Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question was inspired by this week’s big theme:
What unconventional family do you most identify with?
This one is colored by my decade-plus of time spent with one particular unconventional family: The Scooby Gang from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I’ve spent more time with Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles (and Anya, and Tara, and Spike, and Oz, etc.) than I have with my own family—or my friends, and arguably even my pets and significant other. (Sorry, love.) And there’s a simple reason for that: Having spent the better part of the early 2000s trapped in a van with three other guys on tour, the feeling of making a family out of the close friends with whom you share a common cause felt like home to me. Not all bands are The Monkees, but mine often felt like a makeshift family unit. We’d have ups and downs, just like Sunnydale’s finest monster fighters, but we also always had each other’s back. And to this day, I’ve worked hard to continue to cultivate friendships and groups of friends that mean as much to me as anyone. Whenever I watch (and endlessly re-watch) the seven seasons of Buffy, it’s always a warm feeling, one that both influences and reminds me of the important and close-knit people in my own life. To paraphrase a certain gravestone, they saved my world. A lot.
Of the many, many H. Jon Benjamin characters in my pantheon of pop culture heroes—Sterling Archer, Bob Belcher, the Devil from Lucy, The Daughter Of The Devil—none rank higher than Coach John McGuirk. (I even went as him for Halloween a couple of years ago.) So I’ve gotta choose the Small family and friends from Home Movies for this one, because although I never had a lovably drunken mentor-uncle in my life, I’m pretty sure I could have used one. And even beyond that paternal yearning, I can see a lot of parallels between my life and the fictional Brendon Small’s; like my own single mother, his mom Paula is a little bit of a mess, but never lets her dysfunction get in the way of good-to-great mothering of her kids. And like Brendon, I spent most of my childhood convinced I was some kind of genius, bossing my friends around (although my schemes weren’t half as ambitious as Brendon’s movie-films). Home Movies was too smart to go to the “it’s all about family” well too often—a lack of sentimentality that mirrors my own often-annoying pragmatism as a kid—but it was never so cynical as to treat the bonds between friends as family as expendable fodder for jokes. (That’s something I had to learn through many unpleasant lessons, as most smartass teenagers probably do.) And, again, I cannot overstate how invaluable McGuirk advice like “anything too hard in life is not worth doing” would have been to me as a kid.
As a kid, I assumed that adulthood was a hard line demarcated by achieving a certain amount of success in figuring life out. You grew up, established a career and maybe a family. With all that in place, the rest of adulthood just meant coasting along safely within the stability of this structure you built. My mom died when I was 10, which tore a very large hole in that assumption. When the grief subsided, what remained for some time for my father, my brother, and me was a fundamental existential bafflement and frustration about life. I always felt this most keenly reflected by Binky and Bongo from Matt Groening’s Life In Hell. Binky was a single father who was openly and nakedly uncertain how to navigate the basic institutions of adulthood: work, dating, parenting. Bongo, his single-eared progeny, had to contend with school, strange dogs, and self-consciousness (“You’re staring at my ear”). The humor Groening’s Life In Hell extracted from such mundane experiences helped me greatly then and continues to do so now. Both Binky and Bongo shared a cynical worldview, but they loved each other. It was the same kind of humor and love my family had that helped us through a few rough years. The feeling that life can be an absurd puzzle you lack the instructions to solve is fairly common, I think. Knowing that you can make a pig out of a pink eraser and five pushpins was the kind of life lesson Life In Hell imparted that made the absurdity much easier to handle.
I couldn’t have been older than 10 when my dad sat me down and showed me Fatso, the 1980 Dom DeLuise comedy about an overweight New Yorker grappling with his fatty ways. Even at that young age, though, I instantly recognized why my dad and uncle would launch into fits of hysterical laughter anytime the movie was brought up. DeLuise’s boisterous, food-obsessed Italian-American family is such a perfect representation of the environment in which he, and in turn I, grew up. It’s the kind of family where, even in the middle of a wake full of grandmothers and great-aunts wailing in their native tongue, someone has to go to the kitchen to “check the gravy”—by which they mean, “Take one taste of the pasta sauce that’s cooking, maybe add a pinch of salt, and then slather it on a slice of buttered Italian bread and shove it in my mouth.” Watching the film now, I’m shocked by how true it all rings, both the (only slightly) exaggerated portrait of a very specific kind of New York-Italian family and the lasting struggle with food that this environment fosters.
