Our Cancer Year, by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner

Our Cancer Year

Our Cancer Year lists both Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce as authors, and it really is by and about both of them. Of course she’s an important character in Pekar’s other books that I’ve read (other than The Quitter, which was about his earlier life), but here she’s legitimately a co-author. You get her perspective at least as much as Harvey’s.

Like Pekar’s other books, Our Cancer Year is a graphic novel. (At least I’ve seen his books described as graphic novels. I think of “novel” as limited to fiction, whereas things like the Pekar books and Art Spiegelman’s Maus are nonfiction. But evidently “graphic novel” is used for both fiction and nonfiction.) Unlike most of his other books though (again, with The Quitter being an exception), it’s not just a collection of mostly unrelated comic strips thrown together into a book. There are multiple narratives that are developed chronologically.

The main narrative—as indicated by the title—is the story of Harvey’s lymphoma diagnosis and treatment. The two other most prominent narratives are Harvey and Joyce buying and moving into a new house (Harvey had been a renter all his life up until then), and Joyce’s social justice work with youths from around the world.

Though the book feels very much like it is about Harvey’s bout with cancer, really that doesn’t get started until about halfway through, other than some foreshadowing involving his discovering a lump in his groin, and putting off having it checked out as long as possible.

The material about buying a house is typical solid Pekar stuff, with Harvey whining, resisting change, and seeing all the negatives, and Joyce grimly doing what needs to be done to move them forward.

I was tickled by the largely useless handyman who decides to give them advice on their personal life from a sexist, fundamentalist Christian perspective.

I have mixed feelings about the material about Joyce’s international political activism. There are certainly things to appreciate about it. The kids she’s working with have been through almost unimaginable trauma (one young girl watched as her brother was handed a gun and ordered to shoot his family or he would be shot; he shot himself in the head instead), yet almost all of them are goodhearted, idealistic, and hopeful. She’s working for good causes, and there’s an intensity to what she’s learning about and dealing with.

Yet somehow I just wasn’t drawn in by that material as much as it seems like I should have been. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t connect with me very much.

I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I can speculate as to some possible reasons.

Maybe some of it is just expectations. You buy a Pekar book and you expect Pekar-type material. You buy a Pekar book specifically about his cancer, and you expect it to be about his cancer. There was something a little distracting about the Joyce material, something that didn’t quite fit. It was like those little educational segments in the middle of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons; however good or bad they might have been on their own, in that context they were unwelcome in that they took you away from the cartoons you wanted to watch.

If they were both involved in the political stuff, then I think I would have felt differently about it, even where it was told from her perspective. Because I actually liked getting her perspective on moving and on Harvey’s struggles with cancer. So where it’s Harvey stuff or Harvey and Joyce stuff, I was into it. But the political stuff is all her; the bulk of it takes place out of town or out of the country without Harvey.

I think I also like the tone better when it’s both of them or when it’s just Harvey. Harvey is funny, he has an idiosyncratic way of looking at things, and he’s humble and self-deprecating. Harvey is entertaining on his own, and it also works when he’s balanced out by the more serious, sometimes cold and stiff Joyce. But Joyce on her own—not so much.

Some of it comes down to just how I react to Joyce as a human being. I remember when I saw the American Splendor movie, my reaction to Joyce was that—to me—she’s far more admirable than likable. In the movie, she was smart, had good values and politics, displayed a real strength of character, was loyal and loving in relationships—really in a lot of ways a terrific person.

Yet at the same time, there was something humorless and kind of bitchy and unpleasant about her that rubbed me the wrong way.

I have basically the same impression of her from this book. She’s the “hardheaded woman” Cat Stevens sings of, the one that in some sense would probably be a lot better for you than the women who draw your interest in more superficial ways, but a person that I strongly suspect I wouldn’t get along with and just wouldn’t like being around.

I understand that that’s probably more a failing of mine than of hers, but that’s how I react to her.

But anyway, to get back to the cancer part of the book, Harvey really went through hell. Some of that may be his natural tendency to complain about everything, but only a small part.

Needless to say, cancer can involve some really heavy physical and emotional suffering. But in some ways, I think what’s depicted in this book is worse than the average.

With all the advances over the years, if chemotherapy is done right, from what I understand it’s usually not a terrible thing to go through. It weakens you to some extent, but the nausea and a lot of the suffering people associate with it can almost always be avoided now, or at least kept quite mild.

But for Harvey (this was back in the ’90s), it all but destroyed him. He was weak and miserable, and over and over kept saying he wanted to die, please let me die.

Then with his weakened immune system he contracted a terrible case of herpes zoster. Evidently it was excruciatingly painful, and it stayed with him for a long time.

I remember my dear friend John—who passed away a few years ago—told me about his battle with cancer in his 20s, and how he too contracted herpes zoster, and what that did to him. He came very, very close to dying. Seeing Harvey suffer in these pages brought John’s stories back to me.

As much as you wouldn’t want to be in Harvey’s shoes going through this, one thing the book conveys quite effectively is that it would be nearly as bad to be in Joyce’s shoes. She goes through her own hell seeing what he’s experiencing, and having to constantly browbeat him to do the right thing if he’s to survive.

It’s tough. You see Harvey collapse and insist that his body has finally given out completely, that he can’t move, that it must be some extreme neuropathy from the chemo, or maybe he’s had a stroke, and then there’s Joyce, grimly reminding him that he collapses like this several times a day and insists he can’t get up, when they both know that of course he can if he chooses to, and to get his ass up off the floor and stop wallowing in self-pity.

Maybe she could be softer, warmer, about some of it, but you can make a case that the “hardheaded woman” thing is very much what he needed. But it sure takes a lot out of her.

The day they get home from Harvey’s cancer diagnosis, she is blown away by the fact that his thoughts turn immediately to how his death would affect her, how he doesn’t want to abandon her and leave her on her own. “I’m never going to forget that. I’m never going to forget how, when Harvey was this hurt and frightened, he was frightened for me…That was the night I locked every muscle in my body. The night I learned to cry without moving. So Harvey couldn’t feel it and wouldn’t know—and worry about me even more.”

It’s a moving passage from a moving storyline in a moving book. There are plenty of others like it. If this isn’t my favorite of the Pekar books I’ve read, it’s no worse than tied for first.

Our Cancer Year ends with Harvey being given the news that there are no longer any signs of the cancer, that he is in full remission.

Many years later, the cancer came back, and again he was able to get through it, with Joyce’s invaluable support. Then many years after that, he had his third bout with cancer, and this time he succumbed, dying in 2010 at age 70 from an overdose of anti-depressives. It was ruled an accidental death by the coroner, but it’s certainly not far-fetched that he committed suicide rather than continue through the cancer ordeal for a third time.

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