December 05, 2019


Fowl Language: Winging It—The Art of Imperfect Parenting. By Brian Gordon. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood: Berkeley Mews Comics. By Ben Zaehringer. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Poorlier Drawn Lines. By Reza Farazmand. Plume. $15.

     Family-focused comics have been around just about since the dawn of comic strips: The Katzenjammer Kids, for example, dates back to 1897. But families being families, there is always an appetite for more of this sort of thing, and tastes in the comics change with the times. Now we are in a period of wry amusement, acceptance of four-letter words, and acknowledgment that there is not necessarily anything idyllic or amusing about everyday life and kids’ antics. Thus, although kids may not come with instruction manuals, Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language, for one, seeks to provide just that – more or less – for today’s parents. Gordon’s latest collection is a hybrid of short essays and cartoon panels, including such topics as “Sleep,” “Siblings,” “Endless Arguing,” and “Coping Mechanisms,” each introduced with a couple of pages of words and then moving into panels featuring, well, ducks. Yes, Gordon’s personal take on family life shows parents and kids alike as waterfowl. And the title Fowl Language is more than a pun, since profanity that would never have been allowed in comics in decades past is common here. But it is not the main point of Gordon’s production – just a symptom of Fowl Language being a 21st-century creation. The essays that introduce the sections will certainly have parents nodding in agreement when they are not sighing in exasperation: “One might assume that after a long night of torturing their parents, little ones might want to sleep in a bit. On the contrary, my kids will happily get up at an hour that would make a rooster blush.” “Despite their lousy diets and efforts to avoid sustenance, my kids keep growing at an almost alarming rate.” “I can usually predict when and where the arguments will happen, but I’m always nearly helpless to stop them. It’s like watching clouds roll in and trying to reason with them not to rain.” But pithy as Gordon’s observations are, they do not match the to-the-point nature of the illustrative cartoons, such as the one about tattling, in which a duckling tattles to the father duck, “He said he’s gonna tattle on me, but you said we had to stop!!!” Or the two-panel one in which “My Kids Are Invincible” (one standing in snow saying “I don’t need a jacket”) but “And Yet – So Helpless” (one sitting in a chair asking for help reaching the remote a few inches away). Or the one in which a duckling refuses to try something different to eat because it’s “the grossest, most disgusting food in the world,” and when dad points out that he has never tasted it, responds, “Why would I eat the worst food in the world?” Gordon has clearly “been there,” and still is, and has found a way to share “being there” with others who, like him, remain “there,” usually wondering just where “there” is.

     Gordon never says anything directly such as Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood, but then, his cartoons are not quite as edgy as Ben Zaehringer’s Berkeley Mews Comics, whose main purpose is to ruin childhood. Somebody’s childhood. Anybody’s childhood – at least that of anybody who gets the pervasive pop-culture references. A Sesame Street parody has the characters pitch in to get garbage-can-dwelling Oscar the Grouch a brand-new, bright and shiny home – and the next panel shows the spotless kitchen, with Oscar living in the trash can. A Harry Potter sendup has a boy offered a broom when arriving at Hogwarts, only to discover that his broom is for him to use as the mundane groundskeeper, not for flying or magic. A Transformers sequence has Robocar change from a robot to an ambulance when someone is badly injured – then, when told the victim is “not gonna make it,” changing into a hearse. A Pokémon battle shows a cowboy duel, with one calling on Charmander – and the other pulling out a gun and shooting down his opponent. And then there are strips that comment more directly on family life, such as one in which a mom starts crying when she gets a fortune cookie saying, “You will find true love.” That’s dark. And there is one in which a dying man asks his son to promise to publish his manuscript, which turns out to be a book called “My Rotten Son.” That’s dark. And there is one in which a father takes his son to the office for “Take Your Kid to Work Day,” only to be fired by the boss and his son. Some comics here are just bizarre, such as one in which two ghosts call an exterminator to get rid of the bedbugs in their haunted house, and the final panel shows them surrounded by bedbug ghosts; and one in which everybody in the office celebrates when the boss proclaims that morale is at an all-time low, because it turns out this is a management meeting in Hell. Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood may not actually ruin anyone’s childhood, or adulthood for that matter, but there’s a good chance it will cause a certain, umm, rethinking of a whole set of pop-culture references.

     The “family” in Reza Farazmand’s Poorlier Drawn Lines is an adopted interspecies one, which is to say it is a group of friends and frenemies of various types rather than a traditional family. But Farazmand’s Poorly Drawn Lines series, of which this is the third collection, shares many sensibilities with Zaehringer’s cartoons, albeit without the specific references to popular-culture tropes. The oddity here transcends relationships as well as species. One man complains to another that he is often confused, showing a photo to prove how confused he was the day before – it is a photo of someone else. “The Many Moods of Kevin” features a recurring bird character being “upbeat” about getting fries, “optimistic” about how good they will be, then “devastated” when “they’re out of fries.” A ghost complains about having died because it was “the one thing I was trying not to do.” A recurring human character named “Tanya” is so sad that “nothing can fill the void” until another character, a bear named Ernesto, asks, “Not even snacks?” – leaving Tanya to contemplate, “What kind of snacks?” Kevin and Ernesto discuss ways to kill a mouse, with Kevin first suggesting “kindness” and then “a gun,” leading Ernesto to remark, “I appreciate that you think in extremes.” At another point, Ernest asks a banged-up-looking Kevin where he has been, and Kevin explains, “To Hell and back. And then to Hell again because I forgot my phone. And then to the phone store because my screen broke.” A strip called “City Tree” simply has a city tree thinking about life: “I live in concrete. The air is cigarettes. But there are really good restaurants.” And there is a strip in which Tanya says she needs to see things to believe them but “can be, like, 50 percent convinced by a smell.” And one with Ernest watering a plant and saying, “Have some life,” then thinking, “So, this is how the gods feel.” Hmm…well, maybe not. But it is how some people feel. And maybe some birds, bears, plants, turtles, ghosts, and the other denizens of Farazmand’s oddly assorted, frequently peculiar, but curiously thoughtful sort-of-family.

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