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Globetrotting Cartoonist Heads Home In 'User's Guide'

It looks like a last-minute gift, like one of those tiny tomes that live near the register on the counter of your favorite bookstore, hoping to catch the attention (or at least the impulse) of shoppers in the check-out line. Given its digest-sized dimensions and jokey title, you'd be forgiven for assuming A User's Guide to Neglectful Parenting is a hastily assembled collection of cornball homilies, like those miniature books about dads, grads and golf that double as greeting cards this time of year. But don't be fooled.

Guy Delisle is the real thing: a skilled and wryly funny Quebecois cartoonist who happens to be married to an official with the international aid group, Doctors Without Borders. In previous works like Pyongyang and Jerusalem: Chronicles of the Holy City, he's employed a genially stylized line to document life as an expatriate and househusband in some of the world's most tense and troubled places. Delisle doesn't dissect the conflicts around him (as does the rigorously reported work of graphic journalist Joe Sacco, for example). Rather, his cartoons distill the experience of foreignness into a series of allusive and cannily incongruous images, like the cover of his Burma Chronicles, which shows Delisle pushing his son's baby carriage past a fortified guard post, as the armed soldiers regard him with suspicion.

There are no foreign locales at the center of A User's Guide to Neglectful Parenting, and the conflicts Delisle documents this time around are more genetic than geographical. User's Guide is a deceptively light series of gags on the subject of one well-intentioned man's shortcomings as a father. The paternal failings that fall under Delisle's self-accusatory gaze are neither grievous nor shocking, they're the stuff of everyday interactions: forgetting to leave money under the pillow for a child's tooth, hiding a beloved box of cereal from a daughter who doesn't sufficiently appreciate it, playing a comically grisly practical joke on a terrified son who will likely never forget it.

Guy Delisle has published graphic novels about his travels to Jerusalem, Myanmar, Pyongyang<em> </em>and Shenzhen, China.
Alexa Brunet/Transit / Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly
Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly
Guy Delisle has published graphic novels about his travels to Jerusalem, Myanmar, Pyongyang and Shenzhen, China.

These are petty crimes rooted in mere thoughtlessness, of course, the kind of glancing collateral damage family members inflict on one another all the time. But Delisle deftly contrasts his cartoon avatar's self-involved and self-satisfied actions with their lingering effects on his guileless, po-faced kids. In "The Little Mouse," Delisle gets so worked up by his son's demanding more money from the French equivalent of the Tooth Fairy that he accidently gives the game away in the final panel: "Next time I'm gonna give you this [one-cent coin] here instead of two euros!" The change in his son's expression is subtle – he opens his mouth slightly – but in that tiny shift we can see a long-held belief crumbling to dust.

The brevity of each vignette highlights Delisle's acute sense of timing. In "The Monkey," he allays his daughter's bedtime fears ("There's no such thing as child snatchers," he tells her. "That's all there is to it.") The next panel is silent, as we see an expression of relief cross the girl's face. In the next panel, Delisle stands in the doorway of his daughter's room, regarding her thoughtfully. Now that Delisle the cartoonist has given us readers a beat to absorb this quaint domestic scene, Delisle the dad can proceed to screw it up, as he does in the very next panel.

"There's that story about the monkey, though ..." he says, and proceeds to recount a horrific newspaper story involving a monkey, a baby, and a fall from great heights. The strip ends with the girl staring up at the ceiling of her darkened bedroom, terrified.

In "The Pretty Picture," the book's highlight, his young daughter brings him one of her drawings. At first, Delisle praises her efforts, but the longer he looks, the more his professional eye kicks in, as the girl looks on impassively:

"And ... Uh ... I don't want to be too critical, but you've got to work on your drafting a bit. You're going to have put in some effort, or else don't even bother chasing after publishers. Look at the perspective here ... Hasn't anybody told you that things get smaller the farther away they are? This is completely haphazard. I can't tell where anything is. It's not a very complex concept, you know .... I know what you're going to say ... You're going to tell me it's your "style" and that you did it on purpose. Well, kiddo, let me tell you, there's a hell of a difference between drawing like a hack and having some kind of style. Not everybody's Art Spiegelman, you know."

If A User's Guide to Neglectful Parenting is significantly more slight than Delisle's travel memoirs, it's brighter and funnier as well. And it shares with his previous work a keen appreciation for the clash of cultures; this time, however, the cultures in question are those adults and children, and the damage that ensues is played for a rueful laugh.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.