This week’s installment of Webcomics Wednesday might, at first blush, seem terribly highbrow: Dylan Meconis’ Family Man follows Luther Levy, a half-Jewish, probably atheist, eighteenth-century German Spinoza scholar, who finally finds an academic home at a fledgling university in the eastern reaches of the country, after having his dissertation rejected on the grounds of his religion, or lack thereof. But hear me out: yes, there are plenty of recondite references to theology and biblical exegesis (never fear, there are copious notes of explanation!), but there’s also some heartening friendships, a stunning library, an even more stunning librarian, and an ancient, secret pagan cult of women who live and hunt with wolves.
At the beginning of Meconis’ comic, we find Luther languishing at home with his father, an absentminded clockmaker; his stern but loving mother; his too-smart-for-her-own-good sister, who prefers poetry to catechism; and his recently returned twin brother, Johann. Luther’s trying to find any way to support himself, other than turning to clockmaking, and while skipping mass one sunday, he runs into Lucien de St. Yves at the local book shop. Lucien’s purchasing books for a vast university library and after coincidentally running into Luther, he offers him a job as a lecturer.
It’s a bit of a risky prospect, since Luther hasn’t actually been guaranteed a job yet, but he has literally nothing to lose and he’s eager to get back to teaching theology. The university is in a remote part of the kingdom and the students can be oafish, but the library! Oh, the library.
Apart from the deluge of knowledge, the other thing that gets Luther salivating is the enigmatic librarian, Ariana Nolte, who’s both the daughter of the university rector and, as it gradually becomes clear, the brains of the outfit. As Luther prepares lectures based on the rector’s notes, he discovers how indispensable Ariana’s scholarship is, and once she realizes that he recognizes her prodigious intellect, she falls hard for him too (in a steamy scene probably best viewed far away from the office). But Ariana has quite a secret.
Her mother is part of the Family, a secret, pagan cult of women who live and hunt with wolves, and Ariana, who dearly loves both her father and her library, is torn between her parents’ worlds, since choosing one means giving up the other. With the expansion of cities encroaching on wolf hunting territory, Ariana’s mother and the rest of the clan are getting ready to leave the nearby forest behind in favor of more remote, unpopulated areas. She’s facing a difficult choice, which is only made tougher given her feelings for Luther.
Meconis ties all these plot threads together brilliantly, weaving provocative conversations about belief, identity, tradition, and community through the panels, which collectively seem to call the concept of “Family Man” into question altogether. Is there a superior kind of family or tradition? What happens when members of a family, biological and otherwise, begin questioning their allegiances and beliefs? Visually, she does an expert job of juxtaposing the animalistic, earthy nature of conflict in the Family with that of the university faculty, which is just as animalistic but veiled in niceties and subtle backbiting. Repeated motifs quietly draw comparisons, while the panel below makes the similarities captivatingly explicit.
Her sepia-toned palette and realistic figures certainly give the proceedings an old-fashioned feel, and her intensive research into the historical and geographical details considerably add to the overall atmosphere. Even Luther’s exaggerated nose, while it might initially seem like an unfortunate stereotype, serves a powerful purpose: it transforms him into a semi-comic figure, like Cyrano de Bergerac, and it’s a pointed, deliberately consternating marker of the component of his identity that both makes him an outsider in his community and has influenced his impressive, innovative scholarship.
For all her intelligent, sensitive commentary on religion and community and in-depth research into the period, Meconis never gets lost in the details and keeps her focus grounded in the compelling story of two people, each straddling different worlds, trying to find a way to reconcile their varied identities in communities demanding they choose only one. That’s as timeless a story as any, either in the eighteenth century or the twenty-first. Three completed chapters are available now, and Meconis is part of the way through the fourth, with plenty more (hopefully!) to come. Updates once a week, on Fridays.