So much of fiction is concerned with ad-hoc families of friends, colleagues, or meddling kids, but there’s one person who’s head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to constructing ad-hoc families: Batman. Whether it’s the classic father-figure-Alfred/son-figure-Robin lineup, or cranky-old-grandpa-Bruce/rash-young-whippersnapper-Terry Batman Beyond timeline, or Grant Morrison’s excellent Dick Grayson/Damian Wayne Batman/Robin team-up, stately Wayne Manor’s ever-shifting collection of orphans and vengeful misfits can always be relied upon for a subtle blend of relationship drama and unrepentant ass-kicking. My personal favorite Bat-clan is the post-“No Man’s Land” extended family, with Bruce as distant father; Dick (then Nightwing) as the son who grew up and moved out of the house but still has unresolved issues; Tim Drake (Robin) as the eager kid brother; Barbara Gordon (Oracle) as the responsible big sister trying to keep the family together, while helping raise mute, abused orphan Cassandra Cain (Batgirl). It’s one of the rare Bat-configurations where the supporting characters have strong relationships to each other and not just to Batman, not to mention a rare lineup with multiple female characters, with Oracle and Batgirl each arguably more important to the story than any past or present Robin.
I think I’d really fit in with the Justice League. No, not the one with Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the rest of the big guns. I’m talking about the Justice League International, the late ’80s, early ’90s version of the team created by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis (and drawn by incomparable face man Kevin Maguire), where the League, restructured as a U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force, consisted of a bunch of third-stringers and also-rans. Sure, Batman and League stalwart J’onn J’onzz (The Martian Manhunter) ran herd over the team, but Giffen and DeMatteis introduced a more jokey, character-based tone in keeping with the conception of the team as a bunch of underpowered overreachers trying to walk in the footsteps of giants. Over the course of the series, the team boasted the likes of rogue Green Lantern and egomaniacal right-wing asshole Guy Gardner, sometime-Leaguer Black Canary (whose feminist ass-kickery Gardner often ran afoul of), goofball Russian guy in a battle suit Rocket Red, Superman-powerful but childlike Captain Marvel, New God escape artist Mister Miracle and his sexy bruiser spouse Big Barda, and, best of all, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. Taken in from comics limbo and transformed into the team’s stumblebum wise-crackers, Beetle (Chicago-based Batman-type crime fighter Ted Kord, with a lot of gadgets and an inferiority complex) and Gold (a glory hound time traveler who stole a super suit) became the voice of every wannabe superhero, proving their bravery even when they were, repeatedly, getting their asses kicked (and cracking jokes about it). This version of the venerable superteam, saving the world in spite of themselves, were bonded by failure, and self-doubt, and the common fate of not measuring up to what the world thought they should be, so I always felt I’d fit right in there. Sure, I’d need some sort of super (but not too impressive) power—just enough so I could be one of the gang getting smacked around by Brainiac or someone before retiring back to Justice League International HQ for a few beers and jokes at my expense. That sounds like family to me.
Let me say upfront that my own academic father was not as difficult as the Jeff Daniels character in The Squid And The Whale; my parents’ divorce was not as rancorous; and my life’s many embarrassments do not, as yet, include passing off a Pink Floyd song as my own. That said, Noah Baumbach’s movie came out the year my parents split up, and certain aspects of that family had the uncomfortable ring of painful truth. It’s not that divorce is “unconventional” in this day and age, but after 25 years of it being something that happened to other people and/or movie characters, and identifying more often with more wistful or at least semi-pleasantly nerdy teenage characters, to suddenly have a movie like Squid cut so sharp and so close to home felt pretty far from conventional.
I have been a big booster of USA’s Playing House since the beginning of its little-watched run in part because I think it’s goddamn hilarious, but also because I identify so much with the family created by Lennon Parham’s Maggie and Jessica St. Clair’s Emma. I always felt bad for those girls who claimed to not have any female friends, because they are missing out on an incredible bond. I’ve had a few Maggies to my Emma (or Rorys to my Lorelai or Merediths to my Cristina). These lady friends have been more defining for me than most of my romantic relationships, and no matter what wacky scrapes I get myself into, I’ll have my best friend ready to body-roll her way through it with me.
If I had my druthers, it would be October country all the year round. I don’t care if other people get sick of pumpkin spice and horror movies—the fall is Maine’s best season, and the month of Halloween is the best part of fall. Which is why I think I would make a good fit with The Addams Family. On the surface, they’re oddities: a death-obsessed clan who spends their days torturing each other, fencing, and snipping the heads off roses. Which is pretty Halloween-like, I’d say. Plus, deep down, the Addams are also a loving, supportive family unit, which means I could have my wholesome cake and my arsenic frosting. Any excuse to wear black all the time and live near a cemetery is fine by me.