- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2016

ABITA SPRINGS, La. (AP) - Staring at a computer screen in his Abita Springs home office, Bunny Matthews cast a critical eye on a recent depiction of his famous “Nint’ Ward” cartoon couple, Vic and Nat’ly Broussard.

“I never would have shown this in the past,” he said, surveying the scanned image’s soft contours and uneven backdrop. “Everything would have been perfect in the past. But it’s not like it was.”

For Matthews, nothing really is. Last summer, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Surgeons cut open his skull to remove a tumor. Complications triggered a stroke-like paralysis. For weeks, he couldn’t talk or walk, much less create the crisp, tightly composed images that are his calling card.

For more than 40 years, Matthews has chronicled New Orleans culture, even as he became one of its most distinctive voices. Vic and Nat’ly are his best-known, most lucrative creations, but his body of work encompasses thousands of pieces of art.

These days, his focus is on restoring as much of himself as possible. His speech has largely recovered, though a slight slur remains. He walks with the aid of a cane.

For Matthews, who turned 65 in February, cancer has been a game-changer. “I used to be able to look at you and draw exactly like you look,” he said. “Now I draw like a child. But people like it better, so c’est la vie.”

Biting satire and a gleeful willingness to provoke have long been hallmarks of Matthews’ work; he both skewered and celebrated local idiosyncrasies.

But that which didn’t kill him has made him kinder.

Matthews has expounded in public his entire adult life. Born in Monroe, he moved to Metairie at age 3. After graduating from East Jefferson High School, he enrolled at the University of New Orleans. A high lottery number decreased his chances of being drafted during the Vietnam War, so he quit college and became a freelance writer.

Matthews wrote about music and drew cartoons for the weekly newspaper Figaro. The editor suggested he invest the cartoons with more local flavor. The result was the popular series “F’Sure: Actual Dialogue Heard on the Streets of New Orleans.”

It led to the 1982 debut of Vic and Nat’ly in Dixie, The Times-Picayune’s Sunday magazine section. The fictional couple operates a 9th Ward bar and po-boy shop; they speak in Big Easy broken English. Vic, with his pickle nose and perpetual stubble, comes across as a cruder, older, less erudite Ignatius J. Reilly.

Vic and Nat’ly later migrated to Wavelength, New Orleans magazine, Gambit and the entertainment monthly OffBeat, which Matthews edited from 1999 to 2005.

In 1996, the Whann family, owners of Leidenheimer Baking Co., commissioned a Vic and Nat’ly side panel for the company’s delivery trucks. Twenty years later, Vic and Nat’ly still munch an oversize po-boy on dozens of Leidenheimer vehicles. They’ll likely still be delivering French bread long after their creator is gone. “That’s one of the best things I ever did,” Matthews said.

In May, it was his own art that first hinted something was amiss. As he signed copies of the 2015 Taste at the Lake poster, his signature, always as precise as his drawings, kept tilting. He couldn’t force his hand to stay level. “I could feel that something was wrong in my body,” he recalled.

In June, he and Debbie spent a couple of nights in New Orleans. He couldn’t shake a persistent headache. Dining at Bayona and Brennan’s, he felt disoriented and woozy, even though he hadn’t drunk any alcohol.

Back in Abita Springs, he veered diagonally while walking to his mailbox. The next day, his wife, Debbie, drove him to the emergency room, fearing he’d suffered a stroke.

When initial tests came back negative, he started to get dressed; he wanted to go get chicken for lunch. A neurologist stopped him: There was a mass on his brain, an aggressive, malignant tumor.

The initial surgery to remove the tumor went fine. The remaining cancer cells were “carpet-bombed” with methotrexate, a potent chemotherapy drug.

Weeks later, though, Matthews’ condition worsened dramatically. He couldn’t walk or talk. Doctors discovered a cyst had developed on his brain. They operated to drain it.

Two weeks after that, spinal fluid started seeping from his skull. Doctors cut into his head to insert a shunt. The next day, they went in again to correct the installation.

All told, Matthews’ brain was exposed four times.

At one point in August, his survival was uncertain. But slowly, he battled back from the brink. He wanted to use a wheelchair; Debbie, his fiercest advocate, refused, insisting he relearn how to walk.

By late December, scans showed no signs of the tumor.

His ordeal is far from over. The shunt still extends from his ear to his stomach. He has a port in his side. Once a month, he spends five days at Ochsner Medical Center for chemotherapy.

He and Debbie spent a recent weekend in New Orleans for a friend’s wedding. On Easter, they dined at the Covington restaurant Oxlot 9. A man costumed as a bunny turned out to be an oncologist. A patient of his with a diagnosis similar to Matthews’ has lived for 10 years and counting. The oncologist told Matthews, “I know it’s rough now, but you can get past it.”

He took those words to heart. “People are afraid of cancer, like it’s some weird thing,” he said. “We’ll all get it, because we live a long time now. You can’t give in. You have to fight it. You can win. I won.”


Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, https://www.neworleansadvocate.com

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