A wannabe cartoonist takes the starving artist route. It’s not pretty.

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Aug. 25, 2022

Funny Pages
Opens Friday 26
3.5 out of 5

Full disclosure: my knowledge of the underground comic scene begins with Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and ends with Robert Crumb (Fritz the Cat), which is to say it’s really limited, but just enough to know there is a vast subculture hiding in plain sight. Ask my editor.

Writer/director Owen Kline ventures into alternative comic-land in the superb first feature Funny Pages. The son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates uses this seldom-explored landscape to tackle Millennial/Generation Z issues, like forgoing college to protect your intellectual independence and uniqueness (seems like it wouldn’t hurt to know what’s already been done, but that’s just me). Kline doesn’t necessarily endorse this path, he just shows its challenges and shortcomings. Worth mentioning: mom and dad are not even in the acknowledgements, but you’ll find Josh and Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) among the producers.

The filmmaker’s avatar is Robert (Tales from the Loop’s Daniel Zolghadri), a high school senior-slash-comic book artist. His mentor — likely a predator — recommends he skip art school and try to live off his rather subversive brand of work. The advice hits home with Robert.

Robert takes advantage of the Christmas break to try to make it on his own. He forgoes upper middle-class comforts, takes a job at the public defender office and rents a room with two elderly, unkempt bachelors. The side gig puts him in touch with Wallace, a colorists’ assistant formerly of his favourite comic book publisher. Wallace is a hostile, defensive individual more likely to punch you in the face than share his knowledge. He would repel anyone other than a wide-eyed wannabe.

Kline populates the film with fun supporting characters that hint at richer stories of their own: Robert’s fed-up Gen-X parents, his best friend — a pimply teen convinced that “soul” trumps art — the patient public defender with impossible clients, and a number of comic book dwellers of all shapes and sizes.

You could take Funny Pages at face value, but there’s more to it than quirkiness and a short trip to the fringes of the art world. Robert’s journey is compelling: if you want to forge your own path in a field populated by loners and nonconformists, how do you find a guide? The protagonist’s arc is frustrating but true to life. The process itself nurtures and fuels his creativity.

Shot in low-res film, Funny Pages feels appropriately grimy and subversive. While very early in the game, one could compare Owen Kline to the likes of Noah Baumbach (who cast him as the younger child in The Squid and the Whale) and Todd Solondz (Happiness). Kline, who’s only 31, doesn’t find much nuance but his broad strokes are on point.

Funny Pages is about the loss of innocence and venturing open-eyed and eared into a world that’s going to disappoint you. Hardcore comic book fans may get more mileage from the film than civilians, as plenty of artists and their work get name-checked. ■