Cancer Treatment as Comic Book

Matt Freedman scrawled the pages of Relatively Indolent but Relentless as he underwent radiation therapy, with engrossing, surprisingly funny results.

Seven Stories Press

I once advised my old friend, comics artist Art Spiegelman, against using the holocaust as a subject for a comic book. We all know how well that advice turned out. Since then, I’ve read dozens of graphic novels dealing weighty personal themes of war, persecution, and health, and have come to understand that addressing life-and-death horrors through wit and humor can be quite liberating for the artist/author—and inspiring for the reader as well.

Still, I felt the dread of oncoming stress as I opened Matt Freedman’s new graphic novel Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal. But I’m glad I did open this moving, sometimes hilarious, and, yes, emotionally draining account of an all-too-common ordeal.

These are pages from the sketchbook Freedman rigorously maintained during his two-month radiation treatment for tongue and neck tumors, filled with frenetically scrawled text, punctuated with loose black and white drawings, and often highlighted with colored markers. Although not the most aesthetically refined, the book is totally engrossing. And so is the story behind the story, which Freedman—an artist, writer, teacher and curator—recently explained to me.

“The journal began serendipitously,” he said, when a “care package from my friends on the faculty, staff and in the student body” arrived. There was a gift card for an ice-cream parlor in Cambridge (which, it turned out, he couldn’t use once the radiation began to tear up his mouth); an ornate volume of the collected short novels of H.G. Wells; two books of Joann Sfar’s great graphic novel The Rabbi’s Cat; and a blank Moleskine notebook. The Wells and Sfar titles “got me thinking about storytelling at a time I was thinking about anything but.”

Freedman always enjoyed the look and feel of a empty fancy notebook: “It looks like whatever you put in it will be good.” So he came up with the idea to fill it up incrementally with "a kind of Bruce Chatwin-like travelogue through the strange foreign country of illness.”

He already had experimented with this kind of diary format. “First I wrote 100 short stories in 100 days after inventing a simple system for producing random plot lines,” Freedman said. “Then I wrote a novel by completing exactly three pages a day. Then a screen play, then another novel, then 50 short stories in 50 days.  Another novel, a sitcom, a novel in 72 hours of straight writing. I usually wrote these things when I was frustrated with my visual work, which I can see now was very often.”

He showed these books to almost no one, suspecting they weren’t any good. “After one or two lukewarm responses,” Freedman said, “I would drill holes through the manuscripts and bolt them inside other sculptures, making them literary cadavers.  I was an experimental writer trapped in the body of a would-be hack.  I really didn’t expect anything more from the journal.”

Because the story about his treatment was more tangible than his “normal angst cycles,” Freedman presumed it might be easier for a reader to get through it than his earlier writing, “but I really was drawn to the project merely to once again have the satisfaction of filling a book up and making a world for myself.”  After treatment, Freedman made the journal into a gallery installation, the dealer Larry Goldberg offered to make a limited edition of it for a solo exhibition, “and that’s when it began to evolve as a public project.”

The journal’s detailing of his radiation and other treatments is pretty relentless, but there are detours on those days Freedman found nothing interesting to report. “Often in the book when I leave the narrative to recount personal memories it is because I want to give some context to the story of treatment,” he said. “Often, though, it was a relief to escape from the present into an old story, so the line between the calculated and the spontaneous is blurry and was crossed many times in both directions.”

Sometimes, he added, the most self-conscious contents came out of a weird, desperate attempt at maintaining standards of normalcy: “Knowing I was dwelling on my personal problems while Hurricane Sandy was making life miserable for millions and wars were raging all over the world made me want to mention them in my book to show myself, if no one else, that I still had some fellow feeling and humanity left in me.”

The frenetic quality of the handwriting and the quick drawing style suggest a large emotional unloading. Yet Freedman said that in some way it was the opposite: “The quicker the drawing and handwriting, the less emotional I was while working. When I started out I thought the book would be a bit of a lark and that I would flit around from subject to subject as I worked to fill my quota of pages.  The drawings on the early pages are looser and the writing even sloppier and larger that it became later, mostly because I was just fooling around.” As the treatment began to take its toll on him, however, Freedman’s mood darkened and the pages tightened up—they “got more squashed and dense and filled with not missing anything important.”

He would not start working until very late at night and could not go to bed without all the pages done. “Midnight is a good time to think bleakly about cancer and its consequences,” he noted. “The days when I wrote late at night he pages look pretty whiny and humorless now. Sometimes I just wrote out all my worries in one fell swoop and went to bed, relieved at least that I had done one positive thing for the day, even if it was just to complain. So that was cathartic, if not particularly artful.”

Despite the ordeal, it was always a relief, Freedman said, when he finally got to writing: “I was also aware that, bad as things were, for the time being at least, they were not fatal. I was not going to die in the course of writing the book unless something went terribly wrong with my treatment or the doctors were all horribly wrong with their predictions. I was tremendously lucky to be in the position I was in, getting the kind of care I was receiving from doctors and from all the people I loved and that loved me.”

With the treatment now over, I wondered how preparing the book for publication impacted him? “Normally I’d rather jump to something else than to revisit my mistakes and rework them endlessly,” Freedman said. But this time, he did do some visual editing with his friend Jennie Nichols, an artist and designer. “I had a rule that no text or drawing could be improved for content, but there were a lot of letters that were just impossible for the casual reader to decipher, so we made thousands of invisible changes to make it more readable,” he said. “That kind of rereading was not particularly emotionally involving. I suppose it’s similar to the way athletes have to dissect game films.”

But looking through the published edition more than a year after the treatment now feels a bit like reliving the experience. “I’m amazed at how desperate I felt and all the more grateful I kept the journal,” he said. “If you asked me now what it was like I would say, ‘oh, it was tough but I got through it okay.’ Something simple and dismissive like that.  Or I suppose I could go into something equally detached from my actual experience, an operatic flight of fancy about the existential anguish I experienced every day in treatment. The journal, a raw and unconsidered chronicle of things as they happened when I had no idea what was going to happen next, is a good way of keeping my memories honest.”

Freedman admitted he wanted to present small details, not big pictures: “I think the restraint served me well.  When you are really sick, you don’t need illness as metaphor.  Illness is enough all by itself.”