Historical fiction about an eighteenth-century German theologian? Sign me up!
Family Man could be a good read for everyone because of the themes contained within, but I recognize that it won’t be. It’s the story of Luther Levy, a young German student in 1768 who goes to work at a university where everyone is a bit non-conformist and strange things are happening. As it is volume 1, it doesn’t end in a conventional way, but that’s really the only criticism one might have of this comic.
Plus, you can follow the adventures of Luther on-line, so there’s that. However, we Luddites who like our comics in solid book form have to wait for a second volume. Damn it!
Family Man is the latest endeavor by Dylan Meconis, about whom I wrote yesterday. After the zaniness of Bite Me!, her vampire farce, it’s impressive to see her tackle a fairly complex topic like the Enlightenment in the Holy Roman Empire, in a town on the borderlands between German-speaking people and Czech-speaking people, with some Romani thrown in. So we have a bit of the supernatural (sure to be more important in later volumes), religious debate, university politics, and the fact that Luther’s father is Jewish while his mother is Christian. Nothing complicated about that!
The story begins with Luther living at home after somehow screwing up his dissertation defense at the University of Göttigen. His twin brother, Johann, has returned after spending some time on the road (he’s a traveling salesman), and this allows them to discuss family business and give us some backstory. One day Luther goes a bookstore, where he meets Lucien de Saint-Yves, a wandering scholar. He’s actually heard of Luther, and he convinces him to come back with him to the university in a town called Familienwald, which is in the area of Bohemia and Moravia (Luther lives in Saxony, which is in slightly west-central Germany). As Luther’s only option is tutoring snotty rich kids, he gladly takes Lucien up on his offer. When they arrive in Familienwald, Luther meets the librarian, Ariana, who happens to be the Rector’s daughter (the Rector is similar to the university president).
He also meets Rector Nolte, who asks him about his unusual position in society (his mother is a Pietist, but Luther is somewhat of an atheist/agnostic) and what happened during his dissertation defense. Luther wrote his dissertation on Spinoza, who was a bit of an atheist in his own right, and concluded that Spinoza was right. Luther’s committee cared only what religion he professed, as he came from a mixed marriage, and when he said he was neither a Jew nor a Christian, they simply told him he was ineligible for a doctorate. Luckily for him, Nolte runs a rather unconventional university, as Luther discovers when several of his fellow lecturers turn out to be Jews, so Nolte gives him a job. Meanwhile, something strange is going on with Ariana, as she rides out into the forest and performs some sort of ritual, an event that ends the volume. It’s all very mysterious!
Now, I’m sure that the synopsis put some of you to sleep, and that’s too bad. Meconis is a very confident storyteller, keeping the pace deliberate (an unkind reviewer would call it “slow”) and making sure she lays everything out clearly for us. She is treading on ground that is unfamiliar to many of us (even for a history-lover like me, 18-century Germany is a bit murky once we get past Frederick the Great), so she needs to establish this world very carefully, and she does it very well. While the book deals with some academic minutiae such as what mold does to books, it’s also about universal themes. Luther is isolated from society because of his parentage – Jewish descent is matrilineal, so he isn’t “automatically” Jewish, but the Christian majority holds his Jewishness against him.
He’s also isolated because of his free-thinking – despite the fact that this book takes place during the Enlightenment, established Christian thinking was still entrenched across Europe, which makes Nolte’s little corner of tolerance a giant breath of fresh air for Luther. Meconis also hints at an attraction between Luther and Ariana, which is complicated by the fact that Lucien tells Luther that men who attempt to woo her often find themselves out of a job, plus there’s the issue with Ariana’s strange nocturnal journey at the end of the comic. This is deep, layered comic, as Meconis brings in sibling rivalry and the problems of trying to pass on a good life to children during this time period; discrimination of all sorts (against Jews, against atheists, against Gypsies); and how a person is forced to grow up and enter the world. That she adds all sorts of allusions to philosophical and theological arguments affecting the outside world (and goes over them in copious endnotes) is just gravy, really. You don’t need to know anything about the Formula of Concord to enjoy this comic.
As this is volume 1, plenty is left unexamined, and I imagine it’s the reason for the only confusing part of the book. The ending, with Ariana in the forest, is a bit confusing, but as it comes at the end, we can reasonably assume Meconis will get to it in future volumes. I hope she explains a bit more about what happens in the middle of the comic, where it appears we get a flashback to Ariana’s youth and something strange that happened to her with (I’m guessing) her mother. We shall see.
The mystery is tantalizing, so I’m not that put out by it, but it’s frustrating knowing that it might take awhile before a second volume comes out (again, yes, I know I could read it on-line, but I’m just not that guy).
Meconis’s art is impressive, as well. In her older work, Bite Me!, she kept things relatively simple and slightly cartoonish, relying on angular lines and heavy inks to give her work a distinctive style. In Family Man, she softens her lines considerably and tones down the cartoonishness of the work, and the result is a beautiful-looking comic, full of careful details about the time period and a strong sense of place. Meconis gets clothing and hair styles and architecture right, and she does a marvelous job creating the town of Familienwald and the university within it. In many historical comics, the lack of electricity doesn’t seem to affect things too much, perhaps because many of them are in color. Meconis gives the nighttime a spooky kind of vibe, not really threatening, just darker than we expect from living in an electric world. When Luther attends a party and meets other faculty members, we do get the sense that the room is darker, cozier, but also a bit more dangerous than if it was lit by electricity. This isn’t a horror comic (at least, not yet, although with the ending, who knows where it’s going?), but Meconis does a very good job making Luther’s surroundings a bit more threatening than we’d expect. It’s the way we imagine the world would be without electricity, and it makes the book more somber while adding to the sense of impending dread. As an artist, Meconis has made great strides, even more than she’s made as a writer.
I understand if a comic about a young lecturer in Religion during the Enlightenment isn’t your thing, but I would argue that while the external trappings are a bit obscure, Family Man deals with themes that remain timeless, so it’s very easy to relate to Luther and his problems. Even if you don’t find religious trivia fascinating, it does appear that Meconis is going to some dark and dangerous places, so while this volume might feel “slow,” it also does a very good job of building tension. The writing is low-key but effective at piercing the veil of societal norms, and the art is stellar.
I cannot wait to read the next volume of this work, and I hope Meconis gets noticed by actual publishers so she wouldn’t have to put this out on her own. As with Erika Moen (with whom she works at Periscope Studios in Portland), I am looking forward to seeing Meconis get better and better. If you really don’t want to dive into this, I encourage you to check it out on-line. Maybe that will convince you!
Tomorrow: Well, nothing. I’ve run out of lead time for these reviews (I like to have at least ten done before I post the first one so I don’t feel like I’m constantly trying to keep up), so I need a break (I’m writing this on Sunday, but I still need to scan a bunch of stuff from the previous few reviews and by the time I get done with that, I’ll still need to read some more things and then there’s the weekly stuff, so I won’t be able to get much done by Friday). I have a few things to do in October (top secret things!), so I’ll probably start with these again soon. I’m done with the San Diego stuff, so when I return, it might be with less obscure comics! Yay! Of course, the first few are self-published ones I got in the mail, so yay! More obscure comics!!!!!