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 Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person “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.
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.