April 09, 2020
(++++) BODILY HARM
How I Broke Up with My Colon: Fascinating, Bizarre, and True Health Stories. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
This has to be one of the strangest cartoon books of all time – and a book that, while certainly top-quality, can be strongly recommended only for those who are stalwart of heart and settled of stomach. Nick Seluk is the cartoonist responsible for the extremely clever “Heart and Brain” concept, originally part of something called “The Awkward Yeti” but long since having become more important than the idea from which it was spun off. Seluk neatly encapsulates the constant internal conflicts we humans feel between being impulsive and wish-driven, on the one hand (heart), and being rational and cautious, on the other (brain). What Seluk has done so well that it’s a wonder no one thought of it before is to make Heart and Brain into genuine characters, their personalities shaped in some expected ways (Brain wears glasses) and some unexpected ones (Heart almost always has a butterfly flitting around, a delightful metaphor if there ever was one). The interactions (frequent disputes and occasional agreements) between Heart and Brain make up a never-ending series of comic sequences that are funny in large part because they so well encapsulate what everyone goes through all the time – even though our actual organs are not nearly as cute as the cartoon ones Seluk creates.
And Seluk has expanded the Heart and Brain repertoire by introducing many other personified bodily organs as well as the two primary ones. Sometimes a liver appears, or some teeth, maybe a tongue, sometimes a gall bladder that is super-cute and wants only to give gifts in the form of stones to the body (supposedly the body of The Awkward Yeti: that is the tie-in to Seluk’s original idea). And that brings us to How I Broke Up with My Colon. This is a collection of two dozen real-life medical stories, told in the words of the people who experienced the incidents, illustrated by Seluk with the cartoon characters he has created for his tales of Heart and Brain.
The weirdness level here is high, driven even higher by Seluk’s occasional use in the illustrations of an always-sweating, always-overwhelmed doctor character and, at times, the character of The Awkward Yeti (with two-tone blue fur, wearing square glasses and a bow tie). Seluk adds his own dialogue to the stories to make them funnier and/or stranger, but most of their strangeness and humor (yes, there is humor here) come in the telling by the unfortunate people who experienced these peculiar medical circumstances.
The title story, for example, is about a colectomy – surgery to remove the entire colon (large intestine). Seemingly no topic for cartooning, this is a tale about ulcerative colitis, which the storyteller endured for two-and-a-half years during which he “lost half my body weight” and “went on so many medications it was crazy.” Scarcely a subject for humor, this is made amusing (in its own way) because Seluk structures it as a series of discussions and arguments between the person and his colon, which is eventually removed during surgery and seen walking out the door carrying two pieces of luggage. The story continues, “My small intestine was there for me through the entire thing,” with the storyteller explaining how three surgeries were needed to replace the large intestine without requiring use of an external bag. In one panel, the befuddled doctor character looks at the patient holding his smiling small intestine and says, “We should also consider putting that on the INSIDE of your body.”
Not peculiar enough? Well, a chapter called “The Geologist” is about a, yes, geologist, who ironically develops multiple, extremely painful kidney stones (“multiple staghorn calculi, my own stalactites!”). First one kidney, then the other, must be surgically removed: “Medical students were sent to study me, and the doctor who performed the original ultrasound fetched her boss to see it because it was so weird.” (Here Seluk introduces his doctor character, who exclaims, “I concur with the weirdness!”) This story ends with the information that now the storyteller’s “gallbladder has been a busy little thing making its own pebbles” and that she has had no luck telling her body “that the rocks should be on the outside, not the inside.” And the big-eyed kidneys and even-bigger-eyed, plump and adorable gallbladder are seen cherishing what they have made.
All the stories are filled with awfulness that Seluk’s approach transforms, rather miraculously, into a combination of not-quite-entertainment and not-quite-education. There is “Palpitations,” in which the Heart character gives a human a “harmless, though annoying” condition called supraventricular tachycardia – which is cured, astonishingly enough, when the patient is hit by lightning, leading Seluk to portray the formerly freewheeling Heart as a docile clerk in an office-supply store. There is “Attack of the Spine,” in which a woman explains that she had a spine so badly curved that surgeons had to break it in nine places to repair it with glue and metal screws and bars. And then there is “Where’s Waldo?” That is about a woman whose organs are all in the wrong places by conventional human anatomical standards – and who has seven spleens (technically, splenules). “We laugh, we cry, we bleed, we vomit,” explains Seluk at the start of the book, noting that all this is “only human.” True, but these elements of being human have never been shown the way he shows them in How I Broke Up with My Colon. Readers should be forewarned: this is a remarkable, thoroughly bizarre book, one that may not make you bleed but likely will cause you to laugh, cry, and in a couple of the more-extreme stories, feel like, yes, vomiting.