Response to the graphic novel, Cancer Vixen

I haven’t seen a recent update on this topic, but apparently (as of last year), plans are in the works for an HBO adaptation of Marisa Acocella’s graphic novel, Cancer Vixen. The adaptation would star Cate Blanchett.

I’m curious to see if these plans materialize. For now, I’d like to re-post a discussion I wrote on an old blog of mine, several years ago, when I first read Cancer Vixen. 

A few questions I have now, after revisiting my initial thoughts on this book (which I’ve since reread), are: 

(1) How is the experience of reading a graphic illness memoir different from reading a text-only illness memoir?

(2) How do texts such as Cancer Vixen function rhetorically? In other words, what work do they do within society (aside from offering an aesthetic reading experience)?

My discussion of Cancer Vixen from spring 2011:

A graphic novel chronicling Marchetto’s battle against breast cancer, this story immediately captured my attention and kept me interested throughout. During the past year or so, I’ve read quite a bit about breast cancer culture and the rhetoric of breast cancer awareness campaigns, so reading a memoir by a woman who had the illness was quite a change of pace.

I found myself thinking back to books such as Pink Ribbon Blues, by Gayle Sulik, and Pink Ribbons, Inc., by Samantha King. Both of these texts critique the corporate consumerism that has become attached to breast cancer awareness. Moreover, these works and others have assessed the “cult of survivorship” and cheery optimism that pervades breast cancer culture, rhetoric that celebrates the power of the individual will to conquer cancer and emerge victorious. Military language and metaphors pervade such rhetoric.

After reading such works, I picked up Cancer Vixen expecting to find numerous examples of such rhetoric and metaphors. While I found quite a few — notably the narrator’s references to the designer shoes she wore to Chemo, reiterations of the need to be optimistic in order to defeat cancer, multiple instances of warfare metaphors — I finished the book feeling more impacted by the power of the individual memoir rather than the bountiful opportunity for critique of the dominant breast cancer culture.

I honestly think that my reaction largely stems from the medium of the graphic novel. Had I read a textually-dominant memoir, I may have reacted differently and focused more on the themes that resonated with the larger culture. Maybe? I don’t know. It’s just a thought.

But I do know that the graphic novel powerfully evokes emotions and empathy as much or more than other novels on equally serious and emotionally-charged topics. I don’t want to forget how I felt after reading this book (and after being brought to tears on numerous occasions) because I feel my reaction isn’t singular or accidental. I think graphic novels intend to connect with the reader on such a level, and the sequential art that defines its pages works toward achieving such an outcome.

Right now, I’m in the middle of reading What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, by W. J. T. Mitchell. I think his idea of images having desires and demands of their own is influencing my thoughts about what the graphic novel desires from the reader. I think it desires an emotional connection, for sure. Perhaps validation that the story being told is true and worth telling.

As a visual illness narrative, this book depicts the body (particularly in this case, the female body) using both words and images. This combination is what draws me to graphic novels because I want to explore how the verbal and the visual co-create meaning in a narrative format. I look forward to comparing this novel with others – and particularly other illness memoirs – to explore connections between the verbal and the visual in the context of personal narrative.


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