Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir

Kimiko Tobimatsu, a 25-year-old queer, mixed-race Canadian woman with no history of health problems discovers a lump on her breast. In this powerful and honest autobiographical memoir, depicting her emotional and physical experiences with breast cancer, superbly illustrated by Keet Geniza, the reader weaves through the corridors of this disease with Kimiko. Her story commences with the newly complex life of constant appointments, evaluations, treatments, and the difficult conversations with everyone she cares about as she contemplates having breast cancer. The most appealing aspect of this novel, for me, is how the author and illustrator expand the customary narrative of cancer patients to illuminate the continual issues, rarely discussed, once a patient is deemed “cancer-free.”

“There’s not a lot of writing out there on cancer and disability. Maybe because for those of us who are now cancer-free, the ongoing symptoms are after-effects (of surgery, radiation, meds), not the result of disease still being present.  Or maybe it’s because the mainstream cancer narrative is about overcoming adversity, not about experiencing ongoing disability” (92).

Kimiko’s relative youth generates a multitude of additional concerns once the cancer has been contained. She becomes highly aware of her body, its image, the food she consumes, the relationships new and old, being queer, all while becoming attuned for the perpetual need to rest, regroup, and rejuvenate. Her relationships with her family, especially her mother, play a huge role in Kimiko’s self-discovery as does her floundering relationship with her partner. She addresses many popular mindsets, within and outside, the medical profession regarding gender expression, reconstructive breast surgery, reproduction, early menopause, and the stereotypes perpetuated by the ubiquitous “pink ribbon” campaigns. In this compellingly told story, she shares with the reader her discoveries of how she found her own approach to move forward and the energy and dedication that the move demanded on her personally. As mentioned previously this is a robust resource for others who do not see themselves in standard breast cancer tales.

Geniza’s use of muted blues, blacks, and grays intensify the gravity of the situation, highlighting, through the expressive facial portraits, the fatigue and worry that the experience has on all those involved, not only the protagonist. The illustrations add to the tenderness, the pain, and the hope of those within Kimiko’s circle. The illustrations effectively and economically enhance the text in the relating of the narrative and in bringing the characters alive for the readers.

I must add a disclaimer here, your reviewer experienced similar encounters with the upside-down experiences of being diagnosed with breast cancer and its after effects. Kimiko’s story, although quantitatively different, strongly resonated with me as I reviewed her story and especially her disclosures about the aftermath of being “cancer-free”. Ironically, perhaps, I found reading this graphic novel experience joyful and poignant. It reverberated loudly with me although I match the perceived demographic of breast cancer patients in Canada. Her story strongly demonstrates that each person’s experience is uniquely their own, regardless of common, or in this case, uncommon markers of the disease and treatment. It also points to the unexpected interconnections in the shared experiences as well.

This graphic novel is a strong entry in the genre of graphic medicine and should be widely accessible in all public libraries as well as academic library collections highlighting memoirs, health and wellness narratives, and LGBTQ dialogues.

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir
By Kimiko Tobimatsu
Art by Keet Geniza
ISBN: 9781551528199
Arsenal Pulp, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Queer
Creator Highlights: Japanese-Canadian, Queer, Genderqueer, Disability

Archival Quality

After a breakdown, Celeste “Cel” Walden loses her job at the public library. Desperate for a new job, she applies for and gets an archivist assistant position at the Logan Museum and Library, a medical museum and archive. Cel’s new workplace is full of mysteries with its aloof head curator and a secretive board. Most strange of all is the ghost of a young woman who starts appearing in Cel’s dreams and overturning objects while Cel is nearby. As she develops a strong sympathy with the ghost, Cel works to uncover the museum’s secrets so that she can save this mysterious individual and herself.

At first glance, Archival Quality has all the components of a horror story, but is in fact a spooky mystery that explores the protagonist’s relationship with mental illness. The mystery itself is slow to unravel; in addition to the characters’ realistic struggles to find information in the archives, author Ivy Noelle Weir reveals the ghost’s backstory through dreams and flashbacks and mixes it with interactions that highlight Cel’s own struggle with mental illness. Cel’s determination drives a lot of the action, yet the interactions between Cel and her fellow cast members are what carry the story. The main cast members, which include a delightful librarian named Holly and the aloof head curator Abayomi, are well-rounded, and the developing friendship that ultimately helps both Cel and the ghost develops naturally. While the climax reveals an improbable secret (that nevertheless fits well with the story’s themes), the story is overall sweet and thoughtful.

