Sunday, 29 July 2007

Survivor Spotlight: Tom Batiuk, Creator of Funky Winkerbean

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Tom BatiukI was privileged to be able to interview Tom Batiuk himself, the creator of Funky Winkerbean, both about his own experiences with cancer and also his strip. I have received many many comments about the post I did regarding Lisa's cancer story in Funky Winkerbean, and I have addressed the concerns of the commenters to Mr. Batiuk, and he has responded for us here.

Jen: Obviously, you are a cancer survivor. Did you decide to have one of your characters have cancer largely to explore you own experiences further, to raise awareness about the experience of cancer, or did Lisa's cancer occur more organically? Or is there something else?

Tom Batiuk: There are so many conscious and unconscious elements in the creative process that sometimes it's impossible to untangle them all. My own experience showed me that there was still much more to be examined regarding this subject. This time when I reached inside, I was able to draw from the pieces of me that felt that scared, that angry and that powerless. The insights were deeper and more hard won. I also realized that revisiting Lisa's Story would push my characters to new extremes and reveal what kind of character my characters really had.
Jen: Why breast cancer and not prostate cancer or some other type of cancer? Some people feel that breast cancer gets tons of exposure in the media at the expense of other cancers. Can you address that statement?

Tom Batiuk: I knew that if any character was going to deal with this it would be Lisa, and breast cancer was what Lisa had before.

Jen: Can you take us through the mind of the artist a bit? As a writer myself, I know that we don't always necessarily consciously choose these things for our characters. How much of this is consciously decided on your part?

Tom Batiuk: Again, difficult to say. Obviously some of it was by my design, but then Lisa, as she always has, led me the rest of the way. Also, I went with a friend to her chemo sessions, that began to profoundly affect the work. I saw the courage of the people undergoing chemo and their attitudes began to be reflected in the character.

Jen: Can you describe the creation/writing/drawing process of making the strip? What comes first?

Tom Batiuk: It's a pretty straight forward process. The writing always comes first. It's followed by the drawing, inking and lettering. The last thing I do is clean the studio.

Jen: I have gotten many, many comments on the post I did about the strip for The Cancer Blog. Your readers are very upset because it seems that there is no happy ending in sight for Lisa. Was that a surprise for you-- that she wasn't going to make it?

Tom Batiuk: No, I knew going in where I wanted to take these characters. The hard part was trying to make it as authentic and honest as possible. I also knew that many readers would be upset. However, many more have seen it for the courageous love story that it is at its heart.

Jen: What would you say to these readers who are angry because they feel there are too many tragic cancer stories as it is?

Tom Batiuk: I think the angry readers are upset because they have a very limited and narrow definition of what cartoons should be, and my work doesn't fit that. I've heard from many more people dealing with cancer who appreciate seeing an honest reflection of their lives with cancer.

Jen: How did you first learn about your own cancer?

Tom Batiuk: Both times through an annual physical. I can't stress the value of early detection enough.

Jen: What was your cancer treatment regimen?

Tom Batiuk: I had both prostate and thyroid cancer and each time it was in situ and required no follow-up treatment.

Jen: How is your experience with cancer similar to Lisa's?

Tom Batiuk: It's similar in the emotional territory you travel, beginning with the first time you hear the words that you have cancer to wherever that diagnosis leads you. Inside we all deal with the same feelings that I described above.

Jen: What kind of research have you had to do to write about Lisa's experiences? Talking to survivors, reading blogs, reading medical texts?

Tom Batiuk: Again, as I mentioned, I went with a friend to her chemo and met with her to talk about it. I read. I lived through some of it myself.

Jen: Do you have any personal experience with breast cancer, and could you describe?

Tom Batiuk: No personal experience.

Jen: What would you say to someone newly diagnosed with cancer?

Tom Batiuk: One of the things I discovered when I was researching the first Lisa's story arc, was that there are numerous treatment options available, and that, especially with early detection, many cancers are survivable. This helped me immensely when I was diagnosed and it should give hope to everyone who receives a similar diagnosis.

Thank you again for answering these questions!
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