STUCK WITH THEM: A Guide To Comic’s Most Dysfunctional Families
There’s a funny cartoon from a few weeks back that had been circulating online in which a frustrated wife sitting next to her husband turns to him and says, “Could you please blink quieter?”
At this point in time, nearly three months into the stay-at-home order, we’ve been around our families long enough for this lockdown to qualify less as bonding time and more like prison time. In fact, even as I’m writing this, I’m trying to focus despite my daughters in the background playing Ultron versus Iron Man loudly–granted it’s been a while since I watched the second Avengers movie, but I don’t remember Tony Stark doing so much shrieking.
And while family dynamics are a complex thing, it helps to look at comics for context on just how functional some of us are in comparison to the truly dysfunctional ones. Take any superhero team, for example, whether it’s a literal family like the Fantastic Four or a figurative one like the Justice League, and imagine spending all your time together in highly stressful circumstances like an alien starfish invasion or a visitation by a giant dude who wants to eat your planet. Then consider, on top of that, upon returning home to the Baxter Building or the Hall of Justice and… well, somebody’s gotta do the dishes.
So much of that smallness happens, but it’s mostly behind the scenes. However, there are some comic book families that air their dirty underoos out in the open in all their stinking glory, and those nuclear units are the ones that feel the most relatable despite their demigod status. Because there’s something weirdly meta about people wearing masks sharing intimate moments.
For our list below, we’re not only recognizing our favorite dysfunctional comic families, but we’ve established a parameter in which most of these brooding broods have had their maladjustments translated from the printed page to a streaming service near you so you can lie down on the couch and experience some vicarious therapy. With or, preferably, without your family.
READ: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol is not only one of the best comic runs of all time, but it’s also the most dysfunctional. And never mind the fraught team dynamics–like internal monologue on crack, each individual member is preoccupied by fighting with their own id on top of tolerating one another.
Take Negative Man, for example, reconfigured here as a multigender, multiracial gestalt entity known as Rebis, or there’s Crazy Jane, who has developed a dissociative identity disorder after experiencing childhood trauma resulting in sixty-four personalities. Put these two on a roster with a human brain stuck inside a robot body, and a simian-faced adolescent named Dorothy whose very own imagination is her worst enemy and you’ve got the makings of the worst Thanksgiving table ever.
Oh, and the poop icing on the s*** cake? Their fearless leader and father figure Dr. Niles “Chief” Caulder eventually reveals his role in causing the “accidents” that manifested their freakish powers, all of which results in some serious daddy issues that even Freud would have a hard time comprehending.
WATCH: If you haven’t watched season one of Doom Patrol streaming on DC Universe and HBO Max, do yourself a favor and binge on the insanity now along with season two, which premiered on June 25th. If not for the reason alone that it harkens the Brendan Frasernaissance.
READ: It’s easy to dismiss Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy as a vanity project, just another bored rockstar looking for self-indulgent expression. But here’s the thing; even before he became the frontman of My Chemical Romance, the goth-emo poster boy put his hours in at a Jersey comic book shop called Metropolis and published his first comic book On Raven’s Wings at sixteen-years-old.
But fast forward years later to Umbrella Academy when Way takes a Chemical hiatus and returns to writing comics having been inspired by the undiluted dysfunction of our prior entry–Morrison’s Doom Patrol–and generates a trilogy of stories starring seven superpowered adopted children and their guardian Sir Reginal Hargreeves, a.k.a. The Monocle.
When we first meet Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Five, Ben, and Vanya, affectionately referred to by Hargreeves as Number One, Number Two, Number Three, Number Four, Number Five, Number Six, and Number Seven, they’re estranged from their father partially because of the trauma caused by designating your children with numbers. But more likely it’s the fact that their own patriarchal figure delegated their upbringing to a talking chimp named Mr. Pogo. But alas, the world needs saving, and the Umbrella Academy, along with their unresolved issues ranging from drug addiction, homicidal tendencies, and to being, like, actually dead, must find commonality and eventual catharsis in the shared experience.
WATCH: Netflix’s Umbrella Academy season one ushers in a new age in which superhero fare needs not compromise on sophistication, weirdness and unconventionality. And yet despite its downpour of quirk, Netflix has reported that 45 million subscribers enrolled in the Academy thus making some goth-emo dude’s uncompromising black parade a reigning success. Season two premieres on July 31st.
