xkcd Battles Cancer with Science Comics

This past November, xkcd creator Randall Munroe posted a comic explaining that a family member had become ill. Although a handful of his comics since then have alluded to illness – the frustration of a sick person being told they just need a positive attitude, the promise science holds as a weapon against disease – he has not focused much of his comic on that aspect of his life.

Last week, Munroe decided to share precisely what he has been dealing with these past eight months. His fiancée was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer and she is still undergoing treatment. Munroe shared this in part to explain why he has missed some comic deadlines – although I’m sure his fans, like everyone here, care far more about Munroe and his fiancée’s physical and emotional health.  But Munroe also announced that he is interested in making comics about cancer science, a topic he has obviously learned a great deal about in the last year.

The last two decades have seen several powerful (and, yes, sometimes funny) comics about cancer and other long-term ailments. In 1994, comic autobiographer Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner released Our Cancer Year, their account of Pekar’s struggle with lymphoma. In 1999, the syndicated newspaper strip Funky Winkerbean brought breast cancer to America’s breakfast tables when the character Lisa Crawford Moore is diagnosed with the disease. The strip’s creator, Tom Batiuk, is himself a prostate cancer survivor. Lisa’s cancer recurred in the strip in 2006, and in 2007, she succumbed to the disease. Although some fans of the comic decried the plotline as too depressing (but let’s be honest, what Funky Winkerbean story arc isn’t?), the strip won high praise from many who work with cancer patients and foundations.

More recently, we’ve also seen memoirs from cartoonists who have watched loved ones cope with illness. The first-ever Eisner for Best Digital Comic went to 2005’s Mom’s Cancer (now available only in print), in which Brian Fies detailed his mother’s treatment for lung cancer and its effect on their family. Documentary cartoonist Stan Mack wrote Janet & Me, about his partner, YA nonfiction writer Janet Bode, and her battle with, and eventual death from, breast cancer. Polish graphic novelist Frederik Peeters writes about his relationship with his girlfriend and her son, both of whom are HIV-positive, in Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story. In Epileptic, French cartoonist David B. recounts his childhood with his severely epileptic brother.

Comics provide an excellent tool for parsing our experiences, and each creator puts his or her own lens on the mysteries and mundanities of disease. Pekar is a slice-of-life writer as well as a social commentator, and he and Brabner set his cancer against their decision to buy a house and Brabner’s work collecting war stories from teenagers. Janet & Me reads as a love story, chronicling the final years of two people who could hardly bear to be apart from one another. David B. casts his brother’s epilepsy as a horde of fantastical monsters, the sort a mythical knight might slaughter. For Munroe, the lens with which he eyes cancer is naturally a scientific one.

Munroe’s background is in physics and robotics, and xkcd has always championed the awesome power of science. Science helps us understand the beauty of our universe. It makes our world a more awesome place. And, as the t-shirt says, “It works, bitches.” It makes sense that, in the face of his fiancée’s diagnosis, Munroe would turn to science to understand both the enemy that is cancer and the tools on hand to beat it back. His decision to share what he’s learned through his comic could prove at once cathartic and empowering for Munroe – and for readers whose lives have been similarly touched by disease.

Cancer can seem at times inscrutable, and Munroe may be just the person to demystify the illness for the webcomics-consuming public. Reduced to its core biological components, cancer may seem less the monster lurking in our lymph nodes and more a physiological mechanism that can be controlled. By dropping such knowledge into the hands of his readers, Munroe could help them take back a sense of control as well. He might even let them occasionally laugh in cancer’s face.

We here at Gamma Squad wish Munroe’s fiancée a full and speedy recovery, and we’re looking forward to seeing what glorious weapons science has loaded in the battle against cancer.