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Family Man Paperback – March 24, 2015
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Family Man Volume 1, set in the 1770s in a university town in Saxony, offers a striking cinema-like portrait of the time and place and people. There's more going on in higher learning than lectures and libraries, as we see from the very first panels of this well-drawn graphic novel. Change is afoot, both within the university itself and in the larger world outside.
The story follows Luther Levy, free-thinking son of a Christianized Jewish merchant family. Mom is a Pietist (a strict Christian sect), dad is a converted Jew. Young Luther applies for a university teaching job in Gottingen, a city and school that are still in business today. Possible romance appears in Ariana, school librarian and daughter of the rector (president) of the university. The rough world outside school and town features a graphic birth, a mysterious hunter shooting an already-wounded wolf, and a pagan-tinged ending that invites us to follow the story online, as a page is added every Friday.
The title, "Family Man", brings to mind a young man's expected life path in that era: education, career, marriage, children, family. Luther Levy is such a man, and as we enter the story he's finished his education but the rest of his life awaits him. Young Levy and his colleagues engage in clever academic banter--the author has an excellent ear for that kind of talk--but they remain untested and unchanged. Luther's only real crisis so far is that he dared to write his thesis on the Dutch heretic Spinoza, and in German instead of Latin, to make his rebellion more obvious. His superiors object; Luther refuses to recant, as did his Reformation namesake a century earlier; tempers flare, and Luther has gone home without career prospects.
We meet other men, actual fathers, who are "family" men. Luther's father, Avner, has cheerfully assimilated into Christianity, enjoys his family of five (one daughter), and collects clocks. Rector Nolte, the university president who hires Luther after a short interview, is also a family man, though his daughter, Ariana, is illegitimate, sired with a Gypsy woman and apparently raised alone. Life goes on, apparently under control.
But radical change, metamorphosis, is looming for Luther and company, and we get a clue to its effects in the presence of a book. A nervous father-to-be waiting outside the labor room puts down his copy of the Roman poet Ovid, and buries his face in his hands. The man is Nolte, and Ariana is the newborn. In a later scene, the Ovid volume is on the desk in Nolte's office at the university. Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC to 17 AD) wrote humorous love poetry, and he also wrote a mythological epic, Metamorphoses.In one of her many entertaining endnotes, the author suggests that the reader look up the story of Actaeon and Diana in Metamorphoses, then produce a book report.
This reviewer followed her instructions, and here's the book report: Actaeon is a hunter in ancient times who gets separated from his companions in a remote forest while looking for game. He happens upon the virgin goddess Diana as she prepares for a bath. He pays the price of seeing the naked goddess when she splashes enchanted water into his face. The water changes him into a stag, completely transformed except for his mind which remains human. His own pack of hunting dogs surrounds him and brings him down, avenging his sin, while the hunting party wonders where Actaeon has gone, since he's missing the fun. In fact, he's there to experience the horror first hand.
Ovid's tale expresses the fear and mystery of total change. When the rules of everyday life have altered, and those who navigate the new reality realize that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Even an ordinary human life can have this level of drama. For example, new parents will tell you that they changed completely when their children are born. A kind of innocence is lost, but the gain--bringing new life into the world--makes the sacrifice moot. An artist who has completed a masterpiece could tell the same story. The book ends with a wordless passage where Ariana slips out into the night in disguise. We recognize her as the armed hunter from the first scenes in the book, the one who dispatches the wounded, suffering wolf. Ariana strips naked in a kind of ceremony, and asks for change, from within. Is she the mythic Diana and doomed Actaeon combined? We'll wait for further installments, posted online every Friday, to find out.
A time traveler has the advantage of knowing how the story comes out. Today's reader knows that the 19th and 20th centuries brought beneficial progress for the entire world, built on the spirit of discovery embodied in modern science. The world received a kind of new life thanks to a kind of rebellion embodied by Luther and Spinoza, among others. But such progress has come at a high cost in human life and well-being, and the end of the story is still uncertain.
This novel is generous in its artwork; one gets the impression that some of the images must have taken days to get right. The author also fills the drawings with carefully-researched period detail, including clothing, architecture, figures of speech, everyday artifacts. The extensive and genial notes at the back are a special gift to the reader. This reviewer looks forward to following the story, and perhaps writing more book reports.
Addendum: Some Catholic observations
This is a religious novel. The author explores Christian thought with touches of its pagan heritage, especially Greek philosophy and Roman literature. The book ends with a call for change from within, something to fill the empty soul. The myth from Ovid central to the novel demonstrates how someone can change completely on the outside but stay the same within. What the Church, following Aristotle, calls substantial change.
Such change leaves things looking the same but completely transformed, as in the Eucharist, but also in the sanctified soul. The Apostles on Pentecost appeared to be the same, but they were transformed from confused fishermen into proclaimers of the Word and eventual martyrs. The danger our modern world faces is that we have changed things externally for the better but have neglected the inner change that truly transforms the person into God. As the Gospel says, that kind of change can only come from prayer and fasting, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can truly fill us with grace.
If this reviewer were still teaching Church History, as he did at a Catholic high school for several years,Family Man 1 would be central to any discussion of the church in the modern world. Graphic novels are popular with high school students, and one like this which frames the philosophical questions of our time in such an engaging way would lead to some very interesting give and take. And many informed minds.