A powerful force for empowering women through her art, her words and her actions, Marisa Aocella is today’s feature for our Saint Series. Marisa is the New York Times best-selling author of the graphic novels The Big She-Bang and Ann Tenna, the graphic memoir Cancer Vixen, and Just Who the Hell is She, Anyway? She is also a cartoonist for The New Yorker and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Glamour, and O, The Oprah Magazine. A breast cancer survivor, she is the founder of the Marisa Acocella Foundation, which, through a grant from Bloomingdale’s, funds the free Marisa Acocella Empowerment Program that includes holistic therapies and journaling classes and more for women with breast cancer and breast cancer survivors at the Mount Sinai Best Israel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Welcome to Sainthood, Marisa!
1. Congratulations on your new book! It’s about Saints, female empowerment, and the feminine divine...subjects that are close to our heart too.
Thank you! Congratulations on creating my favorite beauty and makeup line ever! Saint Jane, we are so in sync in our hearts and our souls! Furthermore, I think Saint Jane the Saint needs to be profiled in the sequel of The Big She-Bang!
2. Can you tell us about The Big She Bang: The Herstory of the Universe According to God the Mother and why you decided to write it?
I’d love to. Saints have always been a huge part of my life. My family always had Icons of Saints all over the house. I have always been obsessed with the lives of Saints. I wanted to know who they were, what they did, and how they became Saints. I was also that young girl who always questioned, questioned, questioned everything, many times to the point of exasperating everyone. And my biggest question was “how could a Male God, God the Father, give birth to all this? What happened to God the Mother? Where is SHE?”
Then, flash forward from my childhood to when I was twenty-nine. I had become an advertising executive, and I was unfulfilled. I knew in my heart was meant to do something else with my life, but what? Now, every New Year’s Eve I have a ritual. I sit down with my journal and write down my goals for the year. And December 31,1990 was no exception. Only this time I lit a candle. I called in Mary, Jesus, Joseph and all the Saints in Heaven for Divine Intervention. And guess what — They did not let me down!
Instead of writing down my goals, I drew a blonde bombshell I’ve drawn ever since I could remember (see below for that story) with a gun in her mouth with the line SHE was a little upset during the meeting…
It was my AHA moment. Excited, I leaned into my journal, forgetting about the candle and my hair caught on fire. So, not only did I have a new career - I got a new hairstyle - a shag!
A year later, SHE became a monthly comic strip in the great women’s magazine Mirabella. I always saw SHE as an archetypal single woman who was a searcher. SHE questions everything. And while I developed SHE, the title The Big SHE-Bang popped into my head. There again was THE question. What happened to God the Mother? Where is She? I knew I had to write Her Story. The Big She-Bang has been my passion project for over 25 years — I just felt I needed the life experience to write it. And the more research I did, the more I found out about not just God the Mother (She was “Holy Ghosted!”) but about all the other Saints, Goddesses and Shevolutionary Divine Females who have been scapegoated (Eve), marginalized, minimized, maligned (many of them) sidelined (Saint Thecla), slut-shamed (Saint Mary Magdalene—did you know she was a Princess?) and unnamed (Noah’s wife, who, when she was mentioned in the Bible five times no less—she was unnamed. Her name Norea means “beautiful fire”, and believe me, that story is lit!) Back to Eve, did you know that she was the divine spark? Adam was an inanimate lump of clay and Eve gave him life. In The Big SHE-Bang, all the women wrest their origin stories and we hear from them directly. Because history is just that, “his story”. But when we hear from Her, Her story changes history…forever!
3. Your first graphic novel came out in the ’90s when the genre wasn’t so popular as it is today. What initially attracted you to the medium?
In 1994 I published my first book Just who the hell is SHE, anyway? And back then, not many people knew what a graphic novel was. My publisher at the time didn’t know how to sell it. To be honest, I knew and loved Maus, but the genre was even new to me. I wrote it on instinct. When The New York Times compared my book to a Japanese manga, I had to look that up.
What attracted me to the medium is this: drawing and writing is how I love to tell stories. I love envisioning a world and then seeing it come to life on the page. When you’re a graphic novelist, it’s all you—you’re the creator of your own universe! You’re the director. You’re the cinematographer. You’re the casting director. You’re the character designer. You’re the set decorator. You’re the costume designer. You’re the script girl in charge of continuity. Can I tell you know many times I wanted to fire that script girl because a shirt on a main character would miraculously change from one panel to the next in the same scene! Continuity! But I couldn’t because who else was I going to hire? I’d just be firing myself!
