Review: The Fun Family by Benjamin Frisch

 Remixing the dusty, rattling corpses of newspaper comics has
become something of a recent trend in indie publishing; Garfield Minus Garfield, the internet darling, is likely a progenitor
of the latest wave of these comics that poke around with the classic modern
newspaper funnies. These comics mine (and undermine) comics like Garfield, Cathy, and Dilbert. They
get something of the best of both worlds, having premade characters that have a
wider cultural identity and a built-in emotional resonance (via unearned
nostalgia), without all the trappings of the original comic’s heritage and
creative apoplexy. The Fun Family, an
upcoming release from Top Shelf, attempts to do all these things using Bill
Keane’s The Family Circus, but its
success is somewhat mixed.

The Fun Family features
cartoonist Robert Fun and his family of six living in idyllic suburban nowhere,
with stay at home mom Marsha, and their four children Mikey, Molly, Robby, and
baby J.T. At the advent of the death of Robert’s mother, Virginia, the
apparently rock solid family starts to crumble. Meanwhile Robby, the narrative’s
straight man and audience stand-in, finds out that Mom and Dad aren’t as
straight-laced as they seem. Without spoiling too much, everything goes
haywire, and Robby has to take the care of his whole family into his own hands.

It seems appropriate that a comic about a beautiful and
carefree suburban life should be the basis for a story that harpoons the idea
of the “perfect family.” Frisch is intent on showing the reader, via the Fun
Family proxy, that the myth of perfection and suburban bliss is a farce. Robert’s
porcelain doll collection, Marsha falling for multiple family counselors, the
kids having to take care of the adults, it’s all very made-for-TV Mrs. Doubtfire-sequel level weird. But
the weirdness of The Fun Family never
gets too far from baseline “normal America.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see this level of weird on a reality TV show.

Perhaps the most interesting point of view in Frisch’s debut graphic novel is
an exchange between new-cartoonist Robby and his deadbeat bathrobe wearing
father. “Here’s the secret to cartooning, Robby…” says Robert in a
conspiratorial whisper, “…it’s all schlock.” As all the Funs (minus Robby, who
takes over his father’s strip) drift away from the idyll cartoonist image and
into madness, Frisch shows us that the daily comic strip cartoonist’s work is
less and less valuable as time goes on.

Frisch also seems to want to take some potshots at various
social constructs, like organized religion and seed faith, but none of it
really sticks. There’s some neat meta-commentary in The Fun Family that pokes at Family
Circus
(Jeff Keane, current writer of the “strip,” is the creator’s son).
That commentary, coupled with the main character’s struggle, creates a
narrative within a narrative about the current value and creative bankruptcy of
modern newspaper comics.

The Fun Family is
a 240 page full color graphic novel, and the style is, as you might expect,
reminiscent of the Keane family of drawing. All of the characters are heavily
cartooned with beady jellybean eyes. As fights and hallucinations ensue, Frisch’s
bright colors and heavy-handed pacing keep the train mostly on track. The art
is fine; it’s workman-like stuff. Something you might see in a newspaper.

As a social commentary, The
Fun Family
isn’t weird enough or brutal enough to make any lasting impact.
As a meta-commentary on the death of the newspaper comic, it’s a more
interesting read. Sadly, Frisch spends too much time on the former and not
enough time on the later, and while the narrative doesn’t fly off the handle,
it’s not interesting enough or frustrating enough to be memorable.

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