Thursday, August 13, 2009

Race, Rage & Fatherhood: Stuffed

Rob reviews the new book written by Glenn Eichler and drawn by Nick Bertozzi, STUFFED (First Second).

STUFFED is an interesting book that suffers from a couple of high concepts that didn't quite mesh. The first involves race: issues of assimilation, guilt and the ways in which we dance around both. The second involves fatherhood: in particular, the disconnect between fathers and their children and the ways in which our parents embarrass us. This book plays both ideas for laughs, dipping into humor of discomfort and humiliation. The reason why the combination of these concepts doesn't work is because Eichler doesn't take them far enough.

The basics of the plot involve a mild-mannered man named Tim estranged from his father who inherits a "museum" from his father upon his death. It's a museum of con-man curiousities, including "The Savage"--a stuffed & mounted African wearing ridiculous "jungle" clothing and holding what might be the shaft of a spear. It's a fully upright reminder of exploitation, colonialism and dehumanization. Tim tries to give it to museums and eventually is pointed to a PhD in anthropology who happens to be an African-American man named Howard, trying his best to assimilate in a mostly white environment. Toting the statue around, trying to get various countries to take the statue and the sheer spectacle of the "savage" are all fodder for any number of sight gags. Things take an extra turn for the wacky when Tim's hippy brother is summoned back to town, who then gets into all sorts of mischief. In the end, the "savage" is repatriated, the brothers come to terms with the awfulness of their father, and Howard learns to stand up for himself a bit more amongst his peers.

The big problem with the book is that it doesn't go far enough in any direction. As a character piece, it's all too shallow, predictable and cliched. The character of the hippy brother is especially eye-rolling as he changes his name from one wacky cliche to the next ("Red wolf", then "Free"), and juxtaposing him against his tight-ass brother brings about expected results. Tim's anger buttons are pushed and he simply snaps. Eichler never lets that anger get out of control or even change relationships fundamentally, giving them all a happy ending that seems as pat as it is predictable. The wise and long-suffering wives of Tim and Howard felt like something out of a screenwriter's go-to cliche' bag than fully-developed characters, especially in the scene when they were drinking together and exchanging bon mots.

Thin characterization could have been forgiven if Eichler had gone the Ishmael Reed route and pushed the envelope on the discussion of race. Books like JAPANESE BY SPRING or MUMBO JUMBO are how-to guides on provocation, exposing our cultural guilt, self-hatred and fear and turning it into the most uncomfortable but hilarious of scenarios. The image of the "savage" in Harlem and the discomfort that evoked was one of the funnier scenes from this book, but it seemed as though Eichler didn't want to be too confrontational. He wanted us to like all of the protagonists despite their flaws (though he had no problem playing up the negative aspects of the characters we weren't supposed to like to the hilt), and that watered down the more dangerous aspects of the book that focused on race. The only character who pushed any kind of racial buttons was the hippy, someone clearly depicted as naive and buffoonish. So we're left with humor without enough bite attached to characters who didn't have enough depth.

Through it all, Nick Bertozzi did his best to bring the story to life. He expertly carried the few scenes that depended on social discomfort for their punchlines and was especially adept at making the characters expressive. The way he drew Tim in particular was quite clever, superimposing his father's face on him when he finally blew his top. There were other flourishes, like an exterior shot of the roof of the house coming off when his daughter screamed upon seeing the stuffed man.

There were some funny images and ideas in this book, but they felt watered down and padded in a book-length story. Eichler is a writer known for developing the cartoon DARIA and writing for the Colbert Report, and this book felt like trying to develop a topic discussed in THE W0RD into a full-length story. It also felt like a screenplay try-out, given the plot structure, easily pigeonholed characters and feel-good ending. As genre fiction, it felt flat. As satire, the points it made were all too obvious. It made have made a nice short story or sketch, especially if they focused on the more challenging aspects of the story. Any charm or bite the story had seemed to come more from Bertozzi's pencil than Eichler's word processor.

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