One particular strength of Archival Quality is that it portrays mental illness in a sensitive way. It both addresses the differences in treatment past and present as well as explores mental illnesses’ impact on the individual and those around them. A good example of this is the ways Cel responds to different kinds of support from her boyfriend and her friends, yet nobody’s behavior is condemned in the story. As the secrets of the museum come to light, the story briefly touches on the concept of personal limits and understanding them. The lesson of understanding those limits and working together to achieve goals is clearly and touchingly conveyed.

Steenz’s bright and colorful artwork contributes to the narrative’s charm and her drawings portray the characters’ personalities through expressive gestures, both of which contribute to the story’s charm and humor. It is evident that Steenz put a lot of thought into the character designs and fabulous outfits. Occasionally, the illustrations become fragmented at odd times, and it can be hard to read text outside of the panel or speech bubbles because of their placement on dark colors or the lettering style. These issues rarely occur, and overall the work reads smoothly.

Archival Quality is a sensitive exploration of mental illness that will interest individuals looking for a fun and spooky mystery. An additional strength is the naturally incorporated diverse cast: Abayomi and Holly are black, and Holly is in a lesbian relationship. There is little goresave for Cel’s plot-significant nosebleedsand most of the horrific medical procedures are implied or discussed. With its focus on strong characterization and expressive art, Archival Quality will appeal to fans of creators such as Faith Erin Hicks. Given the story’s content and the fact that at least one character speaks academically, Archival Quality would be best for teens and adults.

Archival Quality
by Ivy Noelle Weir
Art by Steenz
ISBN: 9781620104705
Oni Press, 2018

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, and Other Things that Happened

In 2009, Allie Brosh started the blog/webcomic hybrid Hyperbole and a Half. Here, she told humorously melodramatic stories from her childhood and recent life and explored random funny ideas. She filled the posts with bright, simplistic cartoons done in an intentionally crude style using the MS-Paint-like software Paintbrush.

Hyperbole and a Half gained a huge following and critical attention. Some of Brosh’s creations became popular memes, like the cartoon of herself boldly declaring that she will “CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!” She also invented the “alot,” a furry creature inspired by the way people sometimes write “a lot” as one word. More meaningful to some fans are Brosh’s emotional—yet still funny—posts about her experiences with depression and ADHD.

Brosh stopped updating Hyperbole and a Half in 2013. That same year, this book came out. It compiles some of the author’s favorite posts from her blog, plus roughly ten new stories. The stories vary in tone: some are snarky glimpses of life with mental illness, while others are purely silly romps. Brosh’s much-lauded comics about depression appear alongside the antics of her misbehaving dogs. Brosh maintains her absurd, over-the-top humor whether she’s talking about having suicidal thoughts or about that wacky time a goose got into the house.

What the book doesn’t have is any of the “random stuff” stories that appeared on the blog, like the “alot” or Brosh’s noodle character Spaghetta Nadle. All of the stories included in the book describe events, physical or emotional, from the author’s life. This makes it read like a humorous, non-linear memoir.

The book is well-made, with glossy pages and considerable heft for a paperback. The color of the page background changes with each story, so flipping through the book (or just looking at the page edge) is a colorful experience. This also makes it clear when you’re finishing one story and starting the next.

Each story begins with an introduction in plain text, followed by a mix of full-color artwork and more text. The art appears in rectangular panels that span the width of the page, and features a cast of quirky, distinctive characters: Allie Brosh, her parents and sister, her boyfriend, and their dogs. Despite the simple drawing style, these characters are all easy to recognize and tell apart, and their faces and postures are remarkably expressive.

As far as content, these comics contain no violence, unless you count one goose attack and what happens to that poor cake at the hands of four-year-old Allie. No sexual content, either. There is frank, detailed discussion of the emotional experience of having ADHD and depression, including Brosh’s difficulty motivating herself, struggle with shame and self-hate, and suicidal thoughts. These eventually lead her to seek treatment and reach a place of hope.

There are also a lot of F-bombs. A lot. (Not to be mistaken for “alot of F-bombs,” which Brosh would illustrate very differently.) Brosh also uses the R-word a few times in one story in which she decides to test her dog’s intelligence. For what it’s worth, she uses the word not as an insult but when speculating that her dog has a mental handicap.

