Finding Humor in Genealogy Comics

genealogy comedy

Comic strips are a quick comedy relief found in the newspapers, online and other media sources. The Sunday paper was known to have a special expanded section for “The Funnies”.

Often they’re just made up, just for fun snippets of the author’s imagination. Sometimes they are humorous reflections of a real-life situation.

We all need comedy in our lives to lighten a mood.

Genealogy is no different. We can all find humor in our genealogy research and there is nothing wrong with it. We’re still honoring our ancestors but sometimes, we find a story that’s funny that someone else might enjoy. Or, how we found that story might be humorous.

In more modern times, we find comic strips in the form of memes or gifs all over the internet and on social media. Recently, I came across an online comic dedicated to genealogy humor.

For this blog, I interviewed Esto Frigus, author of Geneapalooza, an online genealogy comic.

What motivated you to start this comic strip?

Genealogy as a field is changing rapidly. Obviously, everyone would list the rise of genetic genealogy (DNA testing) and the continual growth in digitized records, but there are more subtle changes too. For example even just a generation or two ago many genealogists would have said finding connections to royalty or membership in exclusive societies was their main objective, but nowadays more of us who live in countries that our ancestors emigrated to in the 1700s and 1800s are just trying to save what little of their stories still remains.

All that change brings conflict, but humor is one of the ways humans deal with conflict. Genealogists are generally a pretty tolerant bunch anyway and we also don’t mind poking fun at our hobby. So when I discovered a website called “BitStrips” that allowed people with no artistic skills like me to create their own comic strip, I immediately thought of documenting the humorous side of those conflicts and the other everyday situations we get into in a way that other genealogists would recognize and enjoy.

Does your audience enjoy your comic strip?

I purposely wrote Geneapalooza to appeal to genealogists from many backgrounds so it could be enjoyed by newcomers, seasoned veterans, online researchers and library researchers, and so on. Not surprisingly that also means some comics resonate with certain groups more than others. That’s ok and even if it’s just from my perspective I think it’s still good for people to see how varied our field is and the many different ways we can approach it.

Many of the situations I put my characters in are familiar to the strip’s readers and to their own genealogy work. People have copied a Geneapalooza comic into genealogy presentations where it supported a point they were trying to make, and several societies have used comics on their blogs that have really hit home for them. That’s the recognition that I enjoy the most because it says I’ve connected with something others find humorous about genealogy as well.

What was your favorite comic you’ve published?

I honestly don’t have a favorite. Those who followed the strip will know that I regularly used the same approach to a joke – like the banter between my genealogist main character and her well-meaning but clueless husband, or poking fun at some of the “characters” we encounter in our genealogy, and so on. I think my favorite approach was when I imagined how our ancestors might have plotted to make our research more difficult. Because sometimes it really does feel like they did!

How does any of the comics you’ve published relate to your own genealogy adventures?

The strip follows a young woman who gets into genealogy as an adult thinking it would be a fun weekend project and finds herself getting more and more involved in it as a hobby. My introduction to genealogy was a little different – my father was the original genealogist in our family and as a teenager, I followed him into libraries and