight into the realities of coping with serious illness. You can read more about the book here, Brian Fies's blog is here, and Kid Sis's blog is here.

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