This book stands on its own and no knowledge of the Hyperbole and a Half blog required. But readers who are already fans are especially in for a treat. Those who identify with Brosh’s descriptions of mental illness will enjoy new stories about her coping mechanisms and motivational techniques. Readers who prefer the author’s purely funny stories will like the new ones about her childhood and her badly-behaved dogs. Hand it to readers who don’t mind some heavy stuff mixed in with their humor and to anyone interested in an unconventional memoir by someone living with mental illness.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, and Other Things that Happened
by Allie Brosh
ISBN: 9781451666175
Touchstone, 2013

When Anxiety Attacks: Seeking Out Therapy Even When Your Problems Seem Weird or Silly

anxietyattacksDo you feel anxious or upset all the time? Have others around you suggested therapy, but you feel uncertain about it? In When Anxiety Attacks, Terian Koscik describes her decision to get therapy and the aftermath. From unraveling the reason she walks three miles to Walgreens for just a roll of toilet paper, to her fears regarding her friend’s unwillingness to hang out, Koscik shows how therapy helps her come to terms with herself and manage her anxiety.

The quirky title When Anxiety Attacks got my attention, and, because I have enjoyed mental health comics in the past, I was excited to read it. When Anxiety Attacks does not follow a traditional story arc, rather it offers a collection of episodes that show Koscik’s experiences in and out of therapy. Most of the book focuses on short snippets of her experiences in therapy and her experiences applying what she learned in her day-to-day life. Throughout the book, she frequently pokes fun at her own perceptions, which gives When Anxiety Attacks a lighthearted tone.

Koscik’s art also contributes to the book’s lighthearted tone. Her panels of entertaining graphs and short hypothetical scenarios poke fun at her anxiety rather than letting the stressful aspects overwhelm the narrative. Koscik’s expressive faces are especially good at conveying entertaining reactions to events. Color is used sparingly and is often used to add some interest or to convey extreme emotion, to great effect.

Despite its good humor, however, the book did not come together for me. The lack of a narrative arc weakens its message. I found myself wanting more details of her experiences with therapy and thought the book needed a better trajectory. The book jumps too quickly from therapy experience to her self-acceptance, and there are no real details or points to show how Koscik got there. These lack of details lessens the impact of the final message. When Anxiety Attacks could have been an engrossing portrayal of anxiety and the impact of therapy, but it sadly falls short.

When Anxiety Attacks: Seeking Out Therapy Even When Your Problems Seem Weird or Silly
by Terian Koscik
ISBN: 9781848192843
Singing Dragon, 2015

How I Made it to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story

EighteenStacy, the seventeen-year-old semi-autobiographical protagonist of How I Made It To Eighteen by Tracy White, is struggling. From the outside, her life seems fine, but she privately struggles with drugs and an eating disorder. In an attempt to get her undiagnosed depression under control, she checks herself into a psychiatric hospital.

Told in a series of chapters framed by a therapist questioning four of her friends, White gives you snapshots of her treatment. Each chapter opens with a count of how many days Stacy has been in the institution – six days, eighteen days, forty days –  followed by a scene from her life in the institution. The chapters end with an unseen therapist asking each of her four friends a question. Through their answers, you get a sense of Stacy, how she portrays herself in public or hides her problems, and also of her friends’ personalities – the friend who was clueless, the friend who is very self-centered, and so on. The book ends abruptly with a little afterward paragraph saying Stacy transitioned into semi-institutional living.

In many ways, this book is a long vignette. While White gives an introduction telling the reader that her story is a semi-autobiographical account of her personal experience in a mental institution, it begins and ends abruptly.  You never really get an understanding of why she is there or that any real progress of change has been made. You only know she has checked herself in voluntarily through a flashback scene. White shows her resistance to admitting any problems but very little movement forward.  She has unsatisfactory therapy with her mother, stubbornly resists everything her therapist is saying, and barely manages to stand up to her abusive boyfriend.

Some of this lack of forward movement may be because White herself is still so young. She’s only a couple years away from this event as of publication. This work is more like reading her journal, than a fully realized story. She does not seem to have distance from the event. There is no feeling that her time in an institution gave her insight into her life or helped her later on.

The art is very elegant. It is ink drawings with strong lines. Her work is clear, not sketchy. There is no shading but White is very expressive in her minimalism. She does a lot with a little, which fits the pared down story. Recommended for older teens and above because it deals with drugs and suicide.

How I Made it to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story
by Tracy White
ISBN: 1596434546
Roaring Brook Press, 2010