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Newspapers and readers react to cancer on the funny pages

With the last week of the Funky Winkerbean story-line of the dying Lisa Moore character, newspapers and readers are talking about the impact and appropriateness of the topic. It’s a subject that is still being debated on several threads on this blog. As a recap, here are what some of the paper’s are writing on this topic:

From the Union-Tribune (San Diego):

Tom Batiuk’s e-mail had taken a turn for the worse. “Apparently,” he said by phone from his Cleveland area home, “I’d broken the unwritten rule of cartooning. The e-mails all began with, ‘My dictionary defines “comic” as “funny” ‘ . . . “

A guest commentary from Sherry Haller, executive director of the Justice Education Center, ran in the Hartford Courant:

For several days, I half-heartedly believed that Tom Batiuk was going to pull his character back from the brink. There are cutting-edge treatments, and Lisa had been in remission for seven years. Batiuk even published a book in 2000, “Lisa’s Story,” that offered a guide to early detection, and hope.

Then an article appeared: “Batiuk: Lisa Will Die.” The article quoted Batiuk, a recent prostate cancer survivor, as saying, “I honestly don’t think readers know what they want. They think they know what they want. But what they really want is for me to give them a surprise every now and then.”

A surprise? I wanted to scream. “Funky Winkerbean” is published in 400 newspapers around the country, and Batiuk will put readers through Lisa’s grueling demise through October?

I wonder if I should cancel the paper until after her funeral.

Incensed, I wrote Batiuk. I shared that for many of us who cope with the possibility of “spread” every day and for those who are battling recurrence, Lisa’s remission had represented courage and hope: a fictional beacon of light in our uncharted journeys of survival. I asked that he at least reconsider the length of Lisa’s agonizing odyssey.

From a features article in the Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA):

But death isn’t just a plotline device. Terminal illnesses doesn’t just happen to strangers we read about in the obituaries. The “oh no!” denial, the bewilderment, the will to fight, the final surrender are part of the human experience, to us and to people we love.

Why should this be taboo?

This funny-papers story makes me sad, but it also makes me grateful.

It doesn’t just offer advice on how to help a dying person.

It shows Lisa’s friends paying visits, bringing food and not just offering to help with small chores, but doing them.

It shows little Summer asking questions (“Mommy, does cancer hurt?”) and Les doing what needs to be done while falling apart at the same time.

It’s human. It’s holy. Thank God, and thank “Funky,” for letting readers experience it.

Community Comments

#1 leslie threlkeld
October/7/2007
@ 1:50 pm

I’ve laughed many times reading the comic strips, but I was honestly crying when lisa died….I’m still sad. I kept hoping the cartoonist Tom B would change his mind.

Thanks
Leslie

#2 Lisa Dunlop
October/19/2007
@ 8:32 am

The people who are complaining about the all-too-real illness and death of the Lisa Moore character must be far too sensitive to read the front pages of the newspapers carrying the comics. At the heart of this controvery is a moving story, gentle and difficult, that stirs all this reaction because it feels absolutely real.

There is no rule that “comics” have to be “funny.” The comics pages have always had some strips that aren’t even intended to be humorous (I grew up wondering how “Mary Worth” was a “comic” strip, but indeed, there is room for all), and Tom Batiuk’s serious story lines are intensely human and engaging.

If I can manage to skip the funnies that aren’t funny to me (for example, I just never connected with “Marmaduke”), then readers can skip “Funky Winkerbean” if they don’t want it. It’s NOT a horror … it’s real life, handled sensitively, and models outstanding behavior by the characters surrounding Lisa Moore. In the situation they faced, it’s hard to know what to do, how to say yes to help; seeing it played out in little steps in the daily strips is instructive to readers. Kudos to the brave and fine cartoonist, and to the hundreds of newspapers who agree that this is indeed art that improves our lives.

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