Books

Chazan! Unfiltered: Art and medicine collide in this locally produced biographical graphic novel

Dr. Joseph Chazan, like the character Billy Pilgrim in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, is unstuck in time. The phenomenon is localized in a new graphic novel Chazan! Unfiltered, which takes a here-there-and-back-again approach to his personal and professional life story.

Rhode Island’s own Dr. Chazan is a nephrologist (in layman’s terms, a kidney doctor), and while the “unfiltered” in the title suggests frank disclosures in its pages, it’s more of a kidney pun. The doctor’s life — at least in comic strip form — is less about shocking revelations and more about his lifetime effort to help people and, in the process, lead a rich and well-rounded life.

We begin with the metafictional framing device of Chazan’s grandson approaching him to say, “Let’s make a graphic novel about your life story.” That, arguably, is a little tired, but once Chazan’s story gets underway, it’s presented with charm, humor and interesting narrative and artistic touches. 

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The doctor’s last name is likened to Captain Marvel’s transforming exultation “Shazam!” and no doubt to his Rhode Island patients, Dr. Chazan is a bit of a superhero, since years ago, he led an initiative to introduce something called a “dialysis machine” to our state. Previously, patients had to pack a lunch and go to Boston anytime they wanted the convenience of having their lives saved.

To the graphic novel’s credit, it doesn’t filter out some unpleasant parts of Dr. Chazan’s life, most notably the death of his wife. The graphic novel makes clear that even these darker moments are all part of the bigger picture: happiness, sadness, health, sickness, life and death — they all flow together and around each other in time. 

Given the language level of this book and the way these topics are treated, it’s easy to imagine this book being read by a young adult, teenager or even tween. One imagines a young reader would be most interested to learn that the adult world is not all about work, or all about One Thing.

Dr. Chazan, we find out, enjoys the visual arts. He buys and collects the work of local artists, decorates his offices with their paintings and drawings, and finds no contradiction between being a man of science and a man of the arts.

Several pages of reproduced artwork certainly give the reader an idea of the breadth of Chazan’s artistic interests, but some readers may wish we had at least a single page in which the character Chazan opens up about what one piece in particular means to him. After several pages of reproductions, we literally get the picture: The man likes art.

The comic art itself is from the hand of Erminio Pinque, best known to Rhode Islanders as the founder and director of Big Nazo Lab, makers of large-as-life puppets, masks and sculpture.

While Big Nazo’s creatures can be (entertainingly) grotesque, Pinque’s drawings here have a softer feel and look, which is suitable to his all-too-human subject. Pinque’s rendering of Dr. Chazan makes him look like a human plush doll, which I’m sure the good doctor doesn’t mind.

“Life cycles through us, no matter what we do,” says the comic book version of Dr. Chazan, an analogy to how the blood of life is constantly flowing through our kidneys.  

As readers try to filter the bad from the good to find books worth buying, reading and keeping, make note of Chazan! Unfiltered: It’s a welcome document establishing that superheroes do walk among us, even in Rhode Island.

Chazan! Unfiltered (Never Enough Books, 2020), by Lenny Schwartz (story) and Erminio Pinque (art), will be available in October.

Full disclosure: The editor of Chazan! Unfiltered is Emily Olson, this magazine’s editor, and the artist, Erminio Pinque, is a regular contributor.

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