A Bit About Wink – Rob Harrell
I was thirty-six when I was diagnosed with a crazy-rare cancer in the lacrimal gland above my right eye. It was the 25th reported case of its kind at the time. I’ve had a lifelong knack for catching the rare stuff. I won’t go into the malaria or the worm in my foot on our honeymoon.
Amber and I had moved to Austin, Texas on our one-year wedding anniversary. We’d only been there a few months when my eyelid inflated like a chewing gum bubble.
It was terrifying. It was emotional. But we dealt with it. I had multiple biopsies. Multiple surgeries and eight weeks of proton radiation back in Bloomington, Indiana. It turned out that one of three facilities offering the experimental treatment was about two miles from my parents’ house.
So, I set up shop in their basement and continued to write, draw and deliver my daily comic strip, Big Top. And I came to realize how important that was to me. Every day I had to put my mind in a funny place and write jokes for a neurotic circus bear, a snarky trained poodle, and a deranged clown. When I was done, I felt like those characters had helped me through. They’d helped me cope.
Humor was a big key in my getting through this. And music. (Humor and music and my amazing wife, Amber, who I can never thank enough. Go hug a caregiver.)
For years, I tried to figure out howto share my story in a way that might help people. I considered a graphic novel with my circus characters going through it.
Or an adult memoir. Someone gave me Lance Armstrong’s cancer book while I was sick. It’s a really good book – inspiring – but his superhuman, bike-ride-the-day-after-brain-surgery attitude left me feeling almost worse. What if I wasn’t a crazy superhuman? What if I wanted to curl up in a blanket and groan for a few hours? I thought maybe I could write a warts-and-all book for the non-superhumans.
Around 2013, I started writing my middle grade hybrid series, Life of Zarf. And I had an absolute blast. Something about writing for that age clicked with me. So much happens in those few years, it’s a pretty amazing, magical time. And then to throw in trolls and snotty princes and six-foot snuffweasels? This was for me.
Okay. So, around the time the last Zarf book came out, my best friend’s daughter was also diagnosed with cancer – in her leg. It was awful. (She’s fine now and came through it all like a rock star.) But during that time, she and I had some conversations. We were able to talk candidly about the bad stuff because we’d both been there. We were part of that same stupid club.
In talking with her, I realized how lucky I’d been (I know that sounds weird, but bear with me) to go through cancer as an adult. Being in school, she’d had to deal with being The Sick Kid. She’d had some friends just… vanish. She’d had wildly inappropriate things said to her. The social stuff was in some ways harder than the cancer itself.
I started thinking about my experience, and what it would have been like to go through all of it while I was in school. The hair falling out. The loss of vision in my right eye. The goopy stuff I had to keep on my face. The fatigue. The anger. And that big stupid wide-brimmed cowboy hat I had to wear 24/7 for a YEAR. The hat might be the worst part if you were a kid!
And what if I could write it and make it fun? Funny, even. That was the real challenge. I knew from my own experience that just because things are dire, you don’t stop cracking jokes in your head. A doctor having a Milk Dud stuck to his butt is funny whether or not he just gave you bad news…
And that’s how Wink started. That’s where Ross came in.
Did I feel terrible putting the whole ordeal on the shoulders of this poor seventh-grader? Absolutely. But that’s why I gave him the coping tools and the support to get him through.
Like humor. And drawing. Ross is a fledgling artist, and he likes to draw Batpig comics. And you can see in the comics how he uses them to work through some issues. Comics like Batpig vs The Anger!, and Batpig vs The Radioactive Zapper! (Cue the Batpig theme.)
Ross also finds, with the help of his radiation tech, a new love of music, and a talent for guitar. Music helped me, so I wanted it to be there for Ross.
Most importantly, Ross has a pretty amazing support system. His dad and stepmom, Frank the tech, an elderly fellow patient… and his best friend, Abby. Everyone should have a friend like Abby.
My big hope for Wink is that it can help. That it can help someone going through a horrible time see some new ways that laughter, music, friends and family can all come together and lift them up. Or that it can help others around that person have more empathy and compassion. To help classmates realize that The Sick Kid didn’t ask for this. They’re just like them except they got a raw deal.
We all get a raw deal now and then. I hope Wink can help.
Rob Harrell created and drew the internationally syndicated comic strip Big Top, as well as the acclaimed graphic novel Monster on the Hill. He also writes and draws the long-running daily comic strip Adam@Home. He lives with his wife in Austin, Texas.
Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m sure Wink will help many kids.
Our experiences certainly help form our art. Sorry you had to go through that but look what you did with it. You can inspire many kids when you tell them the story behind your story.
This sounds like a great story—even if milk duds get stuck in some less than desirable places. I just got through cancer last year—a mild case compared to what a lot of people face. I hadn’t really thought about the difficulties a young person would face in the social sense. You have an expectation that people will be kind, supportive, but then you remember—oh, wait, teenagers! I hope Wink finds a good home in many libraries and hearts!