READ: Conflicted, here. On the one hand, I could tell you that Robert Kirkman’s Invincible is the story of teen Mark Grayson as he discovers in high school that he’s inherited superhuman ability from his father, the mustached superhero Omni-Man. Which would still make it a good read, if not wholly original.
But then again, I could also reveal the spoiler from the eleventh issue in which–ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS?–Omni-Man, also known as Nolan Grayson, reveals to his son that he is an extraterrestrial agent sent to Earth to prep our planet for invasion and hopes to recruit Mark to join the conquest. I mean, could you not see this coming with dad’s villainous whiskers?
If you skipped the previous paragraph, you’ll have to take my word for it that the dysfunction is more than fairly represented. But if you risked it, then let me assuage your resentment by sharing that you still have 133 issues left to enjoy even after the aforementioned family bonding misfire. And to further incentivize either one of you, Kirkman assuredly delivers on his signature cocktail of high-octane action, unfiltered gruesomeness, and thorny interpersonal dynamics.
WATCH: This is awkward. In 2017, it was announced that Seth Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg were producing an animated series for Amazon Studios with a premiere scheduled for 2020. Well, with half the year gone and still no announced air date, let alone a progress update, the fate of this series seems perhaps not so invincible.
But with a cast featuring Walking Dead’s very own Steven Yeun, JK Simmons, Sandra Oh, Mark Hamill, Gillian Jacobs, Zazie Beetz, Andrew Rannells, and Walter Goggins, among others, we’re confident it’ll see the light of day eventually. Just try to avoid spoilers until then.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
READ: And you think your dad’s jokes were embarrassing now–now just imagine if he were making them while also being a man-sized rat. When the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their rodent father figure first emerged from the sewers in 1984, there was no way creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird could have imagined their legacy, like turtles, would be living on forever.
And with a third movie franchise reboot in development, our vigilante terrapins show no sign of, um, slowing down. Yet what makes the Turtles so relatable, or rather, the recipe for their secret ooze, is that despite the fact that Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael all have truly distinctive quirks and at times, disagree on tactics and methodologies, their love for one another is uncompromising.
And with their 40th anniversary just a couple of years away, we often focus on the media empire outside of the actual source material, but it’s worth exploring what fans consider the best printed TMNT narrative.
Beginning with issue 50 of the Mirage Comics run, “City At War” is a thirteen-part epic that tells the story of a post-Shredder landscape in which warring factions–the Foot Clan vs. the Foot Elite–fight over New York City sovereignty. Which, yes, sounds like a typical Turtle soup, but at the core of this story, we see an unprecedented depth in the camaraderie as true fractious tensions supersedes typical sibling rivalry and becomes something more splintering.
Watch: The 2009 TV movie Turtles Forever, a 25th Anniversary crossover special that brought three different iterations of the Turtles together for a pre-Into The Spider-verse multiverse story. Featuring the original gruff black-and-white indie version, the sugary Saturday morning 1987 cartoon team, and the tamely irreverent 2003 crew to defeat, as you probably guessed, their respective Shredder iterations. Cowabunga times three.
Quantum & Woody
READ: Inspired in equal parts by the Power Man and Iron Fist team-up and Billy and Sidney from White Men Can’t Jump, writer Christopher Priest created a superpowered stepbrother duo that at once offers rich comedy, explosive adventure, and deep meditations on family and race.
Quantum and Woody–the former, a Black military man named Eric Henderson and the latter, a white deadbeat grifter named Woodrow Van Chelton–are brought together when their father–Eric’s biological and Woody’s adoptive–is murdered under mysterious circumstances. During the investigation, the duo is then bequeathed with accidental powers that requires them to never part from one another for more than twenty-fours at a time.
This results in an iteration of the Odd Couple that entertains and provokes–in fact, other writers have attempted to write Quantum and Woody and infuse their narrative with both chuckles and substance, but none of them have encapsulated the same madcap energy and critical perspective that only Priest could generate. Which means, take note: Priest’s biting satire is so sharp, you may get a paper cut just from turning the pages.
WATCH: In 2018, Anthony and Joe Russo announced that they would be developing a Quantum and Woody television series for TBS, but we’ve yet to hear an update on the project since then. Hollywood is notoriously slow when it comes to development, but with no news in two years, it doesn’t seem very hopeful. Which is a damn shame–Quantum and Woody has never been more relevant than it is right now.
Who is your favorite dysfunctional family in comics? Let Your Geek Sideshow and tell us in the comments below!