Author: written by Vero Cazot and illustrated by Julie Rocheleau, Edward Gauvin (trans.) and Deron Bennett (letterer)
Publish Date: June 12, 2018
guest review by A. David Lewis
While there is likely little joy to be found in a diagnosis of breast cancer, in chemotherapy, and in a mastectomy, About Betty’s Boobby Vero Cazot and Julie Rocheleau offers that there can be delight in the self-discovery and reinvention that might come thereafter. With the exception of some opening panels – wherein a number of surreal crabs, icons of cancer, descend on dreaming Betty’s left breast – Cazot and Rochelau’s tale take place immediately after the title character’s treatment and surgery. Disoriented and alarmed, Betty awakens – with no hair, in a hospital, and painful stitches now in the place of her left breast. A scene of immense trauma shifts gears sharply as, in wordless, silent movie fashion, she holds a nurse at bay with her pee-filled hospital chamber pot; she demands an accounting, to have her missing breast and its brilliant nipple ring brought before her. It is retrieved and then, of all things, packaged, like an exquisite doggy bag. Likewise, her male partner’s predilection to fainting at the slightest suggestion of her mastectomy is quite sad, pathetic even, but also removed from the center of any crisis. This is not a story of their relationship, of her return to work, or even of her vigilance over a remission. Betty’s life – how much more there is to live and savor of it – forms the true center of the work. The title of the book may be About Betty’s Boob (likely a nod to the art and hijinx of Betty Boop), but its chief concern is what can come after Betty’s boob, after cancer.
Of course, the heightened reality of About Betty’s Boob signals that this romp is not to be taken as any sort of real-life map; it is the spirit of the art and the narrative that is to be absorbed, not their verisimilitude. Dwelling on the cartoony, unbelievable nature of Betty chasing after her runaway wig, for instance, entirely overlooks both the humor as well as the significance of such a scene. Certainly, for the long-locked woman who has lost her hair to chemo like Betty, the presence of a wig must have a similar effect: one new item to maintain, to negotiate, to monitor. If one goal of Graphic Medicine is to convey to the uninitiated the personal experience of one who is ill or recovering, then Cazot and Rochelau’s book does so, not by means of moroseness but with bravado and flair.
Cazot and Rocheleau are quick to move from the loss of the breast and of the beau to the possibilities that lay ahead of Betty. From a bombastic brassiereur marketing all the hottest options in prosthetics to a fascist boss intolerant of asymmetry, Betty finds that she no longer fits her life – or, rather, that it no longer fits her. Whereas she had been using an apple to fill the empty cup in her bra, she turns to taking a bite out of it, literally and figurately: I only pun in saying her cup now runneth over because it is precisely this frivolity that the book endorses as she finds the exhilaration and a new sense of self in highwire burlesque. Instead of hiding a missing breast or replacing it, Betty now publicly frolics with its absence. Cazot and particularly Rocheleau create imaginative and playful stand-ins that challenge audience expectations, both those of the burlesque viewers and of the comics readers: a top hat that then bursts with flowers, a cupcake being frosted, even a Looney Tunes-like boxing glove.
Betty will not be defined by absence. Just the opposite, she seizes upon the opportunity that surviving breast cancer has given her, a joie de vivrethat many of the ‘healthy’ people in her life cannot access. And, notably, Cazot and Rocheleau’s vivacious, hyper-stylized environment communicate clearly that Betty’s path is not one to be followed, that there is no judgment when it comes to how women of the readers’ world live after their own illness. The message is to pursue the truestlife after the threat of cancer, whether it’s About Joanne’s Boob or About Nadya’s Boob or About Guan-Yin’s Boob, and so on. All are invited to return to the highwire and soar.