Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cancer Vixon

When Marisa Acocella Marchetto, a cartoonist whose work appears publications like The New Yorker and Glamour magazine, discovered that she had a lump in her breast, she also discovered that one of the best ways of ‘treating’ it (along with all the grueling conventional treatments) was to ‘draw herself better’.

What was initially a strip for Glamour magazine, became a full graphic novel, that, in the spirit of defiance, she called ‘Cancer Vixen’. And there was more to the story than a diagnosis of breast cancer. Not only did she have a lump in her breast, but she was also due to get married to Silvano Marchetto, owner of Da Silvano restaurant … and there was another thing: living the freelance life, she had let her health insurance lapse.

On her website she describes herself as a ‘shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic.’ But in person she is thoughtful, serious, observant and admits to being introverted. She was, however, wearing a pair of silver creations upon her feet that would surely cheer any spirit, and although she says the experience of getting through cancer has changed her profoundly, the shoe-obsession has remained fully intact.

For me the visual impact of the work, as well as the sharp way in which it is written, brought home to me my own fear of cancer more than anything I’ve ever read on the subject. This must have been a tremendously difficult thing to do, considering you were going through it at the time.

Well I know it was affecting me when I was writing it, like there was a moment before I started chemo, and I drew myself as a four-year old talking to my mom – that was hard to draw.

You’re so vulnerable in the book.

Yeah … well I made a decision early on that I was going to be as open and honest about myself as I possibly could. I didn’t hold back at all.

I’m not sure if I was diagnosed with breast cancer that I would have the courage to read it.

Really? I really wanted to demystify the whole experience.

I don’t know if you have ever read the writer Barbara Ehrenreich on the subject of breast cancer but in one very controversial article she wrote about how it has turned into a kind of commercialized cult of frilly pink kitsch, and invokes a kind of passivity, women as noble sufferers who are almost religiously transformed after their encounters with the disease. What do you make of that kind of thinking?

You know what? The reason they started the pink to begin with is because pink is healthy, healthy tissue and clear … if it raises awareness and saves lives, and I don’t think I’ve been passive by any means … the story is my friend Bob Morris, you know Bob Morris from the Times?

We were walking in Hudson River Park right after I was diagnosed and I hadn’t washed my hair, I had on ratty clothes, dirty sneakers and I was … depressed. And he said to me: ‘What are you going to call the Glamour thing?’ I said I was thinking of calling it ‘Breast Case Scenario’ and he said: ‘That is a terrible title. You can’t do that. And by the way, you look like a victim. Where is the vixen?’ And I was like ‘victim’? ‘Vixen?’ And he said ‘Cancer Vixen’ – that’s what you should call it.’ So for me I was able to save it in my head, I had it in front of me, I sketched it so I had the visual and I believed it. In a weird way I really think that I drew myself healthy. That was my way of fighting back.

I am always a bit worried about the language of battle when we talk about cancer, as if those who succumb are those who simply don’t ‘fight’ hard enough.

You know what? It’s simply the luck of the draw. I use that phraseology quite a bit, but I just realize that I’m lucky. I caught it early and 85 per cent of women who do catch it early have a greater chance of surviving.
I’ve never met a cartoonist before so that part of the book where the reader gets an insight into your working life was completely fascinating to me. Do they really line up each week in the New Yorker offices waiting to see the cartoon editor? It looked like American Idol auditions.

Uhuh. They do. That’s the way they’ve always done it. You sit there, when it’s your turn, and you like go through cartoons and you give him about ten or fifteen a week. And then he hands them back to you.

For how long do you wait there?

Like an hour, an hour and a half.

In something like a whole novel, how do you get each character to look the same in each frame when there are so many?

I have to tell you I spent more time making sure that Silvano’s watch was on the right hand, that my mother wore glasses, like her necklaces were in each frame. The continuity thing … it was like driving me nuts. It was like the thing that really nearly put me over the edge!
How did you come to be a cartoonist rather than another kind of artist, say a graphic designer or a painter?

It started with drawing first. My mom was a shoe designer and she would draw shoes  and then she would transfer these to [drawings of] women, wearing these shoes, and I was imitating her. I was about three. What happened was by eight, I was bored with these women because I felt they had nothing to say. I am from New Jersey and every summer we would go to the Jersey Shore on a family trip.  But this time my father decided to have a ‘real vacation’, so we go to this resort. But my mother didn’t like the room so she complained to the owner, this is horrible, blah blah blah (my mother is like this big, larger-than-life character) …and so he walks us over to this pink elephant of a house on the edge of the resort. And we go in and on the walls are these drawings with captions. And I went ‘God that is so cool! My drawings can talk!’ And my mom said ‘Marisa, this is James Thurber’s house.’ So I stayed up all night reading old New Yorkers … I was like obsessed.

There aren’t many women cartoonists …

There are more and more women doing it now but it’s never really been a female-dominated field.

Why is that?

I don’t know. It’s hard to make a living doing it.

Is it because of this idea that women aren’t funny?

Yeah, I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

Women don’t seek to impress with their humor, perhaps.

If a woman is funny, she can totally take control of the room. To me saying women aren’t funny is the equivalent of saying white men can’t play basketball. Some of the funniest people in the world are women, Sandra Bernhardt, Roseanne Barr … it drives me crazy, Roseanne Barr is a genius. Those women are just as good or better as any men in comedy.

You seem to like women tremendously but in your novel you are open about how threatened some women can make you feel.

Some of my best friends are women! [laughs] … I don’t know women look to each other to see what they’re wearing, maybe they get an idea for an outfit, a bag or whatever …are they wearing the right thing? I mean it’s out of confidence, insecurity, inspiration, it’s all of those things. There’s a lot of competition here [in New York] … I think it comes down to junior high school jealousy.

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Do you think real life in New York, more than a lot of other places, is just an extension of high school?

Definitely. New York is total high school with better shoes and better bags.

What kind of teenager were you?

I was like the art girl. Who were you?

I was the literary girl.

I was like the art girl wearing black, cracking jokes in the corner.

So can you show me your latest shoe purchase one more time? [she hoists her foot out from under the table] Oh! They’re outrageous! Some crocodile was sprayed silver would look like that.

You mean they don’t have silver crocodiles?

— Lesley Hauge