Guy Delisle is a fantastic observer of the microscopic minutae of human nature in unfamiliar surroundings as evidenced in his travelogues: Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem. Throughout each of these efforts, his own clueless, curious self is an essential element of the tale. A semi-provincial Quebecois guy finds himself in these unfamiliar situations, and as it turns out, they are indeed weird, but they’re also just the settings of other people’s normal lives. Delisle finds familiarity in strange surroundings and teases the absurdly weird out of the familiar, and his parenting manuals are the same—unadulterated Delisle, and thus a pleasure.
Though on a much smaller scale than his travelogues, Delisle weaves a series of tales of parental weariness, wariness, and bald-faced lying to his two children, as well as letting them get away with all sorts of naughtiness and fibbery of their own. The Owner’s Manual to Terrible Parenting, the third in a series that one hopes will continue indefinitely, observes his relationship with his children as they grow up and threaten to catch on to his schemes and shortcuts. He tries and fails to make reading Harry Potter a lesson in adverbs, teaches his daughter the correct way to spell swear words, destroys his son’s helicopter, and gets shown up by his son when he makes up a story about what would happen if the moon came closer to earth, among other brief, light tales.
A few things set Delisle’s parenting humor apart from most. One is his underlying appreciation for the cleverness and intelligence of his children, wherein he is usually the butt of the joke; they tend to get the best of him one way or another. Though he paints himself as a silly and sometimes lazy parent, his love and awe for his children is never in doubt. It’s a refreshing response to cartoonists who paint children as difficult and parents as put-upon.
The second thing that makes Delisle special is his understated and unfailingly precise cartooning style. In Delisle’s character focused line-drawings, a slightly raised eyebrow or a quick turn of the head speak volumes about moods, motives and what mischief might lie ahead. Although this volume is the stuff of domestic comedy and Delisle’s illustrations have little setting beyond kitchen, living room, bedroom, or streetside, their simplicity is deceptive. There is always something going in each of his character’s heads—after all, Delisle’s clever children are very clearly his children.
I have two children myself, one who is far too young to express anything beyond “thank you for feeding me and keeping me relatively clean” and one whose humor extends to yelling at the younger one and repeating her favorite phrases ad infinitum and literally running around in circles, so I’m not quite to Delisle’s level of complexity when it comes to humor. However, the really wonderful thing about this parenting gig is staring deep into your child’s eyes and trying to find the wheels turning and the dots connecting as they piece together the world, and rejoicing in that small and intimate daily miracle. Delisle, weary as he may be, does that with his children and passes that joy on to us. Because of that effort, this is a delightful and sweet read.
The Owner’s Manual to Terrible Parenting
by Guy Delisle
Drawn and Quarterly, 2015