Back before MTV became the home of shows like The Hills and Real World/ Road Rules: Inferno, it used to have some of the strangest and most innovative animation this side of the Pacific. In addition to hits like Beavis and Butthead and Daria, it also counted far stranger shows such as Aeon Flux, Liquid Television, and The Head as some of its late night lineup. I was reminded of MTV’s glory years of weird cartoons the other day while reading Ben Jelter’s self-published graphic novel The Tumor. The surreal artwork coupled with the gruesome imagery reminded me of some of the strange shorts that one might catch while watching MTV at three in the morning during that era. The Tumor is disturbing, grotesque, heartbreaking, and absolutely cool all at the same time.
The comic is about a boy named Greg who has a giant lump grow off his neck, come to life, and eventually become his girlfriend. The plot is simple and so creepy that one may decide not to read it because of the premise alone – that knee-jerk reaction must be avoided. When I heard this plot summary from a friend I was disturbed and hesitant, but after a little cajoling I decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. Despite the horrific images of growling tumors breaking free from the protagonist’s gargantuan neck and crawling around the floor in puddles of slime, there is a lot of heart in this story.
The book has two primary strengths that make it worth the read. First is the artwork. Jelter is clearly a gifted artist who is able to powerfully realize the bleak world of his story. Jelter has effectively married artistic tone with overall plot in ways that I’ve seen even veteran artists unable to replicate. I was easily reminded of some of the darker Philip K. Dick stories while examining the gray-shaded panels and dreary sadness that pervades the pages. Everything looks dirty, everything seems sick, and even the rare images of sunlight appear chocked and cold.
The second strength of the book is the main character, Greg. Jelter is able to create a very genuine protagonist with very little background information. All we know that he is alone, we know that his mother constantly calls to berate and belittle him, and we know that his strangely long neck marks him as a social outcast.
His loneliness is the primary reason that Greg does not immediately freak out when he discovers that his neck tumor is alive. When it breaks free from his skin and begins eating his cereal he does not kill it, nor seek to get rid of it. Instead he nurtures and feeds the strange little monster and eventually it grows into a pretty young woman.
Long story short: boy meets tumor, boy falls for tumor, boy and tumor begin dating. The trouble emerges when more growths begin to appear on his neck and his relationship with Samantha, as the first tumor comes to be called, is strained.
While this situation does not feel like anything any remotely sane human being can relate to, Jelter effectively brings the reader into an understanding with Greg. Greg is an outcast, isolated and alone; his only human contact is his abusive mother. In his sorrow we see the type that would look for companionship from any avenue that offered it – even a talking neck tumor. However, once Greg’s loneliness is finally overcome we see him squander the very thing that he longed for, in a way that can resonate with the reader. The story ends in tragedy and I was left feeling sad and disturbed – all signs of a quality story.
The Tumor is a twisted story that is much better than the plot would make it seem. It is creepy and weird and anyone who enjoyed the shows I mentioned above will no doubt love it. I mean c’mon! It’s a love story about a guy and his tumor…what’s not to like?