In Stuffed!, a corporate benefits administrator inherits his late father’s amateur museum of oddities. Hidden amongst the nick-knacks and curiosities is a very lifelike statue of an African man, replete with loincloth and what appears to be the broken shaft of a spear. Tim’s father always called the statue ‘The Bloodthirsty Savage’. But Tim’s family doesn’t want the statue around in their suburban home. So Tim takes ‘The Savage’ to a museum, kicking off a convoluted, hilarious journey to give the figure a proper home.
It soon turns out The Savage — which they tactfully rename ‘The Warrior’ — is in fact a real, stuffed man from Eastern Africa. But returning him to his homeland is not nearly as simple as it seems. Add to this mixture a crazed hippie brother, museum bureaucracy, memories of a horrible father, a few diplomats and racial politics, and you get one hell of a nutty fruitcake.
Cultural property may be very loosely described as the place where intellectual property and human rights meet. People who care about cultural property care about where the objects in museums come from, who has the right to sell or buy culture, and ensuring that generations of knowledge — often created by indigenous peoples — is not merely cast away or exploited.
In the U.S., many of the Native American items in museums were acquired through grave robbing. Congress decided to remedy this problem after years of lobbying by Native American groups with the Native American Graves Protection Act — ensuring that sacred remains be returned to their tribe of origin. Internationally, the best known example of cultural property is the Elgin Marbles, a series of carvings that were hacked off the Parthenon in Greece and shipped to the British Museum, where they now reside. There are good arguments for each side of these debates with the eventual outcome likely to be that museums as we know them will soon change forever to become living, breathing institutions of learning.
Anyway, all of these issues are at play in Stuffed!. Who ‘owns’ the The Warrior? Where is his real home? Which country in Africa should take him, if any? And what rights do African-Americans have in the repatriation of an ‘ancestor’?
Author Glenn Eichler writes for The Colbert Report and it shows. He combines well with illustrator Nick Bertozzi to capture some deadpan, slapstick humor. Tim carts the statue of ‘The Warrior’ through Harlem with the head sticking out the window, to have the covering blown off while he is at a stop light. The black museum official’s high minded values collide with Tim’s loose-cannon brother until they smooth it over with a joint. Then his brother tells a racist joke. Meanwhile, the women question the ‘warrior’ nature of the statue and joke that his broken shaft is a vibrator.
These jokes are all the more impressive because comedic timing in a graphic novel can be much trickier than onscreen. It’s easy for authors to become muddled by the pacing of the panels. That doesn’t happen here.
By the end of the story — and I won’t ruin it for you — Tim has developed a special relationship with ‘The Warrior’, chock full of amusing dreams and flashbacks. Behind all the laughter is an admirable sensitivity to issues of displacement and fatherhood. And who doesn’t like to learn and laugh?
Review written by and used with the permission of Deji Olukotun, who reviews stories about human rights at FictionThatMatters.org