Families have always driven creative inspiration throughout time.
Sometimes a source of joy, other times a source of immense pain, familial relationships demand time and energy to maintain. And since families are made of people, the members in them are always imperfect, with some members more functional than others.
To balance a family, some members will have to carry more general responsibility than others, and this seeds the beginnings of any and every spat.
Most families that manage to stay together do so because of a matriarchal or patriarchal elder that glues together the members into a matchstick unified fort. Things look okay from a distance, but the moment a major change occurs, the glue falls off, and the fort collapses, leaving fractured parts and alienated individuals now more vulnerable than ever to feuds and invasion.
When we first meet the Fun family, the bright-eyed, pristine children and parents appear stable, loving, and happy. Seated around a perfectly golden-brown Thanksgiving turkey, the family members’ gleaming faces give outrageously saccharine thanks to each other with the cuteness of any canned, stale 1980s family sitcom (pick your least favorite and place it here). In the middle of the suffocating sweetness, a call from an automated voice service arrives. Quickly, all of the innocence and joy of the Funs disappears upon the news that the head of their clan, Grandma Virginia Fun, has died.
The father, Robert Fun, a cartoonist of the family’s “wacky” and “quirky” going-ons in his comic strip, which bears the same name as the graphic novel, faces his own mortality with the death of his mother and flounders in the realization that, one day, he will die. Robert stops working on the strip and disengages further and further from his family, swapping his daily uniform of dress shirts and slacks for a pathetic robin’s egg blue robe as he abandons his responsibilities as a father, husband, cartoonist, and member of society. Frustrated, his wife, the mother of the Fun children, Marsha, cannot take Robert’s collapse any further, and with the faux guidance of Dr. Conroy, a questionable family psychologist with plenty of 1970s self-help ickiness, gets a divorce.
With the divorce, Marsha splits up the Fun children, taking JT and Mikey to her new home in a motel across town and leaving Robby and Molly with their father, whose little motivation to do anything has now completely vanished. Diagnosed with a “sadness cocoon,” Robert drags himself around the house in a catatonic state, leaving Robby and Molly to figure out everything from alimony checks to laundry all by themselves. In order to cope and survive, Robby takes up cartooning, publishing his work under his father’s name, pretending that Robert Fun is exploring a child-like visual style, and Molly turns to religion, guided by the angel of Grandma Virginia Fun.
Thrown into adulthood and unguided by any of the adults around him, young Robby tries his best to adapt, earning money in order to feed his father and sister while also sending alimony checks to his mother. Robby quickly becomes the only adult in the Fun family, sending him on a spiral toward a mental breakdown.
As a debut graphic novel for Benjamin Frisch, The Fun Family strives to address some big, heavy concepts (mortality, loss of innocence) through its adorable looking characters and bright colors. The contradiction between the visual style and the misery of the Fun family provokes some laughs, but the wretchedness of the Funs gets far too unwieldy and heavy handed as the novel progresses to its end. The Fun Family is ultimately a parody of the American family, which we’ve seen caricaturized for decades through The Simpsons and any Seth MacFarlane family. Aware of this, Frisch pushes the Funs into extreme absurdity to attempt to distinguish the story from other family-teasing creations, throwing in hyperbolic but trite scenarios involving the church and self-help hippies and their roles in further tearing apart the Fun family’s connection to reality.
Consequently, the outrageousness of the manifestation of church and hippie ideologies in the Funs’ lives overshadow the best part of The Fun Family: Robby’s path to adulthood. An intelligent bildungsroman exists in the novel, but it gets drowned out by all of the pseudo-ironic, fantastical, semi-humorous fanfare of the world around Robby. If the novel focused on Robby’s attempts to grasp his grandmother’s death and its impact on his family in a less caricaturish way, The Fun Family could have been more empathetic, nuanced, and distinctive. Instead, it includes worn-out tropes that mock people’s displacement of grief and pain on broken ideologies, distracting the story and the audience away from what fundamentally goes wrong for the Funs: accountability. Everyone except for Robby sacrifices their own responsibilities to each other and society for their own self-fulfillment, and that is a complex issue that defines maturation to adulthood that Frisch could have explored with greater sensitivity and introspection.
With the over-the-top jabs at for-profit churches and self-help deception, The Fun Family attempts to be a black comedy. Sure, these devices and the overly happy looking characters will provoke a self-satisfied, “Ahahaha, that’s not me!” laugh from the same people who feebly laugh at older films for feeling dated, but alas, The Fun Family fails to be funny and fails to convey any new ideas or examinations on the American family.
Fun always comes at a cost, and here in The Fun Family world, it comes at the cost of innovation and emotional depth. You’ll find more disturbing, complex, and perceptive observations on the American family and society in old episodes of The Simpsons, and thankfully, FX shows those episodes on constant rotation, so rather than the one-time impact of The Fun Family, we have a persistent reminder of how broken our families really can be with our favorite yellow family of Springfield.
Plus, I’d rather say (and write) “The Simpsons” instead of “The Funs.” Who wants to deal with the heavy-handedness of the asinine Fun family name anyway?