Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #247: The Fun Family by Benjamin Frisch

This book looks very much like it's going to be a parody of The Family Circus. There's a male cartoonist, his beautiful and pearl-wearing wife, their four chibi children, and the round single-panel that encompasses all of them.

But creator Benjamin Frisch apparently wasn't interested in a re-run of the Dysfunctional Family Circus, and so The Fun Family is a more free-floating parody -- maybe of self-actualization and the search for meaning in life, maybe of just life itself.

Robert Fun's family mimics the Family Circus closely: wife Marsha, sons Mikey and Robby, daughter Molly, baby J.T. Robby even takes over the comic strip, as metafictionally the Keane kids have the Family Circus and in real life Jeff Keane has actually done. [1] It even begins with a famous Family Circus trope: Robert Fun's mother, "Grandma Virginia Fun," has just died, and almost immediately appears as an angel.

But there's no grandpa alongside her, and this dead grandma is a lot more demanding and specifically religious than in Family Circus. In fact, everyone here is spikier and quirkier than in the soft-focus Family Circus. Dad has a strange collection that he's obsessive about, Mom abandons her husband and falls under the spell of a succession of gurus as she tries to find happiness, and both of them seem to ignore the fact that these kids seem to be no older than six or seven, leaving them to fend for themselves most of the time.

(But this is not a particularly realistic world to begin with: Frisch lampshades the children's ages by pointedly noting that they do not age over the year or so that this graphic novel covers.)

Things spiral out of control after Grandma's death, in several directions. I've mentioned the two parents' obsessions, but the kids are nearly as crazy, building religious monuments or burying themselves in comics-making. The kids just want their parents back together, but instead they all just go further apart.

Eventually, there's a break, and a confrontation. But it doesn't go the expected way. Fun Family has a "happy" ending -- everyone has things they want, everyone is successful, and so on -- but it's not at all the happy ending we expected, or the ending we would get from Family Circus. (Where, of course, nothing ever changes to begin with -- nothing like this story could ever happen there.)

I'm not entirely sure if Frisch had a point in Fun Family: it feels like it's trying to say something about family and work and happiness and self-understanding, but he's throwing blows in all directions, which obscures anything positive he might be trying to say. Maybe there is nothing positive; maybe this is exactly what Frisch meant: happiness is based on delusions and monomania, so find the things that can make you ignore the outside world (which will only give you grief).

Fun Family looks a lot like the book I thought it would be -- cute, rounded, with a great eye for classic cartooning and lots of dot eyes. But it reads like something darker and more savage, underneath all of the happy talk. It implies a deeply nihilistic view of life, for its its gospel of wealth and angelic dead grandmas. Perhaps it's best Bil Keane was safely dead before Frisch took up his pen.

[1] I can't imagine what it's like to have your career be drawing cartoons about your own fictionalized fifty-years-ago childhood, following in the footsteps of your dead father. But "Jeffy" lives that.

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