Books

A Comic Whose Characters Swim in Apathy and Cynicism

A comic written by Pete Toms is peopled with bleak characters in a state of resigned existential crisis.

Pete Toms Dad’s Weekend (all images courtesy Hic & Hoc)

There’s a scene in the comic Dad’s Weekend, by Pete Toms, where the protagonist, Whitney, upon receiving a form to bail her mentally unsound father out of jail, says, “At least this will make a good cryptic Facebook post.” It’s a fitting encapsulation of the deep cynicism that runs through this bleak but funny comic, and of the ways this cynicism feels uniquely shaped by the internet.

In this 24-page comic, Whitney, a biracial woman in her twenties, visits her father, Manny, who has become obsessed with an Illuminati-tinged conspiracy about world domination by lizard people. During her visit, following the death of a close friend, Manny begins to spiral out of control.

Every middle-aged character in the book except for Manny seems to be in a state of resigned existential crisis. One middle-aged woman interrupts Manny to tell him about a realization she’s had,

Once you unpack, you’re left with an empty suitcase. What’s at the foundation of who you are? Animal instincts? Some shit your parents said to you when you were a toddler? It’s all so simple and unimportant. I had this dream where I hung myself with my own DNA strand.

Pete Toms Dad’s Weekend

While this lack of faith makes these characters despondent, it is simply an assumed feature of daily life among Whitney and her friends, and they act with a level of detached nihilism that is difficult for me to process. “We’re gorillas wearing the suit of civilization,” says one, as an explanation for why he has spent years of his life heckling strangers. Another gives a prolix description of an art house film he plans to direct one day. When asked what it means, he replies:

IDK, who fucking cares? When I go on Charlie Rose, I’m just going to tell him the characters wrote it. Bolstered by my bad boy persona, it’ll be a festival hit. Middle aged couples will read a positive NYT review of it, then watch 10 min and get really mad.”

Even Whitney herself seems disconnected from the emotions she experiences watching her father slip into psychosis. When the police arrest Manny for splashing hot tea in the face of a suspected reptilian, Whitney jokingly wonders if the officer is secretly part of a paranormal investigations unit.

Pete Toms Dad’s Weekend

The only character who seems to genuinely care about the world is, in a darkly ironic turn, Whitney’s father. In his quest to unmask the conspiracy of reptilian dominion, Manny tries to rouse his friends to action and devotes himself to unearthing clues hidden in alternative jazz albums. Near the end of the comic, Toms makes a few nods to the idea that the characters may indeed be living under secret lizard rule, but for all the characters other than Whitney’s father, that’s beside the point.

The comic opens with illustrations of an iMessage exchange superimposed over a Youtube video, and Toms’s flat, grainy illustrations evoke the style of a homemade video. His characters frequently speak in abbreviations like “ufomg” and “jfc,” but this depiction of an internet-driven culture is not limited to millennial slang. From start to finish, Dad’s Weekend captures the multi-tasking, half-present quality of smartphone-inflected conversations.

Though Dad’s Weekend was written before the election in which a minority of Americans voted into power a man who built his political career on conspiracy theories, I can’t help but read the comic in its new context. The characters’ detachment and apathy is exaggerated to comic effect, their disinterested exchanges reading more like Youtube comments than conversations. But this year, swirling conspiracy theories are having very real consequences on my life. At one point, Manny explains to his daughter that he is using the phrase “far out” ironically. She responds, “Irony isn’t cool anymore, Dad.”

Dad’s Weekend, published at the end of 2016, is available from Hic and Hoc.

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