From the first pages I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Sure, Fies’ work is an Eisner Award winner, a book form graphic novel born out of an anonymous, online comic strip the author wrote as a kind of self-therapy while dealing with his own mother’s cancer. That alone is quite a bit to recommend the work. But there was something about the simplicity of Fies’ lines that gave me pause. It’s a little cartoony with very little depth of image (a complex panels is the narrator sitting in a chair watching TV, drapes behind him over his shoulder), so I worried I’d be getting a Hallmark card journey through illness and health.
But there is something to Scott McCloud’s assertion made in Understanding Comics
that the simpler the image the closer it approaches universality, which is to some degree an unintended point in Fies’ work. Written for himself to say all the things he couldn’t say to his family, to better understand all the things happening around him and to him, Fies’ work touched a chord all across the world. Word-of-mouth spread and increased the work’s popularity. The story, begun without intentional shape or structure, manages to jell nicely as a piece with the satisfying wholeness of a tale told without undue elaboration or dramatics.
To keep things simple, Fies limits the story almost entirely to the narrator and his two sisters, known throughout the work as Kid Sis and Nurse Sis, and the eponymous Mom. Doctors and nurses of various types float in and out through the story, as does a kind of spectral figure of the long-absent Dad. We watch in a kind of helpless fascination as Mom submits to treatment, first six weeks of radiation coupled with chemo (the radiation designed to get the metastasized node in her brain), then chemo alone to treat the cancer in her lungs. Technical aspects are not glossed over, but they are reduced to their most easily understood hearts, aided by Fies clarity of pen.Mom’s Cancer
is unsparing in its finger pointing. In one scene, in reply to Mom’s question: “Can you tell what caused it?” her doctor replies tartly: “In my experience, one of five things: smoking, smoking, smoking, smoking, or smoking.” In other places, as we watch a headshot of Mom as she undergoes treatment, losing hair and becoming more gaunt from panel to panel, we watch the stages of grief play themselves out including the confessional final shot. “But you know, I still want it,” Mom tells us here. “I’d smoke a pack now if I could.”
Unsurprisingly, the narrator’s observation after having nagged his mother to quit through the decades, “Somehow saying ‘I told you so’ turned out to be a lot less satisfying than I imagined” has the chest clenching ring of a true experience. For such a short volume with such simply drawn characters, Fies has managed to pour the essence of grief, the nub of experience into his pen and devastatingly out onto the page.
There were more than a few instances I found myself, hand to my throat as I read, blinking back tears. A panel late in the story, in the depth of her treatment, hairless, Mom turning to her daughter with a desperate panic in her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks — she’s just found out after all these months that only five percent of patients in her condition live — made me set the book down until I felt I could continue. To look at it now, two weeks after I first read it, to see the stark beauty of Fies’ art in that one look is to catch just the faintest whisper of the despair of chronic illness of any kind.
It is also to see art, pure and simple.