ARCHIVE: On, Vixen — a Survivor’s Story

marisa1Writer and cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto visits Fair Haven on Wednesday in connection with the paperback release of her acclaimed “graphic memoir,” CANCER VIXEN.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 5, 2009)

October is, of course, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — but it’s also traditionally that time of year when we like to make light of the hobgoblins that dog the deepest recesses of our nightmares. And, for one evening at least, one woman is doing everything in her considerable power to reconcile those two ‘tobers.

With a career as a regular contributor to such top-of-the-pile reading matter as GlamourThe Sunday Times and The New Yorker, a husband (Silvano Marchetto of Da Silvano) who’s the owner of one of downtown Manhattan’s most fervently followed restaurants, and a couple of acclaimed books to her credit, Marisa Acocella Marchetto would seem to be living the sort of impossibly fabulous, sex-in-the-city lifestyle that a lot of people would give their spare Birkin for — although a quick flip through her collected works would certainly bring that lifestyle into down-to-earth perspective. In addition to being a person who struggles with such real-world concerns as self-esteem issues, complicated relationships and the many frustrations and uncertainties of the freelancer’s life, the writer and cartoonist is also a breast cancer survivor — and her experiences in what Paul Cowan called The Land of the Sick form the basis for her 2006 “graphic memoir” Cancer Vixen, the paperback edition of which has just been released by Pantheon Books.

It’s actually been a while now since publishers and critics have thought of the “graphic novel” or “sequential storytelling” format as purely the province of the superheroes (Hollywood long since figured out the viability of indie comix ranging from The 300 and The Road to Perdition to American Splendor and Persepolis). And Marisa, whose first foray into the format was Just Who the Hell Is SHE, Anyway? (a project that grew out of her SHE character done for Mirabella and Elle magazines) uses the hitherto misunderstood medium to its full potential, a fact that could pay dividends if the long-delayed film adaptation (with Cate Blanchett in the lead!) ever leaves development limbo.

Despite the superheroic pose struck by the Vixen on the paperback cover, there are no caped adventurers to be found inside. There’s just the author — her weapon of choice a .35 Rapidograph pen and her secret power the ability to transform intimidating foes into figures of ridicule, from snotty too-thin chicks and new-age quacks to the personified concept of Cancer herself. With its itchy/scratchy drawings complemented by a gift for layered narrative, Cancer Vixen is rich in detail, emotionally true and able to navigate places where the standard “Sick Lit” memoir can’t maneuver.

The author, who maintains some family ties to the local area (check this interviewfor her explanation of how the Jersey Shore inadvertently played a part in her calling as a cartoonist) comes to the comfy setting of the Nauvoo Grill Club in Fair Haven on Wednesday evening, for a reading and signing event that begins at 7pm. It’s being presented by the nearby River Road Books, the owners of which  (Sharon EverettLaurie PotterKim Robinson and Karen Rumage) have kept their defiantly indie shop in the vanguard of local author events, even in a business landscape dominated by “stripmall strong-armers and virtual-shopping vultures.”

Red Bank oRBit spoke to Marisa, whose Cancer Vixen Fund allows uninsured women access to care at St. Vincent’s Comprehensive Cancer Center (and who has donated a percentage of the proceeds of Cancer Vixen to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation), on doctors, doing things the old-school way, and her own contribution to the national town-hall debate.

RED BANK ORBIT: Well, I just got a copy of CANCER VIXEN a day before we were scheduled to talk, and I got about sixty percent of the way through it before we timed out here. Without telling me how it ends, how are you doing these days?

MARISA ACOCELLA MARCHETTO: Just as a spoiler alert, I do live at the end! I’m still on medication right now, which I’ll be taking until next May, and I continue to get occasional screenings — but I’m now cancer free and healthy. And I’m happy and excited to be doing this reading in Fair Haven.

Now I’ve been told you have something of a family connection to the Red Bank area.

