Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person

By Miriam Engelberg
144 pages, black and white
Published by HarperCollins

One of the hazards of writing comic reviews is that you can end up with a stack of books that are waiting to be read, and never getting around to them. Interesting book after interesting book gets thrown onto the pile, all with the best intentions because they all look genuinely interesting. And slowly but surely, the amount of paper gathered together continues to grow. Conversely, every once in a while you find a book that you figure will go into the stack, but you open it up to a random page and suddenly it’s two hours later and you’ve read the entire book. That, to me, is exactly what happened with Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person.

Miriam Engelberg probably would have called her life pretty unremarkable; happily married with one child, and working as a database manager for a company in San Francisco. Then she got the call from her doctor that there was a calcified area on her mammomgram, and that they’d need to take a biopsy. If there’s one thing that Miriam didn’t need to be told, though, it was that she needed to keep her sense of humor handy.

Reading the introduction to Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person, Engelberg talks about discovering comics through an NPR program about Peter Kuper, and going from there to read autobiographical comics from people like Lynda Barry, Harvey Pekar, and Mary Fleener. I can really see that in her writing; not that she’s mimicking them, but that her own autobiographical comics share an important trait in that it’s not self-pitying or whiny, but very frank about what’s going on in her life. Engelberg isn’t afraid to lay everything on the line and talk not only about her (understandable) fears, but her coping methods, her inappropriate humor, and her occasional attempts to use it as an excuse. In short, it’s the sort of writing where it’s very easy to empathise with it. While not every person who reads Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person may have had cancer itself, the very human reaction to something difficult that Engelberg admits to having is one that’s shared by just about everyone.

Engelberg, even more importantly, has a wry sense of humor. She’s able to poke fun of herself and others as she goes through her ordeals, from joking about starting chemotherapy just after she’d finally found a shampoo and conditioner that made her hair look nice, to wondering just how the heck the doctors wrap up breast cancer patients in massive ace bandages post-surgery. Engelberg invites the readers to laugh with her from one moment to the next, and it’s important that she does so. By being the first person to laugh at any given moment, she’s letting you know that it’s all right to see the ludicrousness in the situation. Sometimes she tells the reader about situations where it’s obvious (the overly cheerful radiation lab technician who refuses to stop smiling or talking by using a cat hand puppet); other times, not so much so (explaining that when she became emotionally fatigued from so much misert around her, that she would “feign compassion in that flat porn-actor kind of way”). But there’s always the invitiation to do so.

The art in Engelberg’s book is interesting because at a glance it’s very crude, simple art. At the same time, I can’t help but think that in many ways it’s something that would appeal much more strongly to a wider audience than some of the more ornate or “hot” artists working in the medium. By drawing in what look almost like doodles, Engelberg is essentially putting herself into the same level as her readers. She’s just an average person who is telling her story, and it could be you. There’s no pedastel that she places herself on, no great artistic masterpiece waiting to unveiled here. She’s your friend from down the street, or maybe that co-worker in the next cube. Her art also doesn’t distract from what she’s trying to get across, almost forcing you to focus on her words and the actions of the characters. Don’t get me wrong, though. Engelberg also has a good eye for storytelling in comics. Her actual figures may not be ultra-realistic and accomplished, but she clearly knows how sequential art works. I was really impressed with how well the images flow from one to the next, and that she’s got a good idea on how to get across motion in comics.

Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person was a really pleasant surprise, both in how sharp Engelberg’s humor is, and also how affecting the book is. You really care about what happens next to Engelberg, and want her to do well. Autobiographical works of any kind are tricky because the big question is ultimately, “Should I care?” Engelberg’s comics here make you care very much, thanks to the quality of her craft. Most impressively, a week after reading Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person I found myself unable to stop thinking about it. This is a book that’ll stick with you for a long time. Definitely check this book out—just be warned that once you pick it up you’ll be unable to easily put it back down.

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