In a recent installment of DAR, Erika Moen extolled the artistic efficiency of her friend and fellow cartoonist Dylan. This same stylish, bespectacled gal has made a few appearances in DAR now, and I've found myself wondering who exactly this Dylan chick is and what exactly is she doing with her superior productive powers?
Dylan, it turns out, is artist Dylan Meconis, and not only has she recently opened a show with Ms. Moen at the Sequential Art Gallery in Portland (entitled "Lady Parts"), I've actually encountered her webcomics work before. Meconis is the creator of Bite Me!, a comic about a serving wench who becomes a vampire in the midst of the French Revolution. Bite Me! is a deliberately silly affair, unpracticed but vivacious, frought with breakneck pacing, crowded dialogue, and shout-in-your-ear characterization. It evidences a writer who, while in firm need of tempering, is talented and intelligent, not to mention fantastically industrious (incidentally, the print edition of Bite Me! will be available at the Stumptown Comics Fest on April 18 and online on April 26).
But it's Meconis' current comic work, Family Man, that demonstrates her incredible chops as both an artist and a writer. A far more mature and restrained effort than Bite Me! (in fairness, a mature and restrained effort, period), Family Man is a gorgeous and immersive historical drama. Luther Levy, son of a Jewish convert, is a failed theology student living in Germany during the Age of Reason. After an incident at his university leaves him without doctoral honors, ridiculed, and alienated from his once-generous patroness, Luther slinks home, where he finds the staunch religiosity of his Lutheran family in conflict with his increasing questions about God and faith.
Just as Luther is about to resign himself to the life of a household tutor, a mere servant teaching Latin to the spoiled children of the small-town upper crust, he has a seemingly chance encounter with an alleged acquaintance, the devilishly charming Lucien de Saint-Yves. Lucien, familiar with both Luther's reputation as a scholar and his checkered university past, offers Luther an opportunity to return to academia. It's a discount version of the life Luther once dreamed of, but enough of a temptation that the usually prudent scholar agrees to trek out to the Czech-speaking middle of nowhere for the hope of a lecture position at a somewhat unorthodox university.
Meconis promises that Family Man will, like Bite Me!, contain supernatural elements (the word here is werewolves), but it certainly needs no special gimmicks to be thoroughly engrossing. Luther is a compelling character: painfully self-aware when it comes to his Jewish heritage (which is as plain as the...ahem...nose on his face), with a geeky love of logic and theological study so pure that it, at times, transcends the knowledge that it once granted him status (despite the aforementioned heritage) and and also led to his downfall. His reveries are infectious, and not just to the other characters; in Meconis' hands, we comprehend how the era's students of religion viewed their theological forebearers with the same reverence or disdain with which modern students treat Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, and Carl Jung. Luther is also nicely bolstered by the supporting cast: Johann, Luther's twin who is physically identical to him but whose life path could not be farther apart, Lucien, whose overly friendly demeanor reeks of ulterior motives, Jakob Nolte, the university rector more interested in administration than study, and Ariana, Nolte's stern but brilliant librarian daughter -- who guards a deep secret. And where Bite Me! often jolts and careens, Family Man is tightly scripted, filled with careful characterizations and a dry wit that punches rather than shrieks. I'd happily devour 500 pages dealing with Luther's religious struggles, his interactions with Ariana and Lucien, his relationships with his students, and the internal politics of this curious school, with nary a lycanthropic curse in sight. Still, I can understand how a taste of the supernatural could neatly upset the life of a man so devoted to cold and clear logic, so I'll let Meconis pull me wherever it is she's headed.
No review of Family Man is complete without mentioning the art. Placing the Lucien and Luther in Family Man beside their Bite Me! counterparts, we can see how far Meconis has advanced as a cartoonist. It is one thing to create a convincing character who is all confidence, panic, or sobriety; it is quite another to illustrate a man like Luther, whose mood may be incrementally raised or lowered by a word of admiration or an icy critique. Meconis knows just how to make her characters glow or glower and is attentive enough to suggest notes of falsity behind bravado and softness behind unkind words. Her apparently obsessive attention to detail and use of greyscale also go a long way to making Luther's world complete. I couldn't tell you whether every window, carriage, or article of clothing is historically accurate, but they flesh out the details of the sort of world in which Luther has to live. And the monochrome both creates the impression that we are gazing back in time and adds visual dimension through the interplay of light and shadow. That Meconis plays with paneling to denote moments of duality or chaos (without overdoing it), is just gravy on the double meat sundae.
By all rights, Family Man should have been a dry dissertation on Judeo-Christian theology or a less complex tale using the Age of Reason as a superficial backdrop. But against odds, Meconis has managed to develop an intriguing protagonist whose troubles are necessarily linked to his setting and yet readily identifiable. And if werewolves tear their way past the cozy threshold of academia, all I can say is: Woof.