Drawing on cancer: Graphic designer uses art to reflect on the fight of his life

Michael Gage Costa slides a sword from the scabbard and makes a clean cut through the creature hovering above his bed.Michael Gage Costa

He pulls on a Lance Armstrong LIVESTRONG wristband, draws a gun and fires.

Eventually, the good guy triumphs, all to the tune of Fatboy Slim’s“Weapon of Choice”: Costa detonates a bomb and blows the creature to bits.

The Cancer Battle 1 video credits roll—and taunt: “Special thanks to: CANCER…for dying.”

The video, a mix of animation and live action, is pure Costa: playful, hopeful, drenched in black humor.

Costa, 25, a recent graphic-design BFA graduate, has been in remission from testicular cancer for four years. But the cancer diagnosis, delivered on Halloween 2005 when Costa was a 19-year-old art major at Ithaca College, continues to inform his life and his art. Costa’s thesis project, on view last spring at the Mason Gross Galleries, featured a “Wheel of Survival,” part of an elaborate game in which viewers step into the role of cancer patient and eventually learn whether they live or die.

“Older cancer patients use ribbons, fundraisers, prayer, hope,” says Costa, who transferred to the Mason Gross School in 2007. “…I think humor speaks to young people.”

Yes, humor: Costa’s license plate reads UNIBALR.

Of course humor is often born in a bleak place, and Costa’s cancer comics, animations, and games are no exception: By the time Costa was diagnosed, the cancer had reached stage 3. The disease had already metastasized to his abdomen, lymph nodes, and lungs. Eventually, it would spread to his brain. His prognosis: one-in-two.

“Those were the most important numbers of my life,” says Costa, who endured two rounds of chemo spanning nine months. “That was the scariest part right there: It’s just a ratio.”  

The brain radiation left Costa nearly bald. He wears hearing aids and suffers ringing in his ears, two results of his treatment. He jokes that he saves a bundle on haircuts and shampoos.

“Having levity has helped me through it,” he says, as has his fiancée, Allison, whom he plans to marry in November 2010. And blowing cancer to bits, even a pixelated “cancer monster,” carries its own satisfactions.

“It was my way of fighting through art,” he says. “It was really nice for me to make cancer this tangible monster that could be defeated and stomped down.”

To view Michael Gage Costa’s Cancer Battle 1 video, visit www.michaelgagecosta.com.

Posted 2010