4. Besides your graphic novels, you are a celebrated cartoonist for publications like the New Yorker, Glamour, and Elle – to name a few. Who or what inspired your interest in drawing/ cartoons?
So, going back to my childhood. My mother, Violetta, was the shoe designer for Delman. One day at her office, she received a phone call. From Jackie Kennedy. She needed shoes for a very important event. My mother, in disbelief, nearly hung up on The First Lady! In her whispery voice, Jackie told my mother that it was impossible for her to find shoes, she was a size 11 1/2! Violetta, in her New Jersey accent confided “I’m a size 11 1/2, we can commiserate!” Guess what the very important event was—JFK’s Inauguration! At that time my mom was pregnant with me and Jackie was pregnant with John-John. After my mother gave birth she worked from home, designing shoes. She’d do these trend reports of fabulous women wearing her fabulous shoes, and three-year-old me would imitate her and I’d draw those fabulous women. Then, when I was about eight, we had our first real vacation that wasn’t the Jersey Shore—it was Bermuda. We stayed in a pink elephant of a house, and in that house were drawings with captions on them. The pink elephant was James Thurber’s house! The legendary New Yorker cartoonist! Seeing those drawings, I thought to myself, the women in my drawings could talk! Then later, I forgot them, and went into advertising. And you know what happened after that.
5. Your organization, Marisa Acocella Foundation, and your Marisa Acocella Empowerment Fund are truly wonderful for those with Breast Cancer and survivors too. Can you tell us about the mission and how your own experience with breast cancer inspired you to give back?
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, I didn’t have health insurance. That double-whammy combo sent me into a downward spiral. It was one of the lowest points in my life. How can you fight when you already feel defeated? At that time I had a monthly cartoon in Glamour magazine. When I told my editor, Lauren Smith Brody, she asked me to write about it. Later, my friend Bob Morris, who is a writer, asked me what I was going to title it my story. And then he looked at me, his eyes narrowing. “What’s with you? You’re a mess! Ratty sneakers? Aren’t you the daughter of a shoe designer? You look like a victim!” (I did.) Then he said “where’s the vixen?” And it was Bob who named my piece for Glamour, which later became a book, Cancer Vixen. I went home and drew myself as a cancer kicking Vixen, and in that cancer year, and I became one. See it. Believe it. Achieve it. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim, and I didn’t want to anyone who was going through breast cancer to see themselves as a victim, either. I wanted to give women tools to empower themselves. Today the Marisa Acocella Empowerment Program (funded by a grant from Bloomingdale’s) funds holistic therapies, guided imagery, journaling and more. My motto has always been “no breast left behind.”
6. We understand you have quite a fabulous shoe collection. Do you have a favorite pair?
My favorite pair of shoes are a pair I’ve never walked in—Alexander McQueen pumps with a purple lucite heel strewn with purple roses. They’re on my dresser. They’re a work of art. Other than that, I love wedge. I love a lug heel. I have a wedge lug heel from Robert Clergerie that are on their last legs, but they’re so comfortable, I can’t give them up.
7. What are your secrets to self-care and balance?
I make myself organic coffee every morning. Then I start with a my manifestation ritual—I write down what I want my life to be, then I pray to all my Saints for guidance, to keep me in the light and on mission of service for humanity. Later in the day I’ll go for a walk, or a swim. Vitamin D from the sun lifts my spirits and prevents cancer. I take vitamins to maintain a healthy immune system. My father, Tony, is a pharmacist and has a PhD in nutrition and I’m on his anti-covid, anti-cancer vitamin protocol. And staying connected to the people I love. I talk to my parents several times a day. That keeps me grounded.
8. If you were to be anointed into sainthood, what would it be?
You mean I would be “beautified”? Isn’t it ironic that’s what the process is called to become a Saint!
The Patron Saint of Panic Attacks Who Somehow Alchemizes them into Power.
Bonus Q: What's your favorite SAINT JANE product and why do you love it?
THIS IS THE HARDEST QUESTION OF ALL! I love your lipsticks — so creamy AND the Vitamin C-Drops—for which I must thank you Saint Jane for your Divine Feminine Intervention—my skin has never looked brighter or better!
Also, I see you’ve asked for my daily mantra. I wrote this for myself whenever I have moments of self-doubt: I always make the right decision because I am a woman of vision.