Monday, January 10, 2011

Our Cancer Year

Harvey Pekar was the first substantial autobiographical comics creator. His comic book American Splendor was published for decades, and he gained fame from his appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and, eventually, the movie based on his life and comics. This particular book is an extension of his comic books, telling the story of a harrowing year. It begins with a move from a cozy apartment into a new house, and there is trepidation about the new living arrangement that rattles both Harvey and his wife, Joyce. On top of this situation, Joyce is involved with a group of young activists from the Middle East and Cambodia who are dealing with the escalating political situation that turns into Operation Desert Storm. Amidst all this turmoil and tension, Harvey is diagnosed with lymphoma.

Much of the book chronicles his struggles with cancer and the treatments he received. Pekar does not sugarcoat what he went through. He vividly describes his agony, the weakness caused by the chemotherapy, and the anxiety he felt when he could not receive treatments because of his low T-cell count. What is more, he is a difficult patient to deal with, and there are many times he wishes for death. The difficult emotion situations are given excellent treatment by Frank Stack, a long-time American Splendor contributor. Stack has had an interesting and varied career, known for his underground comix as well as works in a much more academic and fine arts vein. Here, his expressionistic work and use of negative space creates a great range of tones and fluidity.

Our Cancer Year was awarded the 1995 Harvey Award for Best Graphic Novel of Original Work. Reviewer Todd VerBeek commented that he was disappointed with some aspects of the book but admitted it is full of "devastating and encouraging" moments. John Hogan wrote that like in much of his other work "Pekar is able to find the glorious in even the most mundane traits of mankind." J. Stephen Bolhafner called it "deep" and "meaningful" as a story of illness, courage, and love.

This book is published by Running Press and a short preview is available from More of the book can be seen at Google Books.

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