In J. Robert Lennon's fine, wistfully funny second novel, The Funnies
, the comics turn out to be very serious business indeed. New Jersey cartoonist Carl Mix was an alcoholic tyrant who used his "Family Funnies" comic strip to transform his real family into a set of puckish, dimwitted cartoons. The only thing worse--he left one of his children out of the strip entirely. "Maybe Dad conceived of it as a way to control us," his slacker son Tim muses, as he receives news of his father's death. "In the unbreachable box of the comic strip, we could be charming and obedient, and we would stay that way, year after year." Carl's will has left nothing to Tim, a talent-free installation artist, except the "Family Funnies" themselves. If he can draw the strip in three months, then all rights and proceeds are his; if he can't, he gets nothing at all. Tim studies his father's craft, and he learns not only about cartooning but also about his father, families, even the small, redemptive miracle of work itself.
There are many fine touches in Lennon's tale: the sad, chain-smoking brother Pierce, who takes pills to get rid of the "extra people"; their town's annual FunnyFest, in which visitors can buy Timburgers and Coca-Cola à la Carl; Brad Wurster, the grim-faced artist who teaches Tim how to draw ("'Family Funnies' sounded, on his tongue, like a fraternal order of concentration camp doctors"). But in the end, it's the funnies themselves that stay with you. As Tim works obsessively on the strip, its stylized visual language and bland gags eventually become an object of genuine, capital-M Mystery--weirdly compelling and symbolically fraught. In its own, stubbornly shallow way, the strip is a document of their family, or at least of their father's self-loathing. "Cartoon characters are deformed freaks we are convinced are like us," Wurster tells his reluctant pupil, but in Lennon's hands, it's the American family that looks more freakish than ever. You'll never look at the Sunday comics in quite the same way again. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
A dysfunctional family that has been idealized in a comic strip finds harmony upon the death of its creator in the second novel by the winner of Barnes and Noble's 1997 Discover Great New Writers Award (The Light of Falling Stars). This touching, acutely drawn portrait of family angst is seen against the interestingly detailed background of the funnies industry. Carl Mix's Family Funnies transformed him from "rotten father," according to his son Tim, into the "preeminent architect of Good Clean Fun," and made him and his family?who resent being characters in the strip?rich. With his death, the job of carrying on the syndicated strip falls to failing artist Tim, if he can learn, in three months' time, to draw it to the satisfaction of the Burns Syndicate. Tim soon stops resisting the task, abandoning both pretensions to art and his girlfriend, Amanda, and moving back to the family home, which has been left to Tim's brother Pierce, the only family member not to appear in the strip. Pierce's major problem is paranoia, which keeps him, at the age of 28, locked in his bedroom. Tim's deeper insight into his father's cartooning genius is paralleled by his profound understanding of his family. Tim vacillates between growing confidence in his skill, as he is tutored in the finer points of drawing and gags by his Dad's former collaborator, and worrying that the syndicate will replace him with another cartoonist. Easily grafting elements of the family novel onto the subtext of the funnies culture, he incorporates elements of the comic-book business, from the names for the little marks that indicate movement (e.g., hites and agritrons), to the rivalries among cartoonists. Though some plot twists are predictable (early on, the reader suspects that Amanda's place in Tim's heart will be filled by his new editor, Susan), Lennon has his finger on the pulse of domestic behavior. One family's emotional sprawl, with all its maddening idiosyncrasies and emotional baggage, becomes somehow more real as it is filtered through Tim's apprenticeship in cartooning. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.