Benson’s Cuckoos is my first encounter with the work of Anouk Ricard, a French cartoonist who is also the celebrated author of the Anna & Froga children’s books. Benson’s Cuckoos, despite sharing the same anthropomorphic characters and loose, blocky illustration style as Anna & Froga, sheds off much of that whimsy and embraces the ridiculous world of office politics.
Benson’s Cuckoos is 96 pages of full color comics with a matte soft-cover. A blue duck named Richard gets a job at Benson’s Cuckoos, a family owned cuckoo clock manufacturer; after a strange job interview Richard finds things get even more strange as co-workers flash their underwear and the lion he is replacing, George, seems to have gone missing. Through standing exercise meetings and work retreats, Richard and his other coworkers get drawn into George’s mysterious disappearance.
Ricard’s cartooning in Benson’s Cuckoos makes it like a book you might read to a child for a bedtime story. Her illustration is simple and charming, conveying a cute and child-like energy. But the illustration conceals a noxiousness in her characters that makes Benson’s Cuckoos a surprise.
Benson’s Cuckoos is appropriately named – every character in the book, even Richard our everyman, is a bit off kilter. Mr. Benson, the boss, is at best erratic and at worst unhinged; drawn as some kind of fluffy dog feels appropriate because of his wild mood swings and penchant for “fun” at the workplace. Carl, a yellow dog (Labrador?), is almost certainly a sociopath. Christine is rude and could probably be fired for sexual harassment. The list goes on.
Much of the joy of Benson’s Cuckoos is a big mix of slapstick and absurdist humor. Puke jokes and funny hats are part of the mix, but each character’s activities are often so inappropriate as to be not just funny, but a little disturbing. Ricard winds up these greedy, self-absorbed people like toy chattering teeth and lets them bounce off of each other in the all too familiar office environment. Film and television have run this type of plot ragged, but the difference here is Ricard’s bright, energetic cartooning, which makes the situations seem all the more strained and unsettling.
This is the strength of Benson’s Cuckoos – Ricard knows exactly when to twist the plot or dial up the brightness of her work to make the reader uncomfortable, as if underneath the office cubicle life and three martini lunches are darkness and a swirling madness. And perhaps this is truly Ricard’s point, that putting people together in a cube farm toiling away endlessly on things that have no real physicality or value IS a type of madness. And not only is it madness, but it is insidious and infectious, something that can only end in extremes.