The Webcomic Overlook #54: Silly Daddy
Some time ago, Joe Chiappetta contacted me by e-mail asking me to review his webcomic, Silly Daddy. For various reasons, I haven’t been reviewing solicitations lately. As I mentioned in one of the comments, it’s much easier for me to write reviews for a comic that reflect my own interests rather than tackling something that may or may not stoke my curiosity in the first place. Take the Beachnuts review I wrote, for example. This strip was solicited by the comics’ creator. Although I tried to keep as open a mind as possible, I discovered that I had my limitations. The strip is targeted for a surfing audience. Since I’m not one myself, my observations we weakened by self-doubt about whether or not I, as a layman, could ever truly enjoy jokes about how being in the water for an extended period of time causes one to be gross. On the other hand, as a proud Nintendo Wii and PS2 owner (two of the greatest consoles of all time *strut* *strut*), I can at least understand parodies Mario and Master Chief in, say, Crazy Buffet.
Thus, solicitations are often met with a tentative, “Eh, mmmmmmmaybe.” There was, however, something about Mssr. Chiappetta’s e-mail that piqued my interest immediately. First, there was the absolutely charming way in which he introduced himself: “I am a former wrestler and chess champion, but that has little or nothing to do with the comic.” (Note to aspiring webcomic artists — and, indeed, any else for all walks of life: this is the sort of cheesy trivia that tends to get people’s attention. Put this stuff on your resume. Seriously.)
Second, I was hooked on the premise: an autobiographical account on what it meant to be a father. I’m not yet a father myself, so to me, this is still some sort of magical mystery land and not some horror show combination of stress, sleeplessness, diaper changing, and love. (Awwww!)
And third, Silly Daddy actually won an award in 1998, back in the days before it was even a webcomic. During its print run (which began waaaay back in 1991), Silly Daddy received the Xeric, an award established by Peter Laird (yes, THE Peter Laird, one half of the creative duo responsible for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) for self-published comic creators. My dear reader, you know how I love to chat up award winning comics. Okay, so most of the time, it’s to question the legitimacy of the award, but no such though crossed my mind here.
I shot him back an e-mail saying that I’d be honored to check it out.
The story behind Silly Daddy is, perhaps, just as intriguing as the comic itself. In an interview through Comic News (which will be referenced several times in this review), Mssr. Chiappetta recounts what inspired him to make his comic. His first daughter was born, and he “became amazed and disturbed at how bad of a parent I was in the beginning.” He began to record his experiences … not by writing, but by drawing. Remember, in 1991, this was rare. There was no blogging, no webcomics … heck, no world wide web, at least as we know it. Doing an autobiographical print comic during the waning days of the 80’s black-and-white indie market and before Vertigo made introspective comics cool again was a pretty gutsy thing to do.
For his efforts, though, Chiappetta was the nominee of several prestigious awards. In addition to the aforementioned Xeric, Silly Daddy was also nominated twice for the Ignatz Award (1997 for Outstanding Story and 1998 for Outstanding Artist) and once for the Harvey Award (1996 for Best New Series). Joe will have to set me straight on the last one, since the series technically started in 1991 and the graphic novel was released in 1994. As of 2004, the comic made the leap to the web. Recently, Silly Daddy has over 365 strips published online, a milestone which, I believe, prompted Mr. Chiappetta to send out solicitations.
So, with this information in mind, I went to the Silly Daddy site, and … whoa … I was not expecting this at all.
When someone almost wins the Ignatz for Outstanding Artist, it puts into mind certain, shall we say, notions. Drawings that look like they were drawn by 8-year-olds and displayed primarily on refrigerator doors across America was not one of them. Granted, I have no idea of Mssr. Chiappetta was drawing with the same style the year he won the award. In fact, it had to be different, since currently he primarily uses digital media, which would not have been at the same state of maturity in 1998. But it had to at least be similar thematically, right?
Upon first glance, Chiappetta’s illustrations are rough, raw and unpolished. He doesn’t stick to a single style. His most common style resembles graffiti, not unlike the sort you’d see on a wall in an unsavory urban neighborhood. There are no straight lines, body parts are all out of proportion, and the coloring is haphazard. Other times (and recently appearing with a higher frequency), the art looks like a primitive MS Paint job, composed of simple squiggly shapes and single-color paint fills. And then, sometimes, it looks really lazy. Once in a while, Silly Daddy devolves to the point where it’s simply a photo with word balloons badly tacked on. And then there are strips where the colors blend until the finished product is downright muddy.
And yet … and yet there IS something strangely alluring at work here. The longer I was exposed to the comic, the more affecting the artwork became. Is this the same feeling art connoisseurs get after standing in front of a Mondrian for a few hours until they reach a mind-blowing epiphany? Chiappetta describes his craft best: “somewhat experimental but also very down to earth.” What Silly Daddy lacks in professional sheen, it gains in poignancy. The strips are hurried, yes. But it’s also as if Joe is telling us: “Hey, I’d love to tell you what I’m doing today, but I got three kids to look after and they’re running wild so I got fifteen minutes at most to share with you this funny moment I had while riding the L.” I imagine that, sometimes, he’s recording his thoughts on the spot. Some strips were sketched on a Verizon Pocket PC, no doubt in the precious few moments while his kids are otherwise engaged and before the freshness of the thought leaves his mind.
(On a previous entry, reader Sly Eagle commented that she’d love to see all-ages comics break out from a cookie-cutter look and try something unique once in a while. Score one for Joe Chiappetta.)
