Lisa’s Story Essay 2
posted on April 1, 2019
This is a second essay from Dr. Michael Dolzani’s graphic novel class at Baldwin Wallace University which read Lisa’s Story last Fall. It’s by Lydia Herpy who thoughtfully distills the essence of what I was going for in the work. I appreciate her allowing me to share her essay, and, once again, want to thank Dr. Dolzani for selecting Lisa’s Story to study in his class. The illo that accompanies this essay is another unused cover idea for the book.
Love Over Tragedy
In Tom Batiuk’s graphic novel, Lisa’s Story, he shares the story of the character Lisa Moore. Although the character has grown up in Batiuk’s work, the part of her life that fills the pages of the novel consists of her coping with the reality of living with breast cancer along with the acceptance of the inevitability of her death due to the illness. However, there is more that meets the eye in a story that ends in the main character’s death. Batiuk expresses the beauty of the cycle of life through the power of love.
The novel begins with images of a young Lisa and Les Moore walking alongside mutual friends they know from working at Montoni’s Pizza. They are all looking forward to the upcoming Super Bowl, anticipating high sales, and celebrating with a game of football in a New York City park. After Lisa falls on her chest during the game, she feels a pain in one of her breasts that lingers in her thoughts after her and Les return home. Readers begin to feel a concern as strong as Lisa’s when she is pictured reading a pamphlet entitled, “Breast Self-Examination (BSE).”
The journey then begins when Lisa finds out that she has a malignant tumor in one of her breasts. From the beginning of this emotional journey of Lisa’s illness, the reader sees her husband Les close to her side. Les became a large help to the stability of Lisa’s mental health as she made strides in the hopes of curing the illness that fell upon her. Shortly after learning the state of her body, Lisa encounters a familiar face—that of Holly Budd. Holly is a former classmate of Lisa’s and the wife of Funky Winkerbean, the co-owner of Montoni’s Pizza. She becomes a major part of Lisa’s support group throughout her day to day life of living with breast cancer.
The underlying message of this story roots in the relationships one makes in their lifetime. Although death is inevitable, the connections we make and the love that grows from those connections make the struggles of life worthwhile when it all comes to an end. Holly Budd empathizes with Lisa, sharing the thoughts she had during her struggle with breast cancer. During their first encounter in the novel, Lisa begins to cry when thinking of the major changes and risks she will have to endure while fighting breast cancer. Holly lifts her up, saying, “I felt exactly the same way when I was diagnosed with breast cancer… look, we go way back and can share things… as friends…” (16). A strong friendship begins to bloom, making a more powerful foundation of support for Lisa that gives her the motivation, courage, and energy to face each day.
Times are rough between Lisa and Les, but that does not deter him from trying to keep reality a pleasant place for both himself and Lisa to be present. He usually manages to bring a smile to her face with his sense of humor and down to earth spirit. As the chemotherapy process begins though, that smile isn’t always so easy to earn. When Les can’t help Lisa as much as he can, however, friends and family never fail to stop by and help in any way they can. The support group begins to grow into a vast amount of faces, making even the smallest of gestures impactful in allowing Lisa to feel comfortable.
The reader is introduced to Cindy Summers, former wife of Funky Winkerbean, when she stops by Lisa’s home after being told that Lisa wasn’t feeling up for a day’s work. She encourages her to start wearing a wig to boost her confidence and allow her to feel normal again. Lisa tells Les, “Cindy took me shopping… she said a new look would give me a new outlook… and you know what? It worked!” (52). Along with this, Holly Budd introduces Lisa to a support group for breast cancer patients and survivors. When backing away from the focus of the story, the reader begins to see that every close friend and loved one in Lisa’s life brings their own kind of support; each of these helping hands serving Lisa in their own individual way.
After being in remission for seven years, Lisa gets a call from the doctor who requests that she returns to the hospital for more tests. After completing them, she anticipates the results while leaving for vacation with her husband. She receives the news that the cancer has returned and began to spread throughout her body. Once more, Lisa is faced with bad news. Holly and Les bring her to her chemotherapy sessions, not leaving her without support.
While Lisa’s battle for cancer goes on, the reader meets the character of Darin. Darin is the baby Lisa had in high school, but decided to give up because she was too young to care for a child. Knowing her time is coming to a close, she expresses to Les that she would like to let her identity be known to her child who she never got to know. All the while, Darin is searching for his birthmother after his girlfriend Jess suggests he meet his real parents. Although the relationship between Darin and Lisa doesn’t get to fully develop in the story, this part of the story speaks true to the purpose of the story—love and its powers. Lisa created a life that she wanted to meet before she lost her own. Darin and Lisa are brought together, bringing Lisa a sense of relief and joy even during the darkest times of her life.
I found love in even the most unsuspecting places in this novel. During the trip Lisa takes with Les to the Grand Canyon, they meet a man David and his daughter Natane who traveled there to take her graduation photos. They met after David told Les to warn Lisa not grab onto the branches on the canyon. After David told the couple that they didn’t have their camera with them, Les offered his while Lisa fixed Natane’s hair. After the photos are taken, Lisa’s hat blows off with the wind, leaving her bald head exposed. She is pictured with an insecure and sad face, which draws David’s attention. He offers her kind words, “Live with hope,” (119).
