Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person

43-year-old Miriam Engelberg decided to cope with a diagnosis of breast cancer by creating a comic journal. The back cover calls the book “devastatingly humorous”, but much as I appreciate black humor and laughing in the face of trouble, I didn’t find the book funny at all.

Her style is best described as naive or primitive; it’s flat, with no backgrounds and a heavy reliance on text, both dialogue and captions. Most of the art is simply talking heads, either full-face or in profile.

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person cover
Cancer Made Me a
Shallower Person
Buy this book

I know it’s odd to criticize a memoir for being self-centered, but that’s what this is. Instead of providing examples from her own life that made me think, “oh, yes, I can identify” or give me a new viewpoint on a situation, I found myself thinking several times “does this woman ever think about anyone but herself?” It’s all “me, me, me” without the connection to others or the outside world that make autobiography worth reading. Instead of laughter or insight, I was left with vague distaste and a feeling of “how pathetic”.

I can’t help but contrast this with Brian Fies’ Mom’s Cancer. That was a smoothly drawn, handsomely packaged hardcover that dealt with the illness of someone close to the author; this is a scribbly-looking paperback with minimal package design about the author’s own disease. That one had to be comics, to illustrate the characters’ expressions and experiences visually; this one could have easily been a prose journal.

And in another year, one where book publishers weren’t looking to put out graphic novels because they’re the new growth market, it might have been. The PR for this title, like the book’s art, struck me as naive. They compare it to Art Spiegelman, for example, solely because it “grapples with [a] serious subject”, and probably because he’s still one of the artist book buyers are familiar with. It’s also called a graphic novel when it’s more properly described as a cartoon collection, but that’s technical nitpicking.

With unaccomplished art and boringly solipsistic content, I can’t recommend this book, good as its intentions are.


8 Responses to “Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person”

  1. Agnes Says:

    I disagree comepletely. I bought CANCER MADE ME A SHALLOWER PERSON last week and I thought that it was amazing! My aunt recently had a masectomy and I bought a copy for her, and my cousin as well. We all love it. I think that you should give a copy to someone with a sense of humor, and see what they think… Best, Agnes

  2. Joshua Macy Says:

    You know, Agnes, I was taking your opinion seriously until you added that unnecessary dig at Johanna’s sense of humor.

  3. Agnes Says:

    Sorry about that. I wasn’t intentionally being mean. It’s just that I found CANCER MADE ME to be a touching, very special, and very funny read. I didnt mean to offend anyone – really. Also, I’m coming off of a very tough time, and believe it or not, this book helped me get through it.

  4. Johanna Says:

    That’s fabulous, I’m glad it worked so well for you.

    I thought about making a comment, in the original post, about suspecting that someone who could more directly relate to the situation might find more to appreciate in it, but I didn’t want to try and read anyone else’s mind.

  5. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Miriam Engelberg, who wrote about her struggles with breast cancer in the autobiographical Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, has passed away. [...]

  6. Cancer Vixen » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] was a boomlet for a moment there in graphic novels about dealing with cancer. The primitively drawn Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person was in the traditional black-and-white autobiographical comic vein, while Mom’s Cancer, [...]

  7. Medical Comic Conference: Graphic Medicine June 2011 in Chicago » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] interesting overlap that can benefit both. Think of work like Our Cancer Year, Stitches, Epileptic, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, my book Mom’s Cancer, and many [...]

  8. Seeds » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] either one’s own or that of a family member. (Compare Mom’s Cancer, Cancer Vixen, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, and Our Cancer Year, to name the best-known.) Author Ross Mackintosh here captures his reactions [...]

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