Hence, Silly Daddy feels more immediate and, frankly, honest than any other journal style comic currently on the internet. With more polished comics, you get the nagging sense that the author is hiding something, usually blemishes with appearance that they hide in their work. (In a recent example, the creator of Planet Karen, who portrays herself as a skinny Goth girl, ran a strip where she tells her readers that in real life she’s been battling weight problems.) Yet, by making things more abstract, this doesn’t become an issue. What else does Silly Daddy do that makes it feel honest? It includes segments that, if I were doing a journal style comic, I probably would’ve left out.
For example, Joe Chiappetta doesn’t care if you think he’s a ham. Because a ham is what he is. Some of these jokes are too corny. Others are too much of an inside joke. With some of these, you have to read the accompanying blog entry to get the joke (or at least get why Joe thought it was funny). I’m not a fan of using supplementary material to explain what should be a self-contained comic, but then again an embellished comic wouldn’t be a true account of how things really happened, would it? And not only is Joe Chiappetta a ham, he’s a sentimental ham. Sometimes, Silly Daddy gets precious.
As a matter of full disclosure, I myself am a Christian from the Assembly of God charismatic tradition (with a touch of Catholic school upbringing thrown in, which is usually just enough to annoy the Protestants). While I don’t possess the same evangelical fervor as Joe Chiappetta, I don’t frown on it, either. However, as I will explain later, this aspect of Silly Daddy shouldn’t scare away potential readers.
From the Comic News interview, Mssr. Chiappetta says:
Eventually I started asking even deeper questions in the comic; “What does God see when he looks at my life? Would my daughter, who soon became old enough to read, appreciate my comics? How important is my life? What is important? I want to live forever. Can I do that? Will redemption get me where I want to be?”
I was tired of wandering aimlessly and the concept of truth, or the pursuit of it, had often been a running theme in Silly Daddy. As a cartoonist and a father writing and drawing comics about family, I found new security in knowing that my grounding force and major influence creatively was now the author of life itself, Jesus Christ. When I actually acknowledged that any talent I had came from God, it made the whole artistic experience even more profound; “Why did you give me this talent and drive to be a creator?” I would ask that question a lot. I still do actually, even though I suspect the answer is so complex and multi-layered that if I actually were given the answer, it would be beyond my comprehension.
It’s often considered bad manners to discuss beliefs seriously in webcomics. (Jackson Ferrell discusses its relative dearth, as well as his relief when someone broaches the topic, on his blog, This Week in Webcomics.) Frankly, I can understand why: talking about beliefs — whether religious, political, social — often leads to nonproductive insult slinging in which parties of all sides never come to any reconciliation but walk away hurt and angry. However, if Silly Daddy were not to discuss Christian fellowship, the Chiappetta family’s walk with God, and Joe’s street ministry, then the comic would be guilty of the same thing those LiveJournal comics with attractive self-inserts would be doing. It would be hiding. It would betray the trust that Joe Chiappetta had, for a long time, cultivated with his readers. In his interview, Mssr. Chiappetta mentioned that some of his readers walked away from his comic after he started talking openly about his religious conversion, yet they came back some time later. I suspect most people appreciated his upfront honesty rather than erecting a more acceptable facade.
If anything, Mssr. Chiappetta at least provides a rare defense for Dave Sim (Cerebus). In one strip and accompanying blog post, Chiappetta sympathizes with Sim for his spiritual awakening and his adherence to his beliefs. I can’t fully side with Joe on this one, as I find anti-Sim arguments to be rather convincing. However, it did make me realize that I had really only heard one biased side of the controversy (fueled by the equally vitriolic Gary Groth of The Comics Journal).
(NOTE: Joe Chiappetta sent me an e-mail with this message to clarify the above: “One thing I would suggest that you revise is where you said I was defending or siding with Dave Sim. I am not at all siding with him, defending him or opposing him. I haven’t followed the controversy around him or his beliefs enough to know what the real issues are. I only stated in the blog that we have in common that both of our work was changed when we had a powerful religious experience.” Fair enough! As a side note, Joe sent me a very pleasant and wholly complimentary e-mail.)
On his site, Chiappetta compares his comic to Family Circus. Okay, I can see the similarities to precocious kids and their always endearing malapropisms. I think a better comparison (albeit lesser known but with a stellar pedigree) would be to Charles Schulz’s Youth, a series of single panel strips that the Peanuts creator did for the Church of God movement. Neither Chiappetta nor Schulz pretend that Christian life is problem free. There’s still doubt, rejection, and growing pains. Yet there’s also genuine joy and delight at the small moments in life.
Silly Daddy is humanizing in its vulnerability. While the humor is dorky as all get-out and the bizarre art takes some getting used to, Joe Chiappetta has crafted a very truthful, telling account of a family man and his real-life adventures with raising three children.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
NOTE: I have a serious confession. At one point while reading this comic, I fell asleep. Hey, it was 1 a.m. Anyway, I remember dreaming about death. I woke up in an existential funk, staring at the darkness outside … wondering about life, whether it was ultimately meaningless or if I’d accomplished anything in my short time here on earth. It’s funny. I’ve been to many funerals in the past two years. Yet the one triggering the dreams about death was a comic about raising children. No guarantees you’ll share the same experience, though.
Posted on September 8, 2008, in 4 Stars, all ages webcomic, alternative webcomic, comedy webcomic, journal webcomic, single panel webcomic, slice-of-life webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, Uncategorized, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Silly Daddy. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.