Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Seven: Family Man

Every individual struggles with questions of identity. We all belong to multiple groups, be they ethnic, religious, or cultural. Constructing an identity out of a cross-section of groups is a complicated undertaking, and it is made much more complicated when a person belongs to two groups that exist in opposition. This type of identity crisis is one of the recurring elements in Family Man.

Note: While Family Man is a story comic and should be read in order, the story unfolds slowly, with a focus on characterization. There may be spoilers ahead, but I don’t think any information included here will harm a reader’s enjoyment.

Family Man is a period piece centered on a young theologian in Germany in the 1700s. As the son of a Jewish man and a Christian woman, Luther Levy is already at a sometimes uncomfortable intersection of identity. To further complicate matters, he pursues studies that challenge established doctrine, causing some to brand him an atheist. His choice of profession is itself a matter for mixing up identities, as he is a scholar while his father is a tradesman.

Luther’s not the only one who struggles with identity. A group of gypsies traveling through the narrative discuss their lifestyle and the possibility of electing to stay in one place. The world is changing, and some people choose to stop traveling, but there’s a definite belief that to leave that lifestyle would also be to leave that identity behind.

Identifying as a member of a group is one thing, but a personal identity goes further, and we see characters defining themselves over and over in a variety of ways. Perhaps nothing else about a person is more closely linked to identity than their name. A name can connect to one’s ancestors, or to a parent’s hopes and dreams for one’s life. Names in Family Man contain meaning for the characters, not just from a reader’s perspective, but in a way that is discussed explicitly by other characters.

Questions of identity arise frequently in Family Man, but so do questions of theology. I know very little about theology and history, but the theological discussions in this historical setting are compelling. The characters in the story all seem to amiably accept ideas contrary to their own, though there’s a clear passion behind the ideas being discussed. One can imagine the vicious debates going on elsewhere in the world, while the group of people we see are all detached enough to engage in lighthearted discussion of serious issues.

This affability indicates an acceptance, or at least a tolerance, of ideas contrary to their own, but these characters do take their beliefs and their questions seriously.

This is a university lecture, not a sermon.

Oh, and that mention of a wolf there? It’s significant. Wolves are intricately, if mysteriously, tied to the thematic heart of the story. They show up frequently, not only as symbols and metaphors, but also as actual animals in the story.

Let's see... we've covered identity, theology, wolf motifs... how about historical context? Like Lackadaisy, the other sepia-toned period piece I’ve written about, Family Man provides a constant source of new and fascinating historical knowledge. When new pages go up they will sometimes be accompanied by notes on the history involved, which I typically find enlightening. Reading these notes is not necessary to understand the story, mind, or even to gain historical insights. There are plenty of those in the comic itself. For instance, everyone knows that card catalogs are outdated now, but there was a time when they were a radical new organizational system.

I have actually never used a card catalog in my life.

And while we’re on this page, get a load of that composition! You wind up reading word balloons in right-to-left order, but it doesn’t feel jarring, because it’s laid out in such a way that it’s as intuitive as walking down stairs. Family Man is full of neat little compositional quirks like that. Every bit of space on every page goes to good use.

Fully developed, deeply intriguing characters, intense theological discussions, underlying themes and questions about identity, and lots and lots wolves. Read Family Man, and you’ll get all of these things and more.

Family Man is written and drawn by Dylan Meconis and updates on Fridays.

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