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.