September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Harvey Pekar has made a career out of fearing that the worst would always happen. Then one day it did. In November 1990, the famously downbeat author of the celebrated underground comic-book series American Splendor-who has carved out a second career as a regular David Letterman guest-was diagnosed with lymphoma. Never one to spare his readers, Pekar, together with his comic-book- writer wife, Joyce Brabner, has produced Our Cancer Year (Four Walls Eight Windows, $17.95). It is the couple’s first full-length ”graphic non-novel,” a comic book examining and recalling the hell they lived through.

”It’s cancer within the context of a life,” Pekar says. ”There are a lot of issues involved besides cancer.” But it’s the cancer-and Pekar’s seemingly endless months of grueling chemotherapy-that readers will most remember. With drawings by Frank Stack (Pekar storyboards his comics but leaves the art to professionals), Our Cancer Year details the assorted tortures its author endured during his treatment, including intermittent paralysis, hallucinations brought on by medication, and a surgeon with ”the bedside manner of a Mack truck.”

Through it all Pekar remains his old obsessive, neurotic self. ”It’s important that people don’t feel that they have to be heroes to get through something like this,” he says. ”I cracked up all over the place. I didn’t handle it well, and I wanted to point that out.”

Since the ordeal was shared, it made sense for Pekar to collaborate with his wife, but it was also necessary: ”Harvey had chunks of his memory missing,” says Brabner. Pekar, who has been in remission for four years and recently published two new American Splendor comics, says he had no qualms about telling all. ”(My comics are) this continuing autobiography,” he explains. ”There’s no way in the world I could have left this out.”

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