You would be forgiven if you thought of French author, artist and animator Anouk Ricard primarily as someone who makes comics for kids. Before the North American release this month of Benson's Cuckoos, from Drawn and Quarterly, her only other books to make it into English on this side of the Atlantic were a pair of collections of her charming children's strip, Anna & Froga (2013's I Don't Know, What Do You Want to Do? and this year's Thrills, Spills and Gooseberries).
And while Benson's Cuckoos does look at first glance (and even after a fairly thorough flip-through) like a kids comic, given the adorable, big-headed, Richard Scarry-esque characters, it's decidedly adult in nature. That the characters are all cute little anthropomorphic animals accentuates the humor of the many awkward moments of their social interactions, and diffuses the darker aspects of the story, keeping them from being read as anything other than comedy.
Originally released in 2011 as Coucous Bouzon (and earning a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Angouleme International Comics Festival), the book seems to owe a significant debt to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office, and/or its U.S. adaptation. If, in fact, Ricard has never seen the show, which is certainly quite possible, then the boss at the office in which her book is set is quite coincidentally remarkably like Gervais' David Brent and Steve Carell's Michael Scott.
Benson, a particularly fluffy white poodle who owns and operates the cuckoo clock company from which the book takes its title, shares with The Office bosses an inherent belief in his own hipness, completely convinced that, unlike other bosses, he's cool and sympathetic. He tells a lot of jokes, feels closer to his employees than they feel to him, wears funny hats, tries new and creative and dumb ideas, and generally makes everyone uncomfortable.
Unlike Brent or Scott, he also seems to be pretty insane, harboring a weird, dark streak and capricious, heartless nature, regularly firing members of the staff — or the entire staff — before running out of the room crying, and then acting like nothing happened.
We first meet Benson along with protagonist Richard, a blue duck, during bizarre, perfunctory interview in which he's hired immediately, provided he can bring his own computer to work. Richard accepts, but soon finds something amiss at Benson's Cuckoos, as George, the employee he was hired to replace, seems to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He didn't just suddenly resign, either: His family appears on Lost and Found, a sensationalist tabloid crime show with a vaguely Unsolved Mysteries-like premise devoted to missing-persons cases.
When Lost and Found comes to Benson's, the boss greets the crew dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, and blithely tells them how much he hated George, "I hate him! He betrayed me! I want to strangle him, like this! GNN. If he were here right now, I'd crush him!"
Richard quickly finds himself embroiled in the mystery, under suspicion from his co-workers, and suspicious of them all, although he gradually initiates a workplace romance with the pretty receptionist (and dog) Sophie. The conspiracy gradually unravels after a climactic morale-building retreat, with some of the weird, random events throughout the book making retroactive sense by its resolution, almost begging for an immediate rereading.
You could say Benson's Cuckoos is like The Office meets Animal Crossing with a infusion of David Lynch-like dramatic weirdness. You could say it's like Coen Brothers crime film, embedded within an episode of The Office, and drawn in a simplified Richard Scarry-for-grown-ups style. You could say either of those things, and probably plenty of other things to, in an attempt to describe Benson's Cuckoos, and while that might get you in the general vicinity of the book, the truth is there's nothing quite like Ricard's Benson's Cuckoos...not even other books by Ricard.