Monday, November 19, 2007

Not "funny haha," but still "funny haha"

Title: Lisa's Story
Subtitle: the other shoe
Author/illustrator: Tom Batiuk
Bookmark: mainly left it open, but a couple times I stuck a CD maturity notice in there.

A couple months ago I was home visiting Dad and, as always, reading his paper's comics section. I grew up reading those (and in my very early years, having them read to me), and I guess I grew kind of attached to some of the strips I don't get up here. When I got down the page to Funky Winkerbean, I was sucker-punched. Lisa, the waitress-cum-lawyer-above-Montoni's, was being pushed through the park in a wheelchair by her husband, Les Moore (one of the best character names in comics). She was wrapped in a blanket, bald, and her head was drooping. The sides of her head looked hollow and shrunken, puckered in at the temples and cheeks, but there remained a stubborn intensity in her eyes. Ok, maybe I imagined that part, but Batiuk still did a hell of job drawing that scene. He drew it exactly as it should have looked. I know, because I've pushed that chair.

Seven or eight years ago, a friend of Batiuk's was diagnosed with cancer. Batiuk handled it by writing Lisa' breast cancer into the strip. Lisa had chemotherapy and a mastectomy, had reconstructive surgery, and went into remission. Several years later, Batiuk himself was diagnosed. He decided that he would survive--but Lisa wouldn't. This book compiles all the strips relevant to her initial diagnosis, remission, recovery, second diagnosis, and inevitable decline, even adding the epilogue strips that followed her death and moved the strip ten years into the future. Even reconnection with the son she gave up for adoption is included, and the last several pages hold an extensive list of cancer resources, hospice information, and volunteering or donation opportunities.

The story is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, and that dichotomy is displayed even in individual strips. Batiuk can move a reader from tears to laughter or back again in three panels or less, and the strength of his writing is not just that he can do that, but that it's startlingly realistic. When people are faced with trials that great, finding humor in it--any humor at all--is often what gets them through it in one piece. Lisa's Story isn't just about cancer. It's about survival, friendship, motherhood, life, death, the Great Hereafter, love, loss, discovery, how we cope, how we help one another, acceptance, and hope. Taken one strip at a time, it's still strong, but I read it all in one morning, taking breaks to knead bread and do dishes. I had to take those breaks. My personal connection with the story may have proved my undoing, but I think that even people who have never been touched by cancer would have a hard time reading this book in one shot without rubbing their eyes at least a little.

I ordered my copy at the book's release party, in the restaurant that serves as the inspiration for Montoni's. They ran out of hardcover copies eight people in front of me (many people walked out with ten or more copies stacked in their arms, and Batiuk not only signed and dedicated each one, but drew a quick head shot of Lisa. It was a slow line, but the pizza was good, and all artist proceeds go to a fund for breast cancer research and education), but I ordered a couple copies at the book table and stayed in line, empty-handed, to meet the author. I wanted to thank him for telling the story, for drawing her exactly as she should have looked... and for not saving her. Because it wouldn't have rung true. You can't save everyone, no matter how hard you may want to.

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posted by reyn at 7:58 AM


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