'Betty' Casts A Quirky Light On Life After Breast Cancer
Yes, About Betty's Boob is a graphic novel about boobs, breasts, gazungas — those fascinating masses that exert such a stubborn influence over the human psyche. It's also about the toll of cancer, the weightiest topic there is. But let's look at something not-so-substantial for a minute. Let's look at line.
There are innumerable ways to describe an artist's characteristic line. That's understandable, since every artist draws lines in their own unique way. An artist's line can be aggressive, persnickety, mellow or ambivalent. In Betty, Canadian artist Julie Rocheleau's line is airy.
It may seem contradictory to apply such a word to a line, which is fundamentally a thing of force — it's created when a pen scars paper or a brush leaves a stain. (Lines mapped in pixels by styluses lack this physical imprint, which is why digitally drawn comics can sometimes feel sterile.) But "airy" is the most important, most unique quality of Rocheleau's line in Betty. It twists and turns, swells and thins, and as it does it seems always to yearn upward, as if it would float right off the page. Rocheleau uses layers of pale color to impart even more gauzy ephemerality.
Such buoyancy is crucial to this book's message about the heavy topic of breast cancer. After Betty endures a mastectomy, she learns just how much weight breasts carry with her boss, her boyfriend and the world at large. Her boss, the owner of a clothing boutique, insists Betty wear a sticky, awkward falsie. Her boyfriend is repulsed by the sight of her scarred torso. Passersby stare when, her post-chemo wig having blown off, Betty chases it through the streets in a Looney Tunes-style slapstick sequence.
There's a lot of slapstick in this book, and not a lot of words. Writer Vero Cazot deliberately emulates a silent movie, complete with white-on-black title cards interspersed throughout (though not, alas, translated too well from the original French). Like Rocheleau's airy art, Cazot's approach is effervescent. It's important to talk seriously and explicitly about breast cancer, of course, but by eliminating (most) words, Cazot shows how burdensome all that verbiage can be. Words can be as heavy as breasts (actually and metaphorically) are themselves.
Cazot spins out her tale with a zany, what-the-hell eccentricity. Early on, Betty asks the doctors to let her see her lost breast — a poignant request. The doctors give it to her in a small round box tied with a bow, one of numerous ways Cazot mocks the importance placed on breasts. When Betty goes to buy a prosthesis at a store hawking "luxury breasts since 1973," the fakes are arrayed in glass cases like jewelry and the owner wears a boob-shaped hat. Then, suddenly, the store is invaded by an all-girl bandit gang (wearing towering '60s hairdos, natch) bent on stealing the merchandise. What they're going to do with it is anybody's guess; the weakness of Cazot's method is that it's sometimes impossible to figure out what's going on.
Cazot shows that however offbeat her sensibility, she understands the depth of her character's pain.
Cazot's anything-goes ethos isn't just a meta-level comment on how society treats this topic. It's also the key to Betty's salvation. Chasing her anthropomorphically frisky wig, Betty stumbles, bald and bewildered, upon a troupe of burlesque performers. Soon her new friends teach her to let loose and celebrate her body just the way it is. They even show her how to grieve for her lost breast, burying the little round box (which she's brought with her throughout the story) and memorializing the event with a wild, naked graveyard dance.
That dance is one of the highlights in a book that sparkles with them — and it's an important one. Through it and similar moments, Cazot shows that however offbeat her sensibility, she understands the depth of her character's pain. This frothy book isn't just an attempt to lighten up a serious topic. It's also a surprisingly subtle exploration of how we deal with the weight of both breasts and cancer.
has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.She tweets at @EtelkaL.
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