The following is an interview with cartoonist Benjamin Frisch, regarding his upcoming graphic novel debut, The Fun Family, which will be released through Top Shelf on July 12. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Frisch about his inspiration for working in the sequential art medium, how his previous work with NPR and as an artist-in-residence in France informed The Fun Family, why Top Shelf makes the perfect home for the book, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your graphic novel, The Fun Family! Given that this will be your debut in the comic book field, what inspired you to tell this story in the sequential art medium?
Benjamin Frisch: Thanks! The Fun Family is a graphic novel about a seemingly perfect newspaper comic strip family, and what happens when things start to fall apart. Because the story is so tied to comic strips, it was never a question that The Fun Family was going to be a comic. I was studying comics at the time I came up with the idea, and so I had already been working in the form for a long time.
At that point I was looking for stories that would work especially well in comics versus film or prose, and I landed on a couple of ideas that used drawing style as a tool to tell the story. The Fun Family was the second graphic novel I scripted, but the first one that actually seemed worth pursuing since it was an interesting story that could be told in a unique way. I’m a big believer that style should complement the story at hand, and I fell in love with the idea of this somber meta-satire of The Family Circus drawn in a cutesy way. It also seemed like a good scale for my first big project, not too long (although it grew significantly over time), contained so far as world-building, and since most of the action takes place in a few locations, I was able to model most of my sets in Google SketchUp for reference, which was helpful because I was very nervous about drawing backgrounds at first.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from The Fun Family?
BF: I’m happy to let readers have their own interpretation of the story. I’m a pretty opinionated person, and the object of satire is usually mockery of some kind, so I’ve got strong ideas of what I believe the story to be about, but I can’t expect everyone to come to the same conclusions. I’ve had some people come to me and say the book is hilarious, others find it bleak. Some people see it as a very clear parable, others as totally ambiguous. It’s fascinating to me that people can have such varied views, and it’s exciting to see the book get received in that way. All that said, if I’ve done my job well, I hope people will find a funny, sad story about a family trapped by nostalgia and selfishness, and the effect that has on their lives.
BD: How do you feel that your previous work as an American cartoonist-in-residence in France and as a contributor to NPR has informed your work on this graphic novel? Likewise, do you feel that it was an easy transition to the sequential art medium?
BF: I was doing both radio and comics in college, and then I took a long break from radio, only to get back into it somewhat recently with some personal work and the podcast series Out on the Wire with fellow artist-in-residence Jessica Abel. Jessica had recently finished her book, Out on the Wire, about storytelling in radio, and she wanted to turn it into a podcast about how to tell stories in all mediums using all the recorded interviews she did for the book. It was really exciting to get to cut tape of people like Ira Glass and Jad Abumrad, and I learned a lot in the process. Jessica is a fantastic collaborator, and I can’t say enough good things about her as a colleague.
We both strongly believe that storytelling tools transfer across mediums, and that while the specifics of a medium may change, a well-developed story sense is applicable to all mediums. For example, you may not be working in an act structure in non-fiction radio, but you’re still thinking about how to most effectively tell the story, how to build suspense, and how to leave the audience satisfied. As a technical radio producer there are also some interesting parallels between cutting and rearranging pieces of audio and rearranging panels and pages; it’s all about maximizing clarity and emotional power.
We did the podcast in France during our residencies at La Maison Des Auteurs, a program that gives artists space to draw comics in Angoulême France, a small city in the southwest of the country. It’s a great place to focus and do art, but it’s also an opportunity to meet international artists, and learn more about how things are done in other parts of the world. I made a project of learning French as well, which has made me a much better listener, and I think that’s incredibly important to storytelling.
BD: How did you balance the writing and artistic duties for this graphic novel, and did you find that one aspect was more challenging than the other?
BF: I wrote the script for The Fun Family before I started doing full production on the story. It changed in some small and not-so-small ways during production, but the core of the story was always there from the beginning. I think it’s important to know your ending as you’re working. If you don’t know what you’re moving towards, then you’re likely to get lost along the way. That said, I know some great cartoonists (mostly French) who just start drawing without knowing what the end-point is, and somehow manage to make it work. They are much braver than I, and I really don’t understand how they do it, but it works for them.
Writing and drawing feel very different for me. Writing is so fundamental and terrifying to me; if you screw it up, there’s nothing you can really do once you’ve committed to the story. I find it more difficult than the actual process of drawing the script, which is more about problem solving and just putting in the time to do the work. There’s a lot of creativity that happens during the drawing process, of course, but it’s constrained within the bounds of what you’ve written.
BD: What makes Top Shelf a great home for The Fun Family?
BF: Chris Staros, their Editor-in-Chief, once told me Top Shelf publishes books about feelings, and I think that fits the themes of The Fun Family pretty well. They’ve also been big believers in the story from the beginning, which is a nice confidence boost when you feel like you’re totally out of your depth.
BD: Would you consider adapting the graphic novel to other entertainment mediums, and, if so, which do you feel would be most fitting for the story?
BF: I’m not opposed to it, and I think the story structure would fit a film pretty well. Animation is probably the best idea since you could maintain the tension between the visual style and the darker story. My dream is for The Fun Family to be adapted into the style of a 1980s Japanese children’s cartoon like Doraemon or something. A live-action film could work too, but I think it would be tough since most of the cast is children (who’d be hard to cast) and you’d lose the irony in the cartoony style of the original.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
BF: Nothing firm to share yet, but I’ve developed a few ideas since finishing The Fun Family. One I’ve basically put aside for good since it wasn’t working, one I may write and have someone else draw, and there’s one that’s more of an adventure story that I feel pretty strongly about at the moment.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about The Fun Family and your other work?