Cartoonist and graphic novelist
Born c. 1962, in New Jersey; daughter of Violetta Acocella (a shoe designer); married Silvano Marchetto (a restaurateur), 2004. Education: Attended Pratt Institute; earned degree from the School of Visual Arts.
Addresses: Agent —Elizabeth Sheinkman, Curtis Brown Group Ltd., Haymarket House, 28-29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England.
Art director, J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, c. 1983–87; associate creative director, Kirshenbaum and Bond, after November 1987; with Young & Rubicam as a senior vice president until c. 1993; first book, Just Who the Hell Is She, Anyway? The Autobiography of She , published by Harmony Books, 1994; cartoonist or illustrator for Talk, Glamour , the New York Times , and the New Yorker .
Marisa Acocella Marchetto turned the story of her battle with breast cancer into the 2006 graphic-novel memoir Cancer Vixen: A True Story . A cartoonist whose work regularly appears in Glamour and the New Yorker , Marchetto chronicled her illness with a frank candor and self-deprecating wit, and her effort resulted in scores of laudatory reviews. "It was really good for me to turn my treatment into a work project as it gave me something to focus on, and because in creating the cartoons I had to find what was positive about the experience," Marchetto told Mail on Sunday writer Jane Gordon. "I had to find the humor in it, and I don't know how I would have got through it without it."
Born in the early 1960s, Marchetto grew up in Roselle Park, New Jersey, as one of four children in her family. Her father was a pharmacist, while her mother, Violetta, worked as a designer for Delman Shoe Company, a popular brand of women's footwear in the mid-twentieth century that operated a chain of retail stores. The first drawings that Marchetto ever produced were copies of her mother's shoe sketches, and her parents encouraged her artistic pursuits. Once, the Acocellas took a vacation in the Bahamas, and their lodgings featured "all these old framed drawings with captions underneath them on the walls, and I just thought it was so cool because I had never seen a cartoon before," she told Gordon in the Mail on Sunday interview. Their villa turned out to be the former abode of renowned American humorist and New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber. "I stayed awake till about 4 a.m. reading old New Yorkers and James Thurber books," Marchetto recalled in the same interview. "Three hours later I woke up covered head to toe in red ants! The place was infested and we had to move back into the main hotel."
Marchetto studied painting at the Pratt Institute in New York City, one of the best art schools in the United States, but she began to see that many of the art-school graduates she knew struggled financially for years. One evening, she attended a dinner party at her parents' home, and one of the guests worked in advertising. When a commercial the guest had created came on the television, the crowd gathered around the set and expressed their enthusiasm for it, which made Marchetto think that advertising might be a better career choice for her. She eventually earned a degree from New York City's School of Visual Arts, and went to work for a major Madison Avenue agency, J. Walter Thompson, as an art director. She spent four years there, then in 1987 left with a colleague, Richard Kirshenbaum, to become one of the founding partners of a boutique ad agency, Kirshenbaum and Bond. Marchetto moved on after a few years to Young & Rubicam, another Madison Avenue powerhouse, which gave her a plum senior vice president position.
Marchetto began to channel some of her creative energy into a cartoon strip whose main character served as her alter ego. Known only as "She," the strip's stylish heroine was an executive at a large advertising agency, but often felt unsure about the choices she had made in her life. Oftentimes she struggled with what to wear, too, and the strip's fashion-conscious underpinnings brought it to the pages of Mirabella , the women's magazine, where it became a regular feature in 1993. Marchetto eventually decided to take a leave of absence from her job in order to work on a book project, and produced Just Who the Hell Is She, Anyway? The Autobiography of She . The 1994 graphic novel featured the same "She" heroine of the Mirabella strip, and the title was a sly pun on the highly competitive Manhattan circles in which Marchetto ran as well as to the unfolding identity crisis that serves as a plot. Karal Ann Marling, reviewing this debut for the New York Times , asserted that "Acocella is a tart critic of pop culture, taking deadly aim at a variety of icons and anti-icons."
Marchetto never returned to her job at Young & Rubicam. She took freelance advertising jobs to make ends meet while continuing to create witty, contemporary cartoons, and also spent some time developing a television series based on She . Her ideas for a career woman who wore extremely short miniskirts and was plagued by fantasies of her yet-to-be born child were further complicated, however, by input from others involved in the project, and she walked away from the possibly lucrative, but never-produced series altogether when it started to become "a hodgepodge of everyone's opinion" as she explained in an interview with Print magazine. A few of her original ideas seemed to have made their way around Hollywood and eventually wound up coming to screen life via the title character of the FOX television series Ally McBeal . The show featured an attorney who sported micro-minis and was taunted by hallucinations of a computer-generated image of a dancing baby when it debuted in 1997, which Marchetto told the Print interviewer seemed an "unreal coincidence."
For most cartoonists, making it into the New Yorker represents the pinnacle of career achievement. Marchetto was fortunate to find a supportive mentor in Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor for the weekly, and he encouraged her to perfect her skills in drawing the one-liner, single-panel cartoon jokes that are a hallmark of the New Yorker pages. As she recalled in the interview with Print , Mankoff told her, "'If you want to make money, stay in advertising. But at the end of the day, it's what you'll have accomplished in life: You can have a book [of published work] or you can have a bunch of ad campaigns.'"
