This section explores the contextual background of TIW and will consider the following topics in turn: the genres of graphic medicine and autobiography; public discourses surrounding cancer and other comics which deal with the same subject; and finally, the book’s critical reception and real reader responses to the character of Iris.
The contextual background of TIW is relevant to the purposes of this study in that the character whose fictional consciousness is under discussion is an avatar of an author writing through the comics medium about her experience of cancer. TIW therefore belongs to two genres: its subject matter places it within the genre of graphic medicine, and its basis in lived experience means the book cannot help but be considered autobiographical. Iris as character stands in not just for the author, however, but for all those who are living with cancer; as a cancer patient, Iris signifies on a level beyond the personal. Naturally, the reader’s experience with public discourse surrounding cancer will encourage a certain amount of projection onto the character, and the nature of this projection is arguably pre-determined by narratives which are sanctioned through repetition to the exclusion of other narratives which do not fit the pattern. Any negative reader-response to Iris could well be the result of the pre-conditioning occasioned by the prevalence of entrenched and regulated cancer narratives. Reviews from critics and real readers are included in this section to gauge the kind of reaction and response to the character of Iris on the publication of TIW, but, by way of a tangential observation, it should be noted that the critical response highlights the inadequacy of language used about comics: professional reviewers were struggling even to follow the plot in some cases, and comments proffered as insightful reveal only a lack of engagement with the medium. Real reader responses to the character oscillated between whole-hearted acceptance and disappointment.
Stories of trauma, loss or illness expressed through the medium of comics has become such a popular and rapidly growing trend that ‘graphic medicine’ is now fully recognised as a separate genre. Baetens and Frey offer the observation that ‘the graphic novel seems to have an elective affinity with stories of the self, the self in crisis because of history or trauma, maybe because…the self is harder to remove when a work is drawn as well as narrated’ (2015: 177). Personal experiences dealt with to date in this medium have included epilepsy (David B’s Epileptic), obsessive compulsive disorder (Ian Williams’ The Bad Doctor), grief (Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me & You), eating disorders and sexual abuse (Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow), rape (Ravi Thornton and Andy Hixon’s The Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone), depression (John Stuart Clark’s Depresso), and cancer (Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person and Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen). Rachael Ball’s novel is positively identified as a contribution to this genre in Andy Oliver’s review for the online blog Broken Frontier, in which he describes the novel as ‘a visionary entry in the graphic medicine canon’ (2017).
Many publications categorised as ‘graphic medicine’, including those listed above, are autobiographical accounts, and Ball’s novel is no exception. TIW recounts Ball’s own experience of breast cancer, mastectomy, and the process of reconstruction which is referred to in the book’s title. Rocío Davis notes that ‘the subjects of the autobiographical comics are, most often, graphic artists themselves. The reader is privileged to participate in the performance of both memory and art, and the complex interaction between them’ (2005: 269), and Martha Kuhlman, who provides an overview of some important contributions to the genre in her 2017 essay, writes that ‘[l]ines drawn by hand register the state of mind of the cartoonist, and thus represent the subjective nature of one’s changing sense of self in the grip of illness’ (119). This observation has relevance for any discussion of artistic style as a carrier of meaning, and it underlines the very personal nature of the experience of producing this book, because Iris, Ball’s stand-in, has to be continually re-drawn.
In his 2007 book This Book Contains Graphic Language, Rocco Versaci devotes a chapter to the ‘special reality’ created by comics memoirists, the phrase itself taken from Will Eisner’s autobiographical work To the Heart of the Storm: ‘fact and fiction became blended with selective recall and result in a special reality. I came to rely on the truthfulness of visceral memory’ (Eisner, 1991: xi). Versaci pursues Eisner’s comments in his discussion of the relationship between memoir and the representation of the truth. He references the work of Hayden White, who has famously claimed that history is fiction in his Tropics of Discourse, and notes that Paul Eakin makes similar arguments with respect to the practice of autobiography in How Our Lives Become Stories (Versaci, 2007: 57). Expressions of the past are not unfiltered and narratives retold in the present become coloured by the operations of perspective and re-creation. Versaci summarises this very succinctly: ‘the “facts” of a life are altered by their translation into some representational medium [and] “telling the truth” in memoir is not always a straightforward process’ (57).
Versaci notes that a variety of first-person perspectives are available to memoirists, and that comics memoirs ‘have additional ways to express and layer the first-person perspective’ (48), including an additional signifier, namely the artistic style of images. He claims that ‘the visual component…allows…memoirists to represent the complicated and shifting nature of the self’ (49). This shifting self can include a split self, a self as defined by others, or a self as constructed by a culture and social community.
In her work on split selves in fiction, Catherine Emmott comments that this split ‘commonly occurs at times of personal crisis’ (2002: 153), and she examines research on metaphor analysis in the portrayal of a split self. For example, Emmott mentions Lakoff’s container metaphors (156) and there is an example of exactly this sort of metaphor in TIW (see figure 1 below). When Iris has been brought to her lowest point, she no longer recognises herself and describes herself as ‘a hollow thing’, similar to an empty container.
Figure 1 TIW p. 436-437
In section 4.4 below, I examine pictorial metaphor as a way of expressing one’s own truth. The visual depiction of a metaphor or an analogy to express emotion is widely-used in comics and it presents no problem to habitual readers of such texts: Versaci perceptively notes that ‘readers already view comic books as “unreal,” so any further distortion of reality becomes a mere extension of the form’ (2007: 76).Leigh Gilmore explores the limitations of language in the expression of trauma and asserts that trauma survivors, in repeatedly testifying verbally to their emotional experience, create ‘a conscious language that can be repeated in structured settings’ (2001: 7), but which is inimical to the unconscious lived experience of trauma. This telling of pre-determined stories in a sanctioned setting is reflected in Judy Segal’s research on the public discourse surrounding cancer narratives.
In the context of an article on the subject of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, an autobiographical account of Satrapi’s own experience of the Iran-Iraq war (2008), Rocío Davis writes that ‘autobiographical comics cannot…be read solely as a personal account, the cultural connotations of the stories and the narrative choices signifying on the level of national drama and attesting to the complex interweaving of the strategies of meaning’ (2005: 270). Similarly, cancer narratives contribute to an existing public discourse on illness. In studies published in 2007 and 2012, Segal investigates the more sinister side of cancer narratives. She concludes that personal narratives often take on standard plots and features of existing cancer stories which have already been rehearsed many times, such as an opening scene in which a lump is discovered (this is indeed true of TIW). These stories focus on the cure rather than the cause, and the cancer sufferer is often described metaphorically as a warrior in battle against an implacable enemy. The problems inherent in these stories are manifold, not least of which is the entailment that the cancer patient who does not recover is in some way to blame for simply not fighting hard enough. Segal focuses on the regulatory function of these stories, and how one of their most insidious effects is the sidelining of other narratives which do not follow the prescribed pattern. The accepted stories provide information for sufferers, but they also evaluate and govern. Naturally, the generic and conventionalised ways in which illness is discussed generates reader expectations with regard to such narratives and reader response can be dictated by the extent to which the story matches these expectations.
Other cancer narratives in comics format include Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person (2006) and Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen (2006), both of which have gained some critical attention (Segal, 2007, 2012; Stoddard Holmes, 2014; Tensuan, 2011). Ball’s novel is very different from these two publications in many respects, the most obvious departure being that the protagonist, Iris Pink-Percy, is an avatar for the author, whereas Engelberg and Marchetto draw representations of their physical selves (a very flattering one in Marchetto’s case). Iris’ diagnosis, treatment and recovery are expressed through metaphor, caricature and grotesque mockery, which is indicative of mental activity either on Iris’ part or on the part of her creator. As such, the purpose of the book feels different to that of the other two titles mentioned: Marchetto’s book is genuinely informative about the disease, as is Engelberg’s to a lesser extent. Ball’s novel is less a self-help guide than a genuine attempt to capture the experience of illness and to express it in a unique way. The comics medium both permits and invites the exploitation of the interplay of verbal and visual layers as a way of evoking experience. Martha Stoddard Holmes notes that a minimalist representation of characters allows for the depiction of an unstable self (2014: 148), and Andy Oliver notes in his very perceptive review that Ball’s ‘forceful visual symbolism…uses an ever shifting sense of warped perspective to underline those moments when Iris feels dehumanised or overawed by the realities of her situation’. Oliver writes that ‘as readers we become fully invested in Iris…as she adapts to the challenges ahead’ (2017).
Amongst the many reviews of TIW, Oliver’s is by far the most perceptive. Many reviewers produced overly-simplistic assessments or a selection of catch-all statements which will hardly satisfy a competent comics reader. Sarah Gilmartin writing for the Irish Times produced the observation that ‘[p]encil drawings against a black background highlight Iris’s predicament as the world turns bleak around her’ while blithely ignoring the fact that the only colour sequence in the book is Iris’ terrifying vision of the paper dolls coming to attack her, all of whom are bleeding red from the breast. Michelle Martinez (The New York Journal of Books) recognises that the book is unlike other comics on the same theme; however, this particular reviewer’s response is interesting because her confusion around Henry’s online catfishing reveals that she has not understood the scene in which Henry rows his boat towards shore after his date with Iris and drives away in a car, which tells the reader that Henry is not the lighthouse keeper he pretends to be. As a consequence, perhaps, of her lack of experience in reading comics, Martinez does not consider Iris to be a fully-rounded character. She comments, ‘[f]urther attention to building Iris as a character would have created stronger engagement in this fast-paced story’.
Reviews written by the book’s audience rather than its critics appear on the Goodreads site (https://www.goodreads.com). Most of these reviews are very positive, with many readers extolling the artwork. One reader comments on the use of pictorial metaphor (see section 4.3 below) as follows: ‘Powerful symbolism is incorporated, such as illustration of train = giving up while emergency stop pull = will to live’ (see figure 2 below). Another reader writes about their response to the character of Iris: ‘Iris, the protagonist, is someone you connect with instantly, even if she may not be relatable’; however, a third reader found their expectations disappointed: ‘a technically decent book, I was hard pressed to find its heart’.
Figure 2 TIW p. 76 (left) and 80 (right)