With Founding Fathers Funnies, Peter Bagge uses his irreverent humor and artistic style to retell stories of the American revolution. While there’s inherent humor in seeing Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, and company rendered in Bagge’s art style, what’s fresh about the Founding Fathers Funnies is the type of stories it tells about these American icons. Rather than try to tell the comprehensive history of the creation of the United States of America, Bagge assumes we know the general picture and delights in telling small stories about historical figures that we might not otherwise be familiar with.
Bagge shows how Thomas Paine was a failure at most professional ventures he set out for, aside from (irony aside) being a pain. Paul Revere is shown to have little issue putting aside artistic value in exchange for making a buck. Ben Franklin’s wickedly smart sense of humor is revealed when he attempts to take down his rival Titan Leeds’s almanac by mocking Leeds’s astrological predictions under the thinly-veiled pseudonym “Poor Richard.” Alexander Hamilton implicates himself in an extramarital affair in order to clear himself of corruption charges. (This last example may now be known to many thanks to the Hamilton musical, but Bagge told it to readers three years before Hamilton hit iTunes and the rest was, as they say, history.)
We are also told a possibly apocryphal story of housewife-spy Nancy Hart, who fed British soldiers at her home at their demand and then confiscated their guns and held them captive. Whether or not this is true, the story of the story is notable in itself, as it demonstrates a confidence that both men and women could participate in revolutionary war efforts. That’s not to say that women had it easy: John Adams appears dismissive of advocating for women’s rights, while in another episode, a bunch of men take off with a copy of one of Mercy Otis Warren’s plays to read at a bar run by the Masons—where Mercy can’t join.
I appreciated the way Founding Fathers Funnies addressed the founders’ attitudes towards slaves and slavery. Thomas Paine arrives in the colonies from England and is horrified by the sight of Africans at a slave auction. (Not that the British didn’t engage in slavery, but African slaves didn’t work in England.) Martha Washington frees her slaves after her husband’s death, but her offer of freedom seems more motivated by fear of uprising than moral righteousness. Even abolitionist Hamilton seems hypocritical for his slave-owning in-laws.
Of all of the founders, lesser-known John Laurens appears to be the most progressive on slavery. His commitment to abolition appears to be both moral and pragmatic. In Laurens’ view, not only is slavery wrong, but also it is impossible to build a republic when a population is enslaved. His plan to arm slaves to fight the British in return for freedom was summarily shot down by the governor of South Carolina.
The artwork in this collection is mostly black and white with six-panel page layouts. Bagge makes his characters’ heads eggplant-shaped, with small eyes and round, oversized jowls. This style, reminiscent of artists like R. Crumb, makes even Angelica Schuyler appear haggard. Through making these founding fathers playfully grotesque, we feel closer to them. We feel them as humans, flawed and occasionally disgusting, rather than the stiff and dignified portrait versions of themselves they want to be remembered as. We can feel the heartbeat of history through this portrayal.
Unfortunately, this style backfires when it comes to portraying African Americans and slaves. Whereas the founding fathers benefit from being taken down a peg or two from their superhuman legacies, the slaves of these leaders have never had a peg to begin with. Even more, the slaves are drawn as having thick lips, perpetuating African American stereotypes and calling to mind uncomfortable past portrayals. I came away from these depictions thinking that the intended irony backfired.
While all of these stories are fascinating and could enhance history curriculum, the collection of strips is not arranged chronologically, so readers are jumping back and forth in time to follow different characters. This feature, along with some occasional curse words that feel contemporary and out of place, makes the comic more difficult to use as a companion text in an American history classroom. I’d recommend that any school librarian who would want to purchase this collection work carefully with a classroom teacher to pick appropriate excerpts that are amusing and instructional for the audience.
Founding Fathers Funnies
by Peter Bagge
Dark Horse, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: (12+)