I have cousins who live in Red Bank; they saw the posters and they’re all coming out to the event. I never lived there myself — I was born in Elizabeth, lived in Roselle Park and Scotch Plains — but my parents have a house down in Spring Lake. My mother, or ‘(S)mother’ said, ‘did you know you’re going to be appearing in Fair Haven?’

Your book is part of a subgenre that’s being branded as Sick Lit by some people — stories of survival and personal struggle with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. And I like that it takes a proactive, humorous tone to the topic, even while remaining a serious work at its core — you get to have a laugh on cancer after all your ups and downs, rather than playing the victim. Given the information on breast cancer that’s out there these days, what would you say that a book like yours brings to the discussion? 

The good news is that people talk about it now, and that wasn’t always the case. The awareness has definitely been increased. There were so many misperceptions about breast cancer — even now, still. In fact, I saw a doctor give a talk in Italy, where he said that children can’t get breast cancer. Meanwhile, my doctor in New York has a patient who’s 11 years old! So, even medical people need to get on the same page about this.

Well, there’s a lot of talk lately about our health care system in this country, and how it stacks up against Canada and various places in Europe. Since you’ve had experience with medical people in a couple of countries, what’s your take on all that?

I have to say the doctors here in New York are great. Over at St. Vincent’s they’re funding mammograms for free, and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering they’re extremely dedicated and just amazing. You’ll find the best doctors in cities — but I also visited hospitals in France, Italy, and in London I think. And especially in France, they’re pretty sophisticated. They’ll give you a diagnosis in a day. Of course people who can afford the best can get the best — I hate to say it, but it does all come down to money; the care you need and the care you receive can be very different things.

So if you had your druthers, we’d have a straightforward public health program in place here.

I advocate for people getting universal health coverage. Every woman, every person should have an equal chance to live.

You’ve gone on record as having regretted not paying enough attention to your own insurance situation when you had the chance, and I know you urge everyone to get their own plans in order. But you did have insurance at the time of your diagnosis, correct? That puts you a cut above a lot of other self-employed people right there in terms of preparation.

I lost my insurance that I had through the Writers Guild. It was pretty bare bones, there was no dental or anything, but had I still been able to retain it, I would have been covered for my treatment. As it is, in my case I had such amazing friends; such a hub of support from the people in my life.

It wasn’t until I finally got around to reading your book that I realized it wasn’t one hundred percent about your cancer experiences. It’s very much intertwined with your relationship story, about how you and your husband took those steps toward becoming a married couple; about all the little culture clashes and stuff, and how the cancer diagnosis impacted everything else that was going on at that same time.

Cancer Vixen started as just four pages in Glamour. My editor asked me what’s going on in my life, and can give me four pages on it? So it all grew out of that, as well as a book that I was writing at the time, about what happens when you marry an Italian restaurateur, a person who’s kind of the nexus of a whole social scene.

I love the “Gumby” reference, by the way. Anyone who hasn’t read the book yet will just have to look that up when they get to it, but to me it’s a good example of your humor skills getting put to work at confronting a problem and a conflict and making that awful thing into a figure of ridicule. Just like you do with cancer itself. Now, you’ve been working the graphic novel format as well as anyone, but did you find the publishing industry kind of slow to accept the format and what it could accomplish? 

I wrote my first graphic novel in 1994, and back then everybody was like, how do we market this thing? We can’t even understand what it is. Nowadays, though, they get a lot more respect.

So then you’re not going to turn your back on cartooning. How do you go about creating a cartoon these days? Still doing it by hand? It looks like you’re using Photoshop for coloring, but I appreciate that you keep it simple and don’t overwhelm the simplicity of your style with a lot of slick and easy effects.

Cartooning as a medium is always going to be a valid way to communicate. And I’m always going to continue working in strip form. I still use ink on board; I use a Rapidograph pen. I trace over my rough sketches, submit it to the editor, do the final art, scan it and finish up in Photoshop. But really, nothing beats the feel of pen to paper.