Throughout this novel, the connections Lisa has with other people is noticeably the main focus. Including the strangers she meets along the way. During one of Lisa’s chemotherapy treatments, she is sat next to an older gentleman who sparks up a lighthearted conversation about cancer. He brings a sense of humor to the unfortunate event of being diagnosed with cancer, “Cryogenics. I’m going to have myself frozen just like Ted Williams. Cryogenics is how you beat this cancer thing. You have yourself turned into a corpsicle so you can be thawed out when they find a cure” (100). Lisa and the man are both pictured smiling next to one another, sharing a moment of joy.
After Lisa finds out that she only has a few months to live, she chooses to stop the chemo treatments in order to better enjoy the remainder of her time. It doesn’t take long, however, before her body begins to give out on her, and she calls the hospice to send a team to her home to care for her more closely as her body begins to need more and more rest. A set of three panels stood out to me in the time of her beginning to sleep in a hospital bed with monitors. We see a medical professional speaking with Les about Lisa’s body, “Lisa’s systems are beginning to slowly shut down and the cancer spreads through her body. Our main job is to try to keep her pain free” (212). Les responds, “From your experience, what’s the last thing to go?” (212). In the last panel Les and the nurse are both looking back at Lisa lying on her hospital bed, and the nurse says, “Love” (212).
After Lisa’s passing, a walk is held in her name, “Lisa’s Legacy, Making Strides Against Cancer.” Pictured are all of the faces that filled her support group. The walk is held in her favorite park where a bench is now dedicated to her. This novel celebrates love in a unique way. Death will always be a sad subject, but when you honor the life that was once there, it is easy to understand that it is all worth it.
When looking at the panels of the novel, the reader is not left feeling isolated and sad. Instead, Batiuk emphasizes the feeling of having company. There is a sense of warmth in nearly every image even in the places that may remind you of the state of Lisa’s health. This novel celebrates life and love even when it seems that its main focus is that of death. It brings light to the topic of death, allowing the reader to view it from a new perspective—from a more accepting view. In the end, we see that Lisa lives on through the love from her husband, children and the people who were a part of her life.
Lisa’s Story Essay
posted on March 26, 2019
Last Fall I gave a talk at Baldwin Wallace University at the invitation of Dr. Michael Dolzani who taught a graphic novel course where they read Lisa’s Story. Dr. Dolzani recently shared with me some of the essays that were written in regard to Lisa’s Story, and I was very impressed with the work. So much so that I decided to share one of them with you. The first essay is by Jackie Lamb who graciously gave me permission to share her work. The illo that accompanies the piece was an alternate title and cover for the book that was obviously never used.
27 November 2018
Coping Mechanisms in Lisa’s Story
The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Statistics state that: “Approximately 38.4% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime” (National Cancer Institute). And according to a CBS news poll, 54% of Americans report that they or someone in their family has been diagnosed with cancer (CBS News). If over half of Americans lives are affected in some way by cancer, then why is genuine representation so rare and even taboo? If popular television and film address this topic at all, it tends to be in corny after-school-specials or histrionic medical dramas. The media displays a narrow binary of cancer patients as either happy-go-lucky Race For the Cure poster women, or miserable, resentful people who have lost all hope. Tom Batiuk’s, Lisa’s Story serves to correct some of those tropes. Lisa’s Story, a bold deviation from the author’s previous repertoire of “high school humor,” Explores the life of the protagonist, Lisa, and her friends and family after she discovers that she has breast cancer. Batiuk provides a realistic narrative of lives touched by cancer and through the large cast of his comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” examines how people cope with the tragedy of terminal illness.
After her diagnosis, Lisa and her friends process the shocking news in multiple different ways. One of the prominent coping mechanisms featured in the book is performing selfless acts. Friends of Les and Lisa exemplify this by helping them out in small ways, like making them dinner, or in one man’s case, even washing their car because he didn’t have any food to bring (19). Lisa’s girlfriends, who Les describes as “wonder women” arrive at their house near the end of the book, announcing that they are “house cleaners, caregivers, babysitters and shopping assistants at [Les and Lisa’s] service” (213). One of the “wonder women,” Holly Budd, even happens to be Lisa’s ‘Reach to Recovery’ volunteer who helps her understand her illness from a survivor’s point of view. In an act of kindness and vulnerability, she shows Lisa what her own mastectomy looks like when she notices how frightened she is about her upcoming surgery (16). Another friend of the couple, Cindy Summers, even breaks from her former self-centered, “shopaholic” ways to give her time to Lisa. Noticing how depressed Lisa is about losing her hair, Cindy turns to what she knows best and takes Lisa out wig shopping to lift her spirits (48-53). Even Lisa herself finds healing in helping others. The second half of Lisa’s Story, “The Other Leaf,” takes place seven years after the diagnosis when Lisa is in remission. she is shown participating in the ‘Reach to Recovery’ program again, but this time as a volunteer giving advice to a patient just like Holly did for her 7 years prior (82). The characters in Lisa Story exemplify that when unable to help in any other way, people will give of their own time and effort as much as they can.
