Derek M. Ballard

Oni Press


144 pages

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Derek Ballard has, as the bio in this new book reminds us, has worked on a few popular and/or acclaimed animated shows, most notably Adventure Time and The Midnight Gospel. You would think having that sort of resume would result in steady work - not anything that would necessarily have him donning a top hat and twirling a cane while rolling about in $100 bills, mind you, but enough to pay the bills and keep his family housed and fed.

However, based upon the content in Cartoonshow–Ballard’s latest collection of largely autobiographical comics, available from Oni Press–you would be sorely mistaken in that assumption. The overall picture Ballard consistently portrays in this book is that of a single parent desperately struggling to keep himself and his family financially afloat in this post-COVID, post-Trump era. All while living in Florida, no less.

The stories in Cartoonshow are mainly focused on the constant frustration and anxiety that comes with being poor in red-state America. Ballard largely portrays himself as an average father of three–an elementary schooler, a teenager, and a young adult–whose best efforts at making sure the bills get paid and keeping the wolves at bay are continually thwarted by bureaucratic stonewalling, greedy companies, entitled hucksters, and a toxic ex. Need government aid? Too bad, you don’t qualify. Trying to apply for a job? Sorry, you answered that arbitrary question wrong. Worried that one of your ex’s new boyfriends will harm you or your family? Maybe you should buy a gun. At one point, requests for help are met with literal cricket noises.

Ballard takes pains to emphasize that he does not view his struggle as unique. “Our circumstances are not uncommon,” he says on the dedication page. “We are a pretty average American family.” To that end, Ballard regularly shows that folks outside of his family circle are struggling as well. Teachers have to take on grueling second jobs. School bake sales must cover the cost of an art teacher (maybe). Folks who fall behind on a mortgage or student loans get hauled into court. And anyone who has a leg up is selling manipulative MLM bullshit.

If there’s an overriding theme here, it’s that life in 21st-century America is punishing for anyone but the privileged few. And while it is largely unspoken, it is clear that Ballard is pointing the finger at decades of deregulation and privatization spearheaded by Republicans.

The struggle is constant. There is no pause, no break in the absurd cruelty. At one point, Ballard enjoys a temporary respite from his responsibilities by attending a comic convention, only to get a phone call about an active shooter alert at his kids’ school. “What right do I have to a moment of peace when my children have none?” he asks the reader ruefully.

Despite Ballard’s understandable insistence on beating the everyman drum, though, it’s the more personal, specific moments that hit the hardest, especially the stories that involve him attempting to sift through the fallout of his ex’s dissolution into drug addiction. In the story “Screwed the Plug”, for example, there’s a part where Ballard sneaks into his old home only to find a box filled with - well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it hits pretty hard, especially for this single dad.

I’m making this sound like a deadly serious slog, but what saves Cartoonshow from becoming a full-on unbearable all-caps rant is Ballard’s considerable dry wit, even if it barely masks the bile and anger that roils underneath. Ballard is very good at mocking the absurdity of modern life, especially when it pertains to dealing with government functionaries, like the office worker who thinks that “kalfkaesque” is a swear word.

It helps considerably that Ballard has a crisp, precise art style and cartoon sensibility. His angular figures–square heads and elbows, knees bent at sharp angles–at times resemble hieroglyphics and heighten the farcical elements of their situations. Eschewing the more polished and clean look of his previous colored comics (which you can get a sense of in the first few pages of the book, though most of it is b&w), Ballard instead opts for rough pencil sketches, to give the story an off-the-cuff “taken from the front lines” sensibility.

Living up to its title, Cartoonshow frequently uses the sort of motifs you’d find in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants (which he references at one point). Depending on the situation, Ballard goes through several lightning-quick Bugs Bunny-esque changes, turning into a clown or a magician or a pot about to boil over. Flames shoot from his mouth in anger and sound effects crowd around his person. The stories take on a heightened, exaggerated posture, though it never undermines the veracity of Ballard’s situation.

If I have any quibble at all, it's that Ballard doesn't portray his kids with really distinct personalities. They act more as a sort of Greek chorus (often with language that no child or teen would use), enabling, criticizing or undermining Ballard’s efforts, but rarely showing their own spark of individuality.

That one objection aside, there are a lot of well-timed jokes in Cartoonshow, and I laughed at most of them. It’s actually surprising we haven’t seen more comics like this - angry, funny, personal stories about how difficult it is to get by in this country right now, especially if you’ve got kids. I mean, it’s not like autobiography has somehow dried up as a genre for comics, despite the occasional “they’re boring” cri de coeur posted on social media. But while there have been numerous true-life comics about being in love, being out of love, coming from a “difficult” family, having kids, having a mental illness, having a physical illness, surviving a murderous political regime, general trauma and so on – all worthy topics for comics, I’m not trying to belittle anything here – I can’t recall many (if any) autobio comics that have dealt squarely with the economic hardships of our current era.

For that reason alone Ballard’s Cartoonshow would be worthy of consideration. The fact that it does it with such sharp humor underscored by the occasional emotional gut punch makes it worthy of praise as well.