In 1768 Germany, or what will one day become Germany, Luther Levy has been kicked out of school for his unpopular opinions on Spinoza (and reportedly flipping a table). Having returned home to find his way again, he is offered a position at a remote university on the edge of Bohemia. Accepting the position, he becomes entangled with the school, as well as with the Rector who runs it and his mysterious daughter, the university’s librarian, all while struggling with a crisis of faith, academic politics, and maybe werewolves.
Family Man is a historical webcomic written and drawn by Dylan Meconis. Like the best historical dramas, Family Man feels very specific. The historical setting is not just there for the aesthetics; it’s integral to the themes explored in the story. The characters’ inner conflicts about familial responsibly, and personal faith vs. society, reflect the cultural climate they’re set against. Personally, I’m a sucker for underused time periods. While Victorian adventure and Elizabethan romances are evergreen, it’s easy to feel oversaturated with them – but an age of enlightenment academic drama, how refreshing!
Family Man is really an academic story, not only because of its university setting and its scholarly characters. The comic spends time exploring small facets of life. Everything feels considered. Meta-textually, one of the comic’s main delights is its extensive note section. These notes are on topics that range from “what’s the actual deal with Spinoza” to two paragraphs about spats (their English name apparently comes from the word ‘spatterdash’). These footnotes currently only go up to Chapter 3, but Meconis also has an FAQ, a few podcasts answering reader questions, and a link to some of her sources. Even without clicking to the notes section, it’s clear the comic is well-researched, but seeing the behind-the-scenes work is fun and impressive.
Meconis is an accomplished comic artist, it’s clear she’s a master of pacing, storytelling, and juxtaposing images. There’s a recurring circular motif that grows as the comic continues and effectively ties the story and art together. Meconis’s lettering is also superb. She knows how to change the type and speech bubble to indicate when someone is being pedantic, melodramatic, or soft-spoken.
Some people might know her from her 2011 short story Outfoxed, which was nominated for an Eisner. Outfoxed is a good introduction to her work. She also did a long running, now complete, webcomic called Bite Me, which is a vampiric farce set during the French Revolution. Family Man is actually a sort-of-not-really prequel to Bite Me. While some characters overlap between the comics, the tone is so widely different between the two, it’s clear the comics take place in two separate worlds. Bite Me is also an overtly supernatural comic, while in Family Man the supernatural always feels just around the corner.
I mentioned that Family Man may or may not have werewolves. Coming from Bite Me, many readers are waiting for real Lon Cheney Jr. wolf men, but even without reading Meconis’s previous comic, Family Man is drenched with werewolf lore. There’s a real sense of something right under the surface that Luther, and the readers, can’t quite see. Panels will often show a flying bat or dead rat in the corner of the scene just hidden from view, giving the sense of gothic horror lurking unseen. Or maybe, there are no werewolves. Maybe there are only the people that society has decided to vilify – strong women, pagans, and heretics – that are the “werewolves” of the story. This sustained hovering sense of the paranormal is a difficult tension to maintain, but works to pull the reader in and keep them guessing.
Family Man is a slow burn comic with a rich historical setting that keeps the reader guessing. It updates, mostly regularly, on Fridays.
[Maggie Vicknair is a cartoonist and writer living in New York City with her three legged cat, where she draws and drinks too much coffee. You can read her comic Penny Dreadful here. Follow her on twitter and tumblr.]