Joyce Brabner will be the first keynote speaker at the upcoming Comics and Medicine conference.  Guest blogger Mita Mahato looks at the overlapping commitment to comics and activism that characterizes Brabner’s life.

Perhaps the most apparent link that joins Joyce Brabner to Graphic Medicine is Our Cancer Year (1994), the comics memoir she wrote with her late husband, Harvey Pekar.   Blending the perspectives of caregiver Brabner and patient Pekar, the book (illustrated by Frank Stack) not only highlights the gritty realities of cancer, chemotherapy, and the effects both have on mind and body, but also positions that illness within the broader lives of the couple.  As the first page explains, the book is not simply about cancer, but is “a story about marriage, work, friends, family and buying a house.”1  In that sense, Our Cancer Year upends the manicured ways in which mainstream media often presents both illness and the kinds of lives it “interrupts.”

For Brabner, who has been involved in both comics and political activism for much of her life, comics offer an effective platform from which to make such subversive statements.  While her husband’s approach to American Splendor tended toward the personal and autobiographical, Brabner’s comics steer political, “taking stuff that people don’t want to hear about,” as she explained in an interview with David Garland.2  In 1987, working with the Committee of Conscientious Objectors, she enlisted a number of prominent comics writers and artists (including Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz) to create Real War Stories.  The short-lived but widely distributed series translated interviews with American war veterans into the comics form, exposing the dark underbelly of military service (hazing rituals, PTSD, brainwashing, etc.).  Brabner, serving as editor of the series, described:

We imagined honest stories, straight from the people who lived them, retold with style (and color!) by some of the most popular artists and writers working in comic books today. . . . We saw ourselves as amplifiers, making it possible for others to be heard.3

As the first issue was distributed alongside recruiting materials at high school career fairs, it quickly grabbed the attention of the Department of Defense, which charged that the material (particularly in relation to its presentation of brutal hazing practices) was not based in reality.  The Department of Defense withdrew its charge after records from the U.S. Navy exposed the existence of such practice.4  In other words, the comic book lived out Brabner’s vision of the book as an amplifier of real stories, making it possible for others to be heard.

The same kind of amplification is apparent in several of Brabner’s projects. In 1988, she collaborated again with Moore and Sienkiewicz in creating the Graphic Docudrama Brought to Light, which “brought to light” the conspiracies girding the Iran Contra Affair.  In that same year, she contributed a piece to Strip AIDS U.S.A., a collection edited by Trina Robbins, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Robert Triptow which benefited people living with AIDS.  Other of Brabner’s comics activism take up animal rights and, as documented in Our Cancer Year, the causes of a number of teenaged refugees from around the globe.

Most recently, Brabner’s amplification of lives through comics has gone three-dimensional.  Through a kickstarter campaign started last year, Brabner raised funds to erect a memorial statue in remembrance of her late husband and to honor the work comics do in giving ordinary people the opportunity to tell their stories.  Designed by sculptor Justin Coulter, the statue will be interactive, the back of it made of a giant slate storyboard upon which anyone can draw their own comics:  “It’s a memorial that would encourage anyone and everyone to think about writing or drawing stories about themselves.”

Brabner shared in an interview, “Most of my work is about making other people’s voices heard.”5  As such, she shares one of the primary aims of Graphic Medicine.  Her talk will take place on the morning of July 23rd and, on an informal note, this comics geek cannot wait!!

Mita Mahato, when she is not making/reading/breathing comics, is Associate Professor of English at the University of Puget Sound, where she teaches courses in Literary/Culture Theory and Visual Studies.    

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1 Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, Our Cancer Year (New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994).  

2 David Garland, “Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner,” in Harvey Pekar Conversations, edited by Michael G. Rhode (Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 50.  

3 Joyce Brabner, Ed.  Real War Stories #1 (Forestville, CA:  Eclipse Comics, 1987).

4 Garland, “Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner,” 38-39.

5 Jim Ottaviani and Steve Lieber, “Another Survivor’s Tale:  The Harvey Pekar Interview,” in Harvey Pekar Conversations, edited by Michael G. Rhode (Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 75.

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