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Review: Family Man, by Dylan Meconis

I’ve never bought into the notion that “the eyes are the window to the soul.”  Sure, they play a role in reading a person’s mood or opinion, but if one were to ask me what facial feature is most revealing, I’d say the mouth, no question.  There’s a treasure of information to be read in the tension of a person’s lips, the crook of a smile, the skewing of a jaw.  By comparison, I just don’t think eyes have that much to say.

Dylan Meconis is working hard to change my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my pre-ordered copy of Meconis’ first print collection of her webcomic, Family Man.  A kinda/sorta/not really prequel to her vampire farce Bite Me, Family Man is a much more restrained story, of loftier ambitions and headier dialogue.  Rather than smartly goofy comedy, she’s now delivering a complex tale of the politics of theological scholarship, the politics of religious/familial duty (not necessarily separable issues), and werewolves, set in Bavaria in 1768.  This is not to say that Family Man is a humorless affair—far from it!—but that the humor here is much drier, and much more rooted in the culture of the time.

The werewolves, I should mention, have played a relatively small role in the story thus far, a point Meconis is tired of hearing, if the withering look she gave me when last I teased her about it (over a year ago—and still few signs of werewolves!) is any sign.  And that’s okay—the hints of werewolfdom we’ve seen thus far have been tantalizing, and the overall tenor of the story makes clear that when we do finally dive into that aspect of the plot, we’re going to see something much more thoughtful and interesting than your typical horror thrills.  Until then I’m more than happy to listen to young Luther Levy debate the merits of Spinoza while lamenting the tribulations of being ethnically Jewish, culturally Christian, and philosophically atheist, in a country and time that has little tolerance for two of the three.

In printing, I find that smaller trim size (though not necessarily quite so small as a manga digest) tends to give a book a greater air of seriousness.  Given the sobriety of her story, I expected that Meconis would make use of this, to create a prim volume that might evoke the academic texts referenced throughout its pages.  I was surprised then, when what arrived on my doorstep was a book with a generous 8.5” x 11” trim.  To be honest, I was a disappointed at first—but my disappointment was short-lived.  What I failed to anticipate was just how much Meconis’ art would benefit from the freedom to sprawl across these larger pages.

This is, in this case at least, an argument for print over web.  The print pages are substantially larger than Meconis runs them online, and all the more rewarding for it.  Counteless little details come into focus that are completely unperceivable in the web version.  Take, for instance, our first glimpse of the remarkable library at Familienwald, built in an abandoned church, displayed here it’s full online resolution:

Note the stained glass windows at the far back of the library.  Now, compare to this scan of the same windows from the print edition:

You see the saints?  Do you see the shape of their robes, their feet, their tiny little halos?  And those details exist in a part of the image so inconsequential to the plot that it doesn’t even matter that you can’t tell they’re there in the online version.

Now, here’s a moment that does matter: Luther Levy’s first meeting, two pages later, with Ariana Nolte, the university’s librarian, and Luther’s eventual romantic interest:

There are a lot of nice details here, but what I want to draw your attention to is that final panel, the first time we get a good look at Ariana as an adult.  She’s clearly a strong woman; her expression is commanding, the odd perspective dramatic, her orders succinct and non-negotiable.  Let’s have another look at that panel, blown up a bit:

When I was flipping through the book, and happened past this panel, I locked eyes with Ariana Nolte, and was startled by her.  This has much to do with the perspective, but also: those eyes.  They stare right out of the page at you in a way that the screen just doesn’t convey.  In that panel, you feel you are looking out through Luther’s eyes, and she is looking straight back at you.  It’s eerie and powerful.

Another thing about the perspective in this panel: it’s not just an unusual angle, but also an outright reversal of the way perspective is ordinarily used to convey power dynamics.  To “look down” on someone is to convey that you feel superior, better, more powerful than they are.  A downward shot from a character’s eyes ordinarily conveys that we are looking at someone weaker.  That we get the opposite reaction here is impressive, and goes even further to cement Ariana’s dominance in this exchange.

It’s those eyes.

More about Meconis’s eyes: they are always active.  She clearly knows exactly what every character is looking at in every panel, and reveals much about who they are through the object of their attention, as well as the particular ways in which they look.  As in real life, Meconis’ characters rarely give a simple forward look at whatever they are looking at.  There are sidelong stares, distracted glances, hooded glares, and this is true of every character in every panel, no matter how minor.  Consider:

I have no idea who the three characters to Lucien’s left are, but I can tell you that the one on the left has no interest in the book he’s reading, the one in the middle is very interested in the university gossip he’s overhearing, and the one on the right is content just to be having a meal.  That’s not just in the eyes, of course (the mouths too, convey much in their set), but the eyes are doing the bulk of the work.

It’s this level of attention to the nuances of character—not just appearances, but what those appearances have to say about the characters’ inner workings—that makes every exchange in Family Man so compelling.  And as good as it is online, it’s even better in print.