Catherine Pioli’s medical graphic memoir Down to the Bone: A Leukemia Story will make you cry. Much like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych,” you already know how the story ends before even turning the first page. Pioli, an illustrator and graphic designer, chronicles her journey from the diagnosis of acute leukemia to her metaphorical last breath – a touching scene where her partner leans over her in bed with a worried look but is relieved, when Catherine snores loudly, to realize she is still alive. The next two pages are blank except for the text: “Catherine drew her last breath on July 31, 2017.” Niagara Falls – because readers cannot help but follow her hope with each new diagnosis, each technical nuance explained, and drawings of cute plump little characters: red and white blood cells, platelets, stem cells, and those blasted blasts. Her self-characterizations express her range of attitudes and emotions through various stages: stubbornness, physical illness, exhaustion, not-telling-the-whole-truths to protect other’s (as well as her own) sense of hope. The lack of frames captures the lost sense of time throughout, one event melding into another. Backgrounds are simple line sketches with color on main characters and objects, the overwhelming white space a constant presence of the sterile medical environment. There is humor but far more humanity in Pioli’s story about a ‘rare’ cancer, but one that takes away a beautiful life and leaves sorrow in its wake. Pioli’s book helps touch this sweet spot in us all while educating readers about cancer and how they can help.
The Mare by Seth Christian Martel is a graphic novel that takes readers on a paranormal adventure with Indigo, a post-senior-year teen whose next steps are uncertain due to her rocky home life. As with any good YA story, Indigo has a best friend who is both a sidekick and a guide. Kasia is the steady rock with a summer internship and plans to go to medical school, a foil to Indigo’s widowed and now divorced alcoholic father whose need for caretaking causes Indigo to lose her job. All of these could be contributors to Indigo’s strange nightmares in which she is possessed by some ethereal being. Concern for Indigo’s health due to lack of sleep leads the two teens to explore remedies for her nightmares, or a “Mare” as they learn from a book – “the spirit of someone wronged that saps its victim’s energy at night.”
The images throughout are black and white with graywash and bold outlines that add a sense of 3-D. Blue enters as highlights in Indigo’s hair and as she transitions into her sleep-induced possessions. The full blue hue wash with white electric scribbles creates the eerie effect of paranormal embodiment. The pacing drives readers through several well-connected layers of development: teen summers, angst over outfits, indie band concerts, and crushes, but also the mystery of The Mare and Indigo’s finally coming to solve it.
My only criticism is that I wished the story was longer and more developed. There were details left unexplored that would have helped connect readers more to the main characters and repulsed us from others. The psychopathology related to The Mare is present but also underdeveloped, especially for as serious a topic as it is in our society.
This could also certainly leave room for a sequel or series. There were enough dropped clues and lesser-developed content to make The Mare a solid premier to connect with subsequent storylines, and Indigo is endearing enough to create a following.
The Mare by Seth Christian Martel. graphic mundi, March 2023.
Reviewer bio: Denise Hill is Editor of NewPages.com and reviews books she chooses based on her own personal interests.
Down to the Bone: A Leukemia Story by Catherine Pioli, trans. J.T. Mahany graphic mundi, December 2022
When Catherine is diagnosed with acute leukemia, a deadly form of cancer that attacks the immune system, her life is turned upside down. Young and previously healthy, she now finds herself catapulted into the world of the seriously ill—constantly testing and waiting for results, undergoing endless medical treatments, learning to accept a changing body, communicating with a medical team, and relying on the support of her partner, family, and friends. A professional illustrator, Catherine decides to tell the story of her disease in this graphic novel, and she does so with great sincerity, humor, and rare lucidity. We accompany her through the waiting, the doubts, the fears, and the tears—but also the laughter, the love, and the strong will to live.
Everyone else may be enjoying the summer, but Indigo’s life isn’t going so well. Her dad’s marriage just ended in a very public divorce, and now he’s drinking again. Indy barely graduated from high school, she just lost her job, and she doesn’t know what to do with her life. The stress is causing her nightmarish sleep paralysis—or so she thinks. Indy confides in her best friend, Kasia, who blames “The Mare” for her troubles—the spirit of someone wronged that saps its victim’s energy at night. It sounds crazy to Indy, but is it? Steeped in the nostalgia of lazy summers and mixtapes, concert tickets, and coffee, The Mare is a story about friends, family, and finding one’s way—with a touch of the supernatural and a powerful, surprising twist.
In Marry Me a Little, Rob Kirby recounts his experience of marrying his longtime partner, John, just after same-sex marriage was legalized in Minnesota in 2013, and two years before the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage the law of the land. This is a personal story—about Rob’s ambivalence (if not antipathy) toward the institution of marriage, his loving relationship with John, and the life that they share together—set against the historical and political backdrop of shifting attitudes toward LGBTQ+ rights and marriage. With humor, candor, and a near-whimsical drawing style, Rob relates how he and John navigated this changing landscape, how they planned and celebrated their wedding, and how the LGBTQ+ community is now facing the very real possibility of setbacks to marriage equality.
Bipolar Bear and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Insurance A Fable for Grownups by Kathleen Founds Graphic Mundi, November 2022
Theodore is a bear with wild mood swings. When he is up, he carves epic poetry into tree trunks. When he is down, he paints sad faces on rocks and turtle shells. In search of prescription medications that will bring stability to his life, Theodore finds a job with health insurance benefits. He gets the meds, but when he can’t pay the psychiatrist’s bill, he becomes lost in the Labyrinth of Health Insurance Claims. Featuring 195 color illustrations, this tale follows the comical exploits of Theodore, a loveable and relatable bear, as he copes with bipolar disorder, navigates the inequities of capitalist society, founds a commune, and becomes an activist, all the while accompanied by a memorable cast of characters—fat-cat insurance CEOs, a wrongfully convicted snake, raccoons with tommy guns, and an unemployed old dog who cannot learn new tricks. Entertaining, whimsical, and bitingly satirical, Bipolar Bear is a fable for grownups that manages the delicate balance of addressing society’s ills while simultaneously presenting a hopeful vision for the world.