As the leader of Lisa’s breast cancer support group says: “Laughter can be a pretty strong medicine for dealing with cancer” (79). Lisa, Les, and friends often lighten the weight of her adversity through humor. Les and Lisa make light of the depressing situation in nearly every panel from playfully referring to their HMO as “Denialcare” (55-7), to making jokes about serious medical procedures like Lisa’s mastectomy (35). Lisa even laughs in the face of the grim prognosis that she has mere months left to live by sarcastically saying that she was “kind of looking forward to a midlife crisis” (93). Lisa’s tenacity and zest for life help her to cope with her illness. After her first Chemo session, Les says to Holly that she is “attacking this like one of her legal cases” and she replies that “her cancer doesn’t know how much trouble it’s in” (97). Lisa gets through her many exhausting treatments by making sarcastic quips and jokes, about herself and her cancer, so much so, that the doctors marked “feisty” on her chart (171). She even envisions herself as a superhero, fighting off cancer-cell-monsters with laser beams (136, 155). The characters are not making mean-spirited jokes at Lisa’s expense, or belittling the patients who go through hell every day just to stay alive. Humor is simply their way of, taking something uncontrollable and controlling parts of it. Humor allows people to distance themselves from adversity, and to understand and process it in a completely new way.
While Batiuk wrote jokes into many of its strips, Lisa’s Story contains a balance of humor and seriousness. Lisa and Les are humans after all, and sometimes they process the terrible news through anger, hopelessness, and fear. Les and Lisa are both terrified of what’s to come, and try to be strong for each other whenever they can be, but there is always an underlying fear in their interactions. In one strip the two are on a walk and Les assures her that even though her diagnosis is scary, “[they’ve] lived through stuff like this before, and [they] can do it again.” reassured, Lisa tells him that he’s convinced her, but in his head, Les is wondering how he can convince himself that everything will be okay (10). Lisa experiences similar fear and guilt. In one strip Les wakes up from a nightmare frightened and disoriented. Lisa sadly says: “I wish I could help…but I can’t be strong enough for both of us!” (22). In another strip, Les comes home to pick Lisa up for their date but she doesn’t feel well enough to go. Lisa, exasperated, yells “What do you want from me!?” and Les thinks to himself “I want things like they were!” (47). Lisa’s Story does not shy away from scenes of Lisa breaking down in tears, feeling angry about her diagnosis (55), or guilty because she thinks about her illness so much, or even in total shock (88). These raw scenes reveal the reality of coping with terminal illness. sometimes the illness is too overwhelming, or painful, or frightening, and people often cannot cope in ways other than through expressing their visceral emotions.
People also may eventually process their grief through acceptance. As shown in Lisa’s Story, The patient almost always comes to accept their (fate) more easily than their friends and family. At the end of the first half of the book, Lisa takes a contemplative walk in the park. In the beginning she is frustrated that this is the direction that her life is taking, but throughout the sequence of her walk she comes to the conclusion that: “Life isn’t a walk in the park…but that fact shouldn’t keep you from enjoying a walk in the park!” (65-7). Lisa keeps this attitude even as her condition worsens and especially when her life expectancy is cut drastically short. Like many cancer patients when they understand that their time on Earth is running out, Lisa decides to quit chemo; to “live the time [she] has left, not just be alive” (175). Lisa lives up to this declaration.she takes walks outside with her husband (208), She make snow angels outside with Les even though she’s extremely ill (126), she eats as much junk food as she can at the country fair (205), and she even testifies before congress about cancer research funding (197-200). Les finally accepts the reality of the his wife’s condition and tells her that it’s okay for her to let go (204). Although this is one of the most difficult ways, people can eventually cope with cancer when they work up the strength to accept the diagnosis. So many patients and families face the difficult decision between staying on treatments and prolonging a life of pain, or ending treatment and enjoying what life they have left. When people accept the grim reality of the cancer diagnosis, they can appreciate their time with their loved one and even feel more emotionally prepared for their death.
Amongst all of the overdramatized representations of cancer patients, Lisa’s Story stands as a true ode to survivors, those currently battling cancer, and their loved ones. Lisa’s Story highlights all of the familiar trials that patients and families endure. The comics strips make the large, daunting subjects of cancer and death understandable and even humorous without trivializing the subject or the millions of people who are living through their own version of “lisa’s story.” Lisa’s Story is not only a source of comfort and solidarity for people suffering through similar situations, but a useful resource to help people understand how people cope with the tragedies of terminal illness and early death.
“Cancer Statistics.” National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics.
CBS News. “CBS News Poll: Majority of U.S. Families Touched by Cancer.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 12 Mar. 2017, www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-majority-of-us-families-touched-by-cancer/.
Fox 8 in the Morning
posted on October 21, 2017
Prior to the Lisa’s Legacy Run I got to speak with Wayne Dawson and Stefani Schaefer on Fox8 News in the Morning. If you want to see the entire clip, we have it cached on the Interviews page.