Marchetto finally made it into the pages of the New Yorker in 1998 with cartoons that deftly satirized a certain milieu of affluent Manhattanites. Writing in the New York Times Book Review , Ariel Levy noted that Marchetto "specializes in droll depictions of joyless, emaciated women in four-figure outfits," while other critics found them to be a cartoon version of the quartet of characters in the hit HBO series Sex and the City . "Like the series, Acocella's work goes beyond the gag to reveal among its characters a little bit more: a glimmer of an empty emotional undercurrent, or a rippling of confusion about what the world expects of them," claimed the Print contributor.
After a stint drawing a weekly strip for the New York Times Sunday Styles section, and then as an illustrator for the short-lived Talk magazine, Marchetto inked a deal as the resident cartoonist for Glamour in 2002. She had also settled into a long-term relationship with New York City restaurateur Silvano Marchetto, owner of Da Silvano. The downtown eatery opened in 1975 and was one of first to popularize Northern Italian cuisine in the city. The couple had met on 9/11, when Marchetto showed up for a previously booked lunch table at the restaurant; the city was in chaos and much of downtown covered in dust and debris, but the owner fed her anyway. They began dating and were counting down the three weeks to their wedding in the spring of 2004 when Marchetto discovered a lump in her breast. She feared her fiancé might leave her, she told Newsweek 's Nicki Gostin, because "I always thought in a relationship a woman had to be perfect all the time … and breast cancer is definitely a major imperfection."
But the Acocella-Marchetto wedding went ahead as planned, and the new bride soon embarked on a demanding course of treatment that included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. Dismayed by the term "cancer victim," she took to calling herself "cancer vixen" instead, and began drawing about it—an offshoot of the extensive notes she usually took when meeting with her medical team to discuss treatment options and progress. There was one physician, however, who discouraged her from drawing cartoons of her experiences. "He thought that I was making light of something that was serious and said it was a bad idea," she told New York Times writer Lola Ogunnaike. "Needless to say, I never went back to him."
Cancer Vixen made its public debut as a six-page cartoon feature in Glamour magazine in April of 2005, and the full-length book version was published by Knopf in the fall of 2006. It won a slew of good reviews, with most critics praising Marchetto for her candor and ability to see a difficult situation with humor. Writing in the Houston Chronicle , Helen Ubinas asserted the author "has created an absorbing and inspiring tale of a woman who knows how to do things—even fight cancer—in style. And who comes away with a better understanding of herself, her surroundings and the joy of slowing down just enough to enjoy life."
The New York Times Book Review 's Levy found that "Marchetto's sunny drawings comfort and amuse while providing a beneficial education on cancer's dark details." In a New York Observer article, Toni Schlesinger contended that "the genius of the book lies partly in the perfect depictions of the author's eclectic media circle, but mostly in the emotional drawings, the terror on the protagonist's face during a chemotherapy treatment—the drugs aren't going into the vein, her drawing hand and arm go numb, her mother is screaming." Warm praise came from abroad, too, with a fellow author and breast-cancer survivor, Stella Duffy, writing in London's Guardian that Marchetto "draws an honest sadness, but she does so with humor and self-deprecation, the polar opposite of those ghastly tabloid 'my brave battle' cancer stories."
Duffy made mention of some of the differences between the British health-care system, in which everyone is covered by government-subsidized medical care, and the U.S. private-insurance scheme; in Cancer Vixen , Marchetto reveals that her treatment would have cost her $200,000 without health insurance—which she did not have when she was diagnosed—but fortunately her marriage gave her access to coverage under her new husband's policy. She also continued to work during the months of her treatment, even standing in the weekly line-up to Mankoff's office where the New Yorker cartoonists wait to submit their newest work for publication approval. Marchetto's career prospects brightened considerably when Cancer Vixen was published: She was declared disease-free by her doctors, and Working Title Films optioned the rights to her book, with Academy-Award winner Cate Blanchett slated to star in the 2008 screen adaptation.
In February of 2007, Publishers Weekly announced that Marchetto was under contract for another graphic novel, this one about a New York City woman whose adept networking skills suddenly make her unable to make any sort of decision on her own at all. The storyline was undoubtedly borrowed from Marchetto's own experience with her illness, when a chorus of advice-givers assaulted her daily. "It started at the very beginning, on that very day," she told Gordon, the Mail on Sunday interviewer, "and it was so hard because you have everyone telling you that you should do different things at a point when you really don't know what the best thing to do is."
(As Marisa Acocella) Just Who the Hell Is She, Anyway? The Autobiography of She , Harmony Books (New York City), 1994.
(As Marisa Acocella Marchetto) Cancer Vixen: A True Story , Knopf (New York City), 2006.
Back Stage , June 24, 1988, p. 20B.
Guardian (London, England), January 13, 2007, p. 9.
Houston Chronicle , December 31, 2006, p. 17.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 7, 2007, p. 38.
Newsweek , September 25, 2006, p. 11.
New York Observer , October 2, 2006, p. 1.
New York Times , October 9, 1994; April 14, 2005.
New York Times Book Review , October 22, 2006, p. 30.
Observer (London, England), October 15, 2006, p. 3.
Print , January 2001, p. 92.
Publishers Weekly , December 18, 2006, p. 32; February 5, 2007, p. 10.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), January 14, 2007, p. 37.