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My Uncle Jeff

(Origin Comics; US: Feb 2003)

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Family


Few words in the English language carry as much power as “family”. It has the power to give you life, the power to shape and control you for decades, the power to give you your identity. Many people have been hurt by their family, abandoned, abused. Others cling to their family for support. Family can bring you great joy, or great pain. Your family defines you. And when old age comes, family might be the only thing that you have left.


Damon Hurd’s My Uncle Jeff is a tale of family. While the title refers to one family member in particular, there is more to it than just one man. The weight of generations bears down upon Damon, who stars in and narrates this story. In the first pages, he introduces us to the two most important men in his life, his father and his father’s younger brother, the titular Uncle Jeff. While Hurd doesn’t state it explicitly, these are the two men which define reality for him, the two men against which he measures himself. On one side is his father, smartly dressed in a black suit. He’s the responsible one, Hurd’s childhood deity, the person who he loves and takes after, and, of course, the person who annoys him to no end. And then there’s Jeff, the archetypal “black sheep”. He’s the “cool” uncle, the slacker, the guy who all the kids love because he’s just like them, a big kid, a real life Big Lebowski (Both named Jeff… Coincidence?) The two men are mirror images. At their core, they share a common identity, but they are completely different in every possible way.


In just 28 pages, Hurd writes a tale of surprising psychological complexity. In a two-page diagram, he lays out the family tree of his mother’s family, who preside in spirit over Damon’s life. In raw, blunt honesty that is almost painful to the reader, Hurd captures the love, abuse, and alienation of generations, and does so with just a few words. He shows the duality of love and pain in any family, the caring sides of even the most abusive, hurtful people.


At a family reunion, the topic of what to do about the aging family patriarch comes up. It’s a scene that has probably been played across hundreds of thousands of family reunions in history. The arguments, the old grudges, the jealousies are all captured by Hurd’s simple, heartfelt script and Pedro Camello’s expressive artwork. But more than just a family reunion, Hurd’s story is a meditation on how we relate to our friends and relatives, how they enrich our life. He reflects on our different paths through life, and how the traditional route of a career, a mortgage, and a big screen TV often alienates us from those who are most important.


My Uncle Jeff is a simple tale, told through simple moments. But the sentiments behind the story are anything but simple. Hurd’s debut work is a powerful document of family relations and the feelings that go along with them. It is a considerable risk in today’s market to publish your own book, especially if it is a comic book. But the greater risk here is the frank, honest portrayal of one’s family and inner emotions. Reading it through for the third time today, I can’t help but feel that Hurd and Camello’s risk has paid off big time. They’ve created a work that resonates with emotion, pain, love, and true sentiment. I believe that Uncle Jeff will love it.

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