Ah, the cartoon illness memoir. It’s a oft-visited territory for cartoonists, though a bit under the radar for many readers—there’s the hilarious and heart-wrenching Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg, the surreal yet educational Monsters by Ken Dahl, Blue Pills by Frederik Peeters, and of course, Harvey Pekar’s Our Cancer Year, to name just a few. It’s a genre that’s ripe with opportunity for self-reflection—coming face to face with one’s mortality is a powerful and sobering experience. It’s also an extremely effective way to teach the reader about the ins and outs of disease and treatment. I’ve learned more about herpes statistics and AIDS cocktails from reading comic books than I ever would have absorbed from more conventional sources.
Relatively Indolent But Relentless works in the same sort of vein. It’s essentially the daily journal of Matt Freedman, an artist and professor, as he goes through radiation and chemotherapy for adenoid cystic carcinoma, a cancer that affects his tongue, throat, and lungs. It’s not for the faint of heart; he chronicles the pains and discomforts of the treatment, the pills and patches that help him manage the pain, but also make him feel completely off-kilter, the kindnesses afforded him by his caregivers, and his own emotional rollercoaster. One of the most difficult things about his treatment is that the radiation makes it progressively more difficult to eat anything at all; even soft foods like high-calorie shakes and ice-cream are torturous to swallow and keep down. For the entirety of the journal, Freedman struggles to keep his weight up so he won’t be put on a nasal feeding tube, thus he is particularly focused on documenting his food intake and the unpleasantries that abound. His constant struggle to evacuate all the mucus that collects in his mouth is documented in detail. It’s truly intense to see how much cancer treatment interferes with basic bodily functions to which most of us never give a second thought.
This volume’s style is sure to have some great fans and some strong detractors (it’s very, very scribbly and sketchy) because it’s done in Freedman’s own abysmal handwriting (and I say that as a fellow chicken-scratcher myself). The sketches he makes of himself, his surroundings, and his support system are equally quick and questionable. To me, they capture the strange, scary, and shaky spirit of a cancer spirit going through a harrowing treatment perfectly. But, if you’re looking for a beautiful, point-by-point illustration of illness, this is not it. It’s probably not even really a graphic novel—no panels or sequential storytelling, more text than pictures, written without a particular audience in mind—but as a personal, painful, powerful reflection on cancer treatment, it’s emotional, edifying, and moving.
Relatively Indolent but Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal
by Matt Freedman
Seven Stories Press, 2014