Yes, Stephen Colbert is quoted on the cover of this book. But don’t let that stop you from getting it!*
Stuffed! is the new graphic novel by Glenn Eichler (a writer on The Colbert Report, hence the pull quote) and Nick Bertozzi (which is, if you must know, why I bought it, because I like Bertozzi’s art a lot). It’s published by First Second Books and will set you back $17.99. And yes, the exclamation point is very necessary!
Stuffed! is an interesting comic, in that it reads like a high-end situation comedy without a laugh track, you know, like Arrested Development. Or maybe it’s like a “dramedy,” something along the lines of Ron Howard’s Parenthood (I’m sure there are better examples, but that just leapt into my head). It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, although there are plenty of humorous situations, and those humorous situations stem not from joke-telling, but from the twists and turns of the main story, which is a bit surreal but which Eichler uses to illuminate the several themes he wants to deal with in this comic. Is that clear enough for you?
The main plot is simple: Tim Johnston, a benefits manager at a big health insurance company, gets a call that his father is dying.
He is largely estranged from his dad, so he didn’t even know he was sick. After his father dies, Tim finds out that all his father’s stuff (what little there is) has been divided equally between Tim and his half-brother, Oliver, and that the only thing of any value is his father’s odd “museum,” a basement in Paterson, New Jersey where he kept a bunch of curiosities. Tim goes to the museum and finds a life-sized statue of an African native that his father acquired at some point. Tim decides to donate the statue to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but they won’t take it because it turns out … it’s a real human being that was stuffed. They decide to try to track down where he came from and give him back for a proper burial. Then Oliver shows up. He’s a burned-out hippie who tells them his name now is “Free,” and he wants to keep the native to honor his father. Hilarity ensues as everyone tries to decide what to do with the stuffed guy.
Eichler does a nice job with the situation, never making it slapstick and making sure that his characters understand how ridiculous it all is even as he also makes sure that the reader never thinks it’s ridiculous. That’s a tough trick – the idea of a stuffed human being is goofy, but Eichler turns this into a rather interesting exploration of family ties, generational gaps, racism, and even the frustration of modern living. It’s fairly impressive that he manages to do all this without coming off as preachy and allowing all points of view to be considered. Stuffed! isn’t “realistic” in the sense that characters often say things that it’s very hard believing they would say in real life (Tim’s brother, for instance, tells a horribly racist joke that you’ve all heard – it’s about a black man in the back of a trash truck – and even though Free is a bit wacky, I can’t believe he’d be as stupid as to tell that joke, so Eichler is simply using the scene to make a point), but Eichler does allow his characters to say things that need to be said so that everyone can move on with their lives.
The biggest themes in the book at Tim and Free coming to terms with their father, who nobody, apparently, liked, and the doctor at the museum, Howard Bright, coming to terms with his race and his own self-esteem problems.
Tim is a good father, and he’s also the responsible one in the family – he deals with his father’s death while Free is off stealing credit cards and smoking dope. But he felt distant from his father, and even though Free later admits that their dad was a bastard, he and Tim try to find the good in him, and Eichler does a nice job not pushing this too much, simply allowing Tim’s anxiety about the native and his desire to “do the right thing” lead him to where he needs to go. The racial component of the book is handled a bit less subtly, but that’s probably because Tim has in his possession a dead, stuffed African, which makes the question of race a bit more front-and-center. Howard wants to return the native to Africa, but he doesn’t know to what tribe he belonged, and when they narrow it down to Kikuyu or Maasai, it turns out that Tanzania and Kenya aren’t really happy with each other, and neither wants to take it. Meanwhile, Howard’s wife, Talyah, points out that he himself isn’t comfortable with his race, from the fact that he changed his name (I won’t give away what it used to be, because it’s funny, but Howard claims it was for different reasons than it sounded “too black,” and he has a point) to his inability to communicate with his son, who has gone from a straight-A student to being more “gangsta” than his dad would like. She also subtly implies he’s an “Uncle Tom,” working for the museum as a token black man who doesn’t really have the respect of his peers. Eichler even manages to bring in gender politics to the story, as the wives talk about Howard’s insistence on calling the native “Warrior” instead of “Savage,” which is what Tim’s dad called it – Talyah wonders why Howard, a man, is so insistent that he’s a warrior, as if war is something to admire. There’s a ton of little stuff in the book that adds to the themes, from the racial identity of the doctor who narrows down the tribes to which the native belongs to the overly-sensitive funeral director. It makes the book funnier, but it also adds nice layers to what Eichler is trying to say.
Bertozzi is wonderful, as usual. He’s adept at the “realistic” stuff, doing a fine job with facial expressions to show the gamut of emotions the characters go through as they navigate these dangerous waters, but he also is completely comfortable with going a bit more “cartoonish,” especially when he shows Tim’s daughter reacting, humorously, to the native whenever he shows up in a different part of their house.
He also does a fine job with the “fantasy” sections of the book, as when Tim imagines the native coming to life and making him even more miserable (and revealing yet another layer of racism, as the native talks about having sex with Tim’s wife) or when Free recounts how he got the scar on his head (again, I won’t reveal how he got it, but you might be able to figure it out). Bertozzi is very good at drawing “regular” people, and he does so again here.
Eichler and Bertozzi have created a very interesting comic that has much more on its mind than you might expect from the premise of a man trying to figure out what to do with a stuffed and embalmed African that his dad left him. It’s impressive that Eichler was able to touch on so many different subjects without coming off as pedantic and with keeping the humor in the book. It’s a nice book that earns its touching and hopeful moments. Eichler doesn’t try to solve all these characters’ problems, but he does allow them to grow a bit, and by doing so, he makes us appreciate the effort. First Second has a history of publishing quality comics, and this one stands well with the ones that have come before it.
Tomorrow: A Dust Bowl fantasy? How will that work?
* I kid. I like Colbert quite a bit.