I don’t remember the exact first time my dad embarrassed me. There are too many early memories to choose from. Maybe it was the time he tried to cut my hair by himself while my mom was away and I had to get my head shaved to fix it. Or maybe it was the time he convinced me to tell one of my mom’s coworkers she had “sexy legs.” Picking the most embarrassing thing he’s ever done to me is even harder. I love my dad but for most of my childhood, embarrassing me and my siblings was one of his only hobbies. But there is something less scarring about a parent actively trying to embarrass you versus one who is completely unaware of their awkwardness. A dad going out of his way to use your relationship as a joke is a dad who wants your attention, who thinks of you and cares about you. The dad at the center of Pete Toms’ new comic Dad’s Weekend is not this kind of dad, he is instead its antithesis, a clueless idiot who causes immense harm to those around him through his obliviousness and single minded devotion to conspiracy theories and other nontraditional embarrassing dad attributes.
That single minded devotion carries over to Toms’ plotting in Dad’s Weekend, making it an unusually narrative focused story for comics’ most committed absurdist. Granted, that doesn’t mean Dad’s Weekend has a traditional narrative arc or much in the way of conflict and resolution, but compared to The Linguists, Toms’ sprawling masterpiece from last year, Dad’s Weekend is concise and coherent. The story’s titular dad is Manny, a balding, middle aged schlump who spends most of his time obsessively annotating videos by a David Bowie-esque performer named Byron Gravity and forming and being kicked out of conspiracy oriented “clubs” with other awkward dads. The story is mostly told through the perspective of Manny’s estranged daughter but in Toms’ typical style it also unfolds via panels of digital communication, be it YouTube videos, text messages or Google searches (one of Manny’s defining characterists is his demand for you to Google something).
Dad’s Weekend is quite possibly Toms’ most immersive work, not because of scope but because of how disciplined Toms is in pushing in the walls of Manny’s world around you as you read. Toms has always been a paradoxical cartoonist in that his work is abundantly wordy and sparse, but he takes that to a new extreme here, with Manny overwhelming relatives, passersby and readers with a nonstop torrent of gibberish, reducing them to silence and anxious expressions. Manny is an extreme character, but not unrealistic. His motormouthed philosophy is barely half a step up from a deranged street preacher, except it’s even harder to get away from because it goes beyond real life conversations and extends to avalanches of YouTube annotations and newsletters and who knows what the fuck else. Even his goddamn club jacket is a mess of visual info, with cult symbols colliding with other cult symbols while some hapless snake-hatted poodle looks on.
Most other creators would spin Manny as some kind of Fisher King-like savant, a secret genius who is avoided because people worry whatever damage he has is contagious but once you get past his alienating exterior you find a heart of gold. But Dad’s Weekend is a reversal of that. It’s an awkward family outing as a horror story, where the stakes aren’t life and death but life and sanity.
There is a climax where Manny fucks everything up so royally it’s perversely laughable but then Toms delivers the real emotional knife stabbing, as Manny confesses to his daughter that she’s the reason he’s like this, albeit indirectly. He tells her that he was able to get through life’s shittiness just fine until she was born, then he felt immense guilt over bringing her into this world and trapping her in a “flesh prison,” which in turn caused him to view humanity as a mistake. There’s a slight comedic beat as Manny brings up an alien impregnation plot, but that’s a misdirect. Toms intends this story to be coherent yet still baffling and its pointedly lackluster ending subverts any expectation you might have for one final bit of bonding or development. Instead, the final image of the story is Manny’s daughter looking utterly devastated and lost while a group of onlookers seem only mildly befuddled. She might mine the events that caused this for entertaining friends later, but what’s certain is that debilitating conversation where her father makes it clear that he’s not out to embarrass her, it’s just that she destroyed his world view, is going right into the repressed memory bank.
Though this all might make Dad’s Weekend sound like a brutal slog, it isn’t. One of Toms’ greatest talents as a cartoonist is his ability to make every panel of his works stand out as its own beautiful thing. There are few if any people in comics who have the comedic chops of Toms– the pacing of his comedy is downright poetic and his attention to details that enable better pay offs the more they’re observed is second to none. People are curiously fixated on Chip Zdarsky as comics’ great comedian but to me that’s like comparing, say, Aziz Ansari to Steve Martin at his prime. The former is funny and talented but the latter has such a mastery of the medium it elevates it beyond entertainment. Or maybe the better comparison is to Grant Morrison and Alan Moore at their most hyped, since so much of Toms’ work dissects and rebuilds the medium of comics on obscene metalevels, placing it directly into the context of social media and youth culture.
But there’s an effortless to Toms’ cartooning that I don’t feel with even the best of Morrison and Moore. You get the sense that despite how unflattering Toms’ portrayal of Manny is, he nonetheless relates to him (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Toms illustrates Manny as a sadder, frumpier, older version of himself), specifically in the way he communicates. Manny’s outlet for his bizarre communication is conspiracy theories but Toms’ is the only slightly more respectable world of comics, where he can work in a dizzying number of references and styles, his aesthetic as cluttered and twisty as any conspiracy theory. Toms’ unique visual approach and knack for making overly wordy panels an asset rather than an obstacle feels so organic you sometimes lose sight of what a difficult tightrope act it must be. But that’s the appeal of Toms, he constantly juggles so much information visually and textually you get wrapped up in the dangerous beauty of it and embrace the anxiety it instills. Let’s just hope Toms doesn’t abandon us for the more lucrative world of YouTube anytime soon.
Dad’s Weekend is out now from Hic & Hoc Publications.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover