End of road for ‘comic stripper’

A picture of Deni Brown, taken in 2017 on Nick Thomas birthday almost a year ago.

Deni Brown, the Kirstenhof “comic stripper” (as she called herself) and co-creator of the popular Mama Taxi cartoon faced her final speed bump at St Luke’s Hospice in Kenilworth, on Sunday January 13.

Deni co-authored the strip with Noordhoek artist Gavin Thomson. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014 and underwent surgery two months later.

In her 60-something lifetime, she lived life like a gypsy, having lived in about 30 homes.

Deni was born in Durban. Her love of cricket grew out of the many matches her father took her to. Her mother, who sang Cole Porter songs and all the old favourites, taught her to play the piano, although it was later replaced by a synthesiser. Deni also sang and wrote music.

In the 1980s, when rock bands were big, Deni and her then husband toured major towns all over southern Africa. They were the resident Duo Band at Sun City for six months.

Having retired from music to follow a career in writing, she revisited it in 2015 “during an ageing hippy mid-life crisis”, she laughed in an interview with the Bulletin, Sentinel’s sister paper (“Lekka band to play for member’s op,” Bulletin, February 19, 2015).

With her hair falling out from chemo treatment, she performed at a High Constantia fund-raiser for musician Steve Walsh who needed funds to treat cancer of the jaw.

Deni knew what it was like to be in Steve’s position. When advised to have a mastectomy privately, at a cost of about R50 000, as a freelancer, living almost alone (with her cats), no family and without medical aid, savings depleted, she turned to crowdfunding.

Derek Harrison, of Alive Cafe in Muizenberg, hosted a fund-raising auction. David Muller, of “Oom Schalk” fame, auctioned 32 pieces of art and ceramics by female artists and raised R20 000.

Meanwhile, Deni continued with Mama Taxi, her fight with cancer reflected poignantly at times in the comic strip, including one October Breast Cancer Awareness Month when Mama and Zandi had mammograms – Zandi had found a lump. Luckily it turned out to be a chocolate peanut in her bra.

It was after creating the characters, Thuli and Jo, for another proposal, which was turned down, that she had a brainwave to spread the word about cancer in a humorous way and to give hope.

It was a dream come true for Pink Drive, an NGO that promotes breast cancer awareness and provides medical assistance to women living in out-of-the way areas who have no access to social media and medical aid. Deni used her talents to launch Girl Talk with illustrator Jesse Breytenbach.

She also brought out a book, Keeping A Breast: Trying to find the funny side of cancer.

Her second career began in 2005 with Deni and Gavin introducing Mama Taxi. With its iconic pink taxi and witty characters, it soon became a nationally syndicated asset.

By her own admission, this comic stripper was obsessive compulsive, which helped her to meet publication deadlines for the daily cartoon strip. However, after a 13-year-ride that saw Mama Taxi become one of South Africa’s longest running newspaper strips, its co-creators decided to park it. A compilation of the best strips was published in an anthology in 2009 under Double Storey.

Cats were also a big part of Deni’s life. In an interview with the Bulletin many years ago, she dreamed of creating a cartoon strip about her feline family. Deni later ghost wrote a collection of autobiographies of cats who lead interesting lives.

Another love was Nick Thomas, whom she met in August 2017. “We knew that we were soulmates. When she was diagnosed with secondary cancer in 2018, we both knew that the end was inevitable, and I promised to be there until the end,” he said.

Nick said “kindness” had been Deni’s watchword.

“She was a Buddhist and that being so, spirituality and her belief in an afterlife, helped to negate any fear of dying.”

There will be no funeral for Deni – instead Nick will scatter her ashes in her favourite place and her close friends will meet for a musical celebration of her life.

On Saturday December 29, Deni wrote a post on social media: “A monk friend’s words from a while ago stay with me: you could die today. That is not meant to be morbid. Just think about it. I’ve had a huge and interesting life, and now I appear to have gathered some unbel-
ievable people around me wrapping me in angel wings of cotton wool love.”