Since it’s close to Father’s Day, today’s Comics as Literature post will focus on relationships between fathers and kids — though I hasten to point out that I hope your family dynamics are better than most of the ones presented here. What I’ve found is that a lot of comics that depict family life present some sort of dysfunction. This is not all that surprising, actually: it’s also what you tend to find in a lot of literary fiction. What’s that quote from Tolstoy? “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I suppose it’s much harder to write a gripping tale of contentment and satisfaction.
The other reason, perhaps, is that comics is another medium which artists can use to work out issues from their own life, whether it’s autobiographical like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or fictionalized like Will Eisner’s A Contract With God. Here, then, are several tales about fathers, good and bad.
Daytripper — Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
I’ll start with Daytripper, which is perhaps a little less dysfunctional, because if you read only one comic from my list, you should read this one. When I reviewed this last year, I explained that this is exactly the sort of comic book I wanted to see when I ranted about serious comics. The illustrations are beautiful, the writing is beautiful, and I love the concept that drives the story.
Brás de Oliva Domingos is an obituary writer who dreams of being a novelist — like his world-famous father. So much of his life is lived in the long shadow of his father, and while their relationship isn’t as strained or broken as in some of rest of the books in this list, it’s not perfect, either. There is an interesting motif at work here which I won’t spoil here (you can check page two of my review if you really want to know). Just writing about it makes me want to go read it again.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — Chris Ware
Chris Ware’s comics are intricately drawn, sometimes with nearly incomprehensible page layouts. Pages are filled with miniscule text, ranging from ads for fake products (or real, such as the one promoting “Misery”) to personal anecdotes. It’s very hard to explain his comics: they’re somewhat amusing but also imbued with a sense of overwhelming tragedy. From the autobiographical bits he inserts in the comics, you find that Mr. Ware is (or was at the time) a sad self-pitying figure. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth revolves around divorce and a dad he never really knew. Fun topics for comics, to be sure.
The story jumps back and forth between Chicago in the 1890s (portions of the story take place at the World’s Fair) and Michigan in the 1980s. The title is tongue-in-cheek: we see Jimmy Corrigan not as an Encyclopedia Brown sort of kid, but as a socially awkward adult, meeting his father for the first time. Jimmy has an active imagination, though, picturing himself as a boy genius, but you get the sense that he’s simply making it up in his head.
After reading Ware’s books, you come away with a sense of awe at the precision of his artwork (not to mention the sheer volume of it), but also a sort of depression, the sort you feel after waking up from a bad dream you don’t remember. Even so, I love looking at Ware’s artwork, and he does have some stories that aren’t quite as moody. Jimmy Corrigan is not particularly pleasant yet extremely fascinating. Read this, and then vow to be a better parent than those depicted in the book.
Mother, Come Home — Paul Hornschemeier
I’d never heard of Paul Hornschemeier before finding Mother, Come Home at the library in 2005, and it was a deeply affecting book. It has the flavor of Chris Ware, both in style and substance: muted colors, repeated images, tiny simple frames interspersed with larger ones, and a way of twisting time around upon itself that isn’t quite foreshadowing. That, and it’s beautiful to look at while being fairly depressing.
Hornschemeier’s style is a little less precise and technical than Ware’s, which sometimes looks computer-drawn, and he switches between a more detailed (not realistic, but stylized realism) style and a simple abstracted style for more fantastic and imagined scenes. There are also some scenes with a more caricatured look: the father, depicted with an oversized head and cartoony body, floats around over a dark sea. The story is about a boy who has lost his mother, and his increasingly distant father. The story is narrated by the boy, though the narration indicates that he is now grown, looking back on things that he didn’t fully understand at the time.
It’s hard to know when to recommend a book like this: it’s beautifully made, well-written and well-drawn, and is an excellent example of comics for grown-ups. But it’s such a painful story: when do you read something like this, and how do you respond? Check it out, but consider yourself warned. I read it again just recently, and it’s just as moving now as it was a few years ago.
Also by Hornschemeier: The Three Paradoxes, which is another story that jumps around in time and uses different styles. The realistic style shows Paul as an adult, working on a comic strip about “Paul and the Magic Pencil,” which is made to look like an unfinished sketch. He is visiting his dad at his hometown, taking photos of it for his girlfriend — and then the scenes shift, into yet another style, showing him as a kid at those same locations. What seems like a several disconnected vignettes tie together into one cohesive whole.
My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill — written by Jean Regnaud, illustrated by Émile Bravo
My Mommy, translated from the French, is an autobiographical story about Jean, a little boy who hasn’t been told that his mother is dead. The book is about the time when he really started wondering about his mother — where she was and why she was on such a long trip (which is what his father had told him). Eventually, he discovers the truth. The book doesn’t really get into why his father chose to hide this from him, but there are some interesting dynamics in the family: his father is a “boss” and works a lot, and Jean and his brother are cared for by a nanny.
I reviewed the book back in 2010. It’s a short one with lovely illustrations. Regnaud has a way of capturing a child’s perspective on the world, and while the premise seems tragic there is still a bit of comedy in the tale, much like real life.
Animal Man — written Jeff Lemire, illustrated by Travel Foreman
GeekDad Z. shares: Born in the pages of Strange Adventures, the very same DC Comics anthology that gave us Deadman, Buddy “Animal Man” Baker was accidentally imbued by extraterrestrials with the power to borrow the strengths and abilities of nearby animals. Throughout his nearly 50 year existence he’s been a costumed hero, a Hollywood stuntman, a passionate animal rights activist, a supernatural totem and, more often than not, a forgotten second-stringer whose success relied heavily on a steady trickle of talented, passionate writers. But perhaps the most unique aspect of the Animal Man character, despite a series of unlikely deaths and unlikelier resurrections, is his uniquely relatable relationship with his wife and children.
In his most recent reboot – possibly the single best offering of DC’s New 52 – Animal Man allegorically approaches the challenges of fatherhood in a manner most befitting this action/horror hybrid. When it’s revealed that it is Buddy’s young daughter Maxine, and not Animal Man himself, that’s the true avatar of the elemental force of natural life known as the Red, he goes to the greatest of lengths to defend his family from the corrupting forces of the opposing Rot. That makes his recent spectacular failure as protector and nurturer even more heartbreaking. This continuing tale of the super heroic family dynamic is available monthly from DC, and the first six issues were just released in an affordable graphic novel format. Raymond Masters recently ran an excerpt from Animal Man #8 in this storyline.
The Arrival — Shaun Tan
Okay, let’s end with a good father figure. I mentioned The Arrival a few years ago in a post titled 7 Comics Off the Beaten Path — it’s a tricky one to classify, really, but I think it qualifies as “sequential art.” Shaun Tan is known more as a picture book illustrator than a comics artist, but with The Arrival he blurs the lines a bit. It’s a large hardcover and looks like a picture book (and that’s where you may find it at the bookstore) but the illustrations are arranged in panels and do tell a chronological story.
And the images do tell the story here, because there are no words. A father packs for a journey, saying goodbye to his wife and young daughter, and travels to a faraway land by train, ship, and then by a weird flying balloon. The world he comes to is foreign and alien: he cannot read the signs, he doesn’t understand the language, he can’t be sure how anything works. But he meets other immigrants who tell him their own stories, and help him find his way in this new land. And then, eventually, his family arrives as well and there is a joyful reunion.
What makes The Arrival so perfect is the way that Tan uses surrealism to show how bizarre a new country can be. The food, the animals, the transportation, the trees — nothing is familiar, and Tan exaggerates this by making things that would be foreign to all of us, putting us in the shoes of the protagonist.
Although only a small portion of the book is actually about the man’s relationship with his family, that portion is emotionally intense. Tan is able to convey, with a detail here and an expression there, how this man loves his family so much that he would go off into the unknown to make a better life for them. In the end, that’s a sentiment I think many of us, as parents, can appreciate.
If you pay attention, you’ll find that there are some interesting family dynamics in a lot of comics. I realized a few years ago that I was turning into Calvin’s dad. In fact, perhaps some of the best portrayals of dads might be found in the funny pages, where families abound, although you’ll want to avoid some of the more treacly stuff. Doug TenNapel’s comics — like Bad Island and Creature Tech — often deal with irresponsible men coming to terms with their responsibilities, and The Return of King Doug is an amusing fantasy story flipped on its head which also involves a dad who won’t grow up. Not all of them, of course, are ones I’d consider serious literature — some are a little cliched, some aren’t drawn as well, some have clunky dialogue. But this list should get you started, and perhaps let you look at fathers and mothers in comics a little more closely in the future.