If your mom were diagnosed with cancer, how would you deal with it? Comic creator Brian Fies decided to use sequential art to help cope and deal with the struggle his mother had with the disease. Almost everyone who has read the comic agrees it's a powerful, evocative, poignant, and very human story. When the strip began, Jennifer Contino of the Pulse, an online magazine, approached the then-anonymous creator and asked about an interview, but Fies said he didn't want to do interviews until the story was completed. Mom's Cancer recently ended, so we've now got details from Fies on how this all came together.
Jennifer Contino: This was a very powerful story — mostly because of the subject matter but also because of the heart and emotion you put upon every page. How tough was it for you to tell your mom's story in this fashion?
Brian Fies: When my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer we were hit with things that no one prepares you for, and I got the idea to somehow communicate these observations that I wish someone had shared with me. Then one day I took my mother to chemotherapy, and to pass the time, I sketched a cartoon of her dozing in her chair. I looked at it and thought, "Huh. Now that's something." I began taking notes, doing sketches, and basically trying to capture everything that seemed interesting about my family's experience. I don't think Mom's Cancer would work as prose, but as a comic everything came together for me.
What got tough about doing Mom's Cancer wasn't so much the immediate emotional intensity of it but just the long, exhausting drain. For example, my wife and kids and I took our first trip to Europe last summer, and a friend gave me a blank sketchbook to take along. It was a nice idea, but I was so tired of trying to record every important moment of my family's life that I couldn't pick up the sketchbook once. I needed a vacation from being an observer.
Contino: How did working on this comic help you deal with what was going on in your life?
Fies: I think it helped a lot. The first thing my wife said was, "Well, at least it'll be good therapy for you." It gave me some emotional detachment, and sitting down and writing about these events helped sort them out and put them in perspective. I was taking something bad and trying to turn it into something good. It worked for me.
Contino: You didn't want to do any interviews or talk about the work until it was completed. Why?
Fies: Mostly cowardice.
At first, because no one else knew about it, including my family. The story was still in progress, and I didn't want my mother or sisters acting differently around me because they thought I was watching their every move. They didn't need that. I wanted to respect their privacy and preserve mine. In addition, I wanted to get the entire story done so it could be seen as a whole.
I initially put Mom's Cancer on the Web when it was about half done to solicit the opinions of some comic strip fans and cartoonists whose judgment I trusted. They gave me some great feedback, but what I didn't quite count on was that they'd tell two friends, and they'd tell two friends, and so on and so on.... Whatever attention it's gotten has been almost entirely word of mouth.
Plus, I wasn't much interested in getting my name out, because that wasn't really the point. I'm not being disingenuous or falsely modest — I want as many people to read Mom's Cancer as possible — but it didn't really add any value to the story to know it was written by a guy named Brian.
Anonymity reinforced the notion that it could be about any family anywhere.
Contino: What did the rest of your family think about sharing this experience with the rest of the world via the World Wide Web?
Fies: They reacted better than I'd hoped...or feared. Mom loved it. It meant a lot to my mother to find out that a church group in Texas was praying for her and that readers in Canada, Australia, the U.K., Spain, Peru, and Israel were pulling for her.
I knew my "Kid Sis" would get it. In fact, she told me she'd found her own creative outlet by writing a screenplay. We just looked at each other and said, "Oh, so that's how you're exorcising the demons." "Nurse Sis" was a tougher sell. I was surprised that her main concern was more professional than personal. She thought I'd mishandled some medical material and didn't want anyone to conclude she was a bad nurse. I knew we were all right when she started telling her friends about it.
Considering that my portrayals weren't entirely flattering, and I know they dispute my memories of some events, my family has been incredibly, unexpectedly supportive. They're my stealth marketing team.
Contino: How long did it take you to draw this autobiographical comic?
Fies: About a year and a half, roughly, in real time, although about six months behind the events I depicted. I had to work around a full-time job and family life, and in a good week I might get time to do three or four pages. In a busy week I didn't do any.
Contino: It all seems so concise — fits together so well. How did you determine which conversations — which parts of this story — to draw as a part of the final work and what to leave on the cutting-room floor?
Fies: I really appreciate that question; thanks for noticing. A ton of source material was distilled into Mom's Cancer. To begin with, I just recorded everything that caught my attention. Anything that surprised me; any "Hey, wait a minute" moments. Sometimes they hit you between the eyes, and sometimes you have to be alert for them. When you're busy living them you don't know how they'll fit together, so you catch as many as you can and sort them out later.