Comics and kabbalah collide with cancer in a new graphic novel that pits Jewish mysticism against the disease.
Whirling from a children’s cancer ward to a world that is “nistar” — Hebrew for hidden — the 100-page fantasy follows Dr. Jacob Barak as he challenges dark forces and searches for a lost, mystical stone with miraculous healing powers.
Shira Frimer, an art therapist from Beachwood, Ohio, drew on Jewish legend and mysticism to write the page-turner — and on her own, very personal encounter with the disease.
Her inspiration for the book’s hero was her Israeli-born husband, diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer at 19, whose charm and charisma brought light and laughter to his hospital unit. She was always by his side during the five years of his illness.
“My goal is to get the book into the hands of kids with cancer,” says Frimer, 37. “They are the little heroes. The pediatric oncology ward is a world where children have to endure scary and painful procedures every day — where they fight simply for the chance to grow up.”
In the US, 13,400 cases of pediatric cancer are diagnosed annually. Significant strides have been made in finding cures, and survival time has grown for some forms of the disease. “For children with cancer, however, the journey to recovery seems long and discouraging,” Frimer says.
She should know. “Thirteen years ago, I hit rock bottom,” she recalls.
Yaakov Frimer, then her fiancé, received his diagnosis shortly after the pair were engaged.
Undaunted, the couple married in Israel, with Yaakov managing to complete a year of law school while receiving treatment for Ewing‘s sarcoma, in which tumors grow inside bones. With an infusion bag slung over his shoulder and a law book in hand, Frimer became a personality at Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel, located in Petah Tikva.
Using his talent for mimicry and magic to entertain his fellow patients, Frimer acted as a big brother, alleviating others’ anxieties about medical procedures that he had undergone himself.
“While others saw their sad faces, their bald heads and the sickness,” Shira Frimer says, “Yaakov saw the child inside. He talked to each one, and made them laugh.”
Two years after Yaakov received his diagnosis, Shira gave birth to twins. The babies strengthened their father’s determination to recover, and after he went into remission, the young family moved to Cleveland, Shira’s hometown. Then the cancer returned.
Yaakov tried experimental treatment, but died — grateful for every minute with his family, his widow says.
Shira, who had made aliya in 1995, remained in the US for six years after his death.
“A couple of years after Yaakov died, I became an avid reader of serious comic books — ‘Maus,’ ‘The Dark Night Returns,’ ‘The Swamp Thing,’ ‘The Sandman,’ “ she says. “I realized that comics are not just for kids, not simple adventure stories. They can also be a vehicle for serious subject matter.”
In addition to graphic novels, “Nistar” also draws on Kabbalah, which Frimer studied while earning a degree from Siegal College of Jewish Studies in Cleveland.
“The story itself is rooted in the legend of the Zohar stone — which, according to Jewish lore, is a prism that contains primordial light and has been passed down through generations since the creation of the world. I drew on other legends as well — concepts of light and darkness, the ‘revealed’ and the ‘hidden’ worlds, the 36 hidden righteous, and the kabbalistic concept of the ‘shattering of the vessels.’ ”
For the young widow, the book became a way to preserve and share her husband‘s memory.
“Our twins were only 2 years old when their father passed away,” says Frimer, who earned a master’s degree in expressive therapies from the Israeli branch of Lesley University, in Netanya.
“I wanted to create a hero they could visualize, with their father’s wit and charm, who had a genius for bringing hope to a seemingly joyless place.”
In the comic book, Dr. Barak stands in for Yaakov Frimer, assuring kids with cancer that they aren’t alone. Without giving false hope, the superhero teaches that there is value in adversity, challenging readers, “In the face of despair, hope if you dare!”
The graphic novel, illustrated by Josef Rubenstein of DC Comics and Marvel fame, has won praise from professionals, including those who work with the target audience.
“Discussing cancer with children is very difficult,” Prof. David Sidransky, an oncology specialist at Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, told The Times of Israel. “This graphic novel is an innovative and exciting tool to help build hope for families affected.”
Frimer sees value in “Nistar” beyond those suffering from just a single disease.
“The comic book is directed to children with cancer,” she says, “but children with other illnesses can also benefit from it.”
To that end, she’s been raising money via Indiegogo, a crowd-funding website, and spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook.
After being promoted by Indiegogo as the site’s “Campaign of the Day” earlier this month, the project exceeded its initial $15,000 goal.
Frimer now hopes to raise $25,000, which she says will be enough to self-publish and distribute 5,000 copies. She’s been promoting the book with copies and artwork that she and Rubinstein have signed. She also wants to translate “Nistar” into other languages, and to make it available as an e-book and film. Supplementary discussion materials and a sequel are also possibilities.
“Writing the comic book was empowering,” she says, sounding a bit like her protagonist. “It gave me the opportunity to express overwhelming emotions, to be angry — and to fight death.”