Talking to Marisa Acocella Marchetto, the ‘Cancer Vixen’
The first time I ever read anything about Marisa Acocella Marchetto was in the spring of 2006 when USA Today health reporter Liz Szabo wrote a wonderful cover feature about the collision of cancer and comics, "Laughing in the face of cancer."
Szabo spent most of the interview talking to creative types from the late Miriam Engleberg (Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person) to Brian Fies (Mom's Cancer) and Evan Handler (Sex in the City, Californication) about the surprising number of auto-bio works about fighting cancer with jokes. Surprisingly, Marchetto's Cancer Vixen was barely mentioned, save for scant details about a fall release by Alfred A. Knopf.
Of course, Cancer Vixen was the one book out of them all that really caught my attention, probably due to Marchetto's "ink-stained fingers" pedigree as a veteran cartoonist whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, the late Talk and Glamour. Finally, after finding a copy -- it wasn't easy, even in Austin -- I understood why my Spider-Sense was tingling... Cancer Vixen is about so much more than cancer.
It's a pretty funny story about the life of a female cartoonist working in the trenches of the media capital of the world, a place where rejection is so commonplace that a .250 batting average for the week (three out of 12 cartoons accepted by a client like The New Yorker in a given week) is beyond outstanding.
At its core, however, Cancer Vixen is a very warm and entertaining love story, an all-too rare occurrence in the world of graphic novels. As the love story begins to percolate -- marriage is in the air -- our heroine learns she has breast cancer. And that's when this smart 212-page story really takes off!
It's rare when a book so inspires the fan in me that I actually savor the experience of reading it late into the night, next to my warm Mrs. CEO. And laugh...
The first of this two-part interview is devoted to the comics side of our Cancer Vixen, while the second half, appearing on AOL's new breast cancer awareness and support blog, United For Pink, discusses Marisa's post-breast cancer fight, the poor diagnosis for folks without health insurance and self-esteem.
Comics Alliance: It's been about a year since Cancer Vixen was released by Knopf, and I'm a bit disappointed, but not terribly surprised, the comics world hasn't embraced your wonderful book like it should have. Do you feel the same way?
Marisa: A little. But I was nominated for Best Graphic Novel of the Year by the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), which made up for it. Sorta. Why aren't you surprised, Wayne?
CA: Oops, forgot about the National Cartoonists Society. I was surprised Cancer Vixen wasn't recognized by various awards committees like the Harveys and Eisners. Largely, I believe the committees, as usual, celebrated man-centric superhero books, at the expense and exclusion of the world beyond mainstream comics. True, Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) and Gene Yang (American Born Chinese) received nominations and awards from the various funnybook groups, but books like Cancer Vixen (there are more) deserved that same recognition.
Have an opinion about the mainstream comics industry at all? Or it is that publishing universe completely off the radar for you and your target audience?
Marisa: Cancer Vixen was described as "sick lit," a new sub-genre of "chick lit." So maybe the "man-centric," as you say, Harveys and Eisners couldn't really relate to me. I really wrote this book from my heart for the women out there. I was plugging into the healing energy of the unstoppable creative life force.
I was hoping my audience would find me, and guess what? They are still finding me all over the world. My book went into its second printing in France (where it's titled Cancer and the City) after being out for just a little over two weeks.
And, who is my target audience? They are, certainly, not victims. We are all Vixens!
CA: Of course, you had influences... Were they comic books, cartoonists, both or neither?
Marisa: I was influenced by the TV shows -- Honey West, That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Batman, The Green Hornet, Bewitched -- the comic strips -- Tiffany Jones and Brenda Starr (Tiffany was groovier!) -- and James Thurber. The latter because (when) I started drawing those fab women with the shoes I was merely imitating my Smother (aka Mother) who was a shoe designer for Delman. She would do these trend reports and draw the women who would be wearing her shoes. I've been drawing those women since I was 3.
When I hit 8 years old, I got tired of them because they weren't talking to me. Then we went on a family vacation that wasn't the usual Asbury Park visit: We went to Bermuda. When we got to our room, my Smother hated it and told the resort owner guy she wanted bigger and better. He gave us a pink elephant of a house on the fringe of the resort that nobody wanted. So we packed up and moved in. On the walls of the pink elephant were these drawings with captions!
My Smother said that we were in the legendary New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber's house. It was an AHA! moment because it solved the problem of my mute fab women - I could make them talk!
I stayed up all night that night reading old New Yorkers and Thurber's books... the place was like his personal library. I fell asleep at 4 a.m., and woke up with the sensat
ion of things crawling all over me. I jumped out of bed and saw 400 red ants in it.
It was then that I was bitten by the cartoonist bug.
CA: Autobio comics by and about female cartoonists -- until Girl Stories (Lauren Weinstein), Fun Home, Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) and Cancer Vixen -- have been the exception, rather than the rule, but not so for men. Your collective success, however, has demonstrated beyond a doubt that good autobio comics aren't made exclusively by men. Have any thoughts about the male-dominated world of cartooning?
Marisa: Yes. To be honest, men in cartooning are much more supportive of the women in cartooning. Women cartoonists for the most part are not as supportive and respectful as the men cartoonists are to each other. Maybe, less women do it and everyone wants to be "the one."
I think that problem will not be as intense as more women get into the field. I hope... There's room for everyone.
CA: I learned a lot about breast cancer from reading your book, even though my parents were stricken with cancer (and died from it). Do you hear that a lot?
I hear it all the time and get letters every day. They inspired ME.
CA: At the heart of Cancer Vixen is the warm love story between you and Silvano, and how his love and acceptance ultimately changed your life. That plot line alone made your book an anomaly in the comics industry. Why are good love stories so hard to find in comics?
You know, I don't know why that is. We're all misanthropes, and I include myself in that group.
CA: What makes the love story work is a smart sense of humor, no doubt, a product of your cartooning career at The New Yorker, Glamour and elsewhere. In fact, I didn't know some of your best cartoons never saw the light of day until I picked up your contemporary Matthew Diffie's The Rejection Collection. Do you feel, as I do, that some of those "rejects" are funnier than the ones you actually sold to The New Yorker?
Matt Diffee is one of my favorite cartoonists. He is an awesome editor and one of the greatest people on the planet.
CA: I've gotta ask you this: Does your husband really own more shoes than you do?
He outnumbers me in the shoe dept 2-1.
CA: About this movie adaptation with Cate Blanchett, any new details about the production?
New details are this: My contract was finally finished and from here on in it's production time. Any thoughts on who could play SIlvano? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CA: Even though there was a 12-year gap between your first two books, the third is coming out a bit sooner. Any tidbits? And, will we see that first book reissued one day?
No tidbits. I have a big mouth and a tendency to divulge. I will say it is fiction and unlike anything I've ever done and I am having a total BLAST working on it.
I would love it if my first book were re-issued one day!
Check out the second half of my interview with the charming and talented Cancer Vixen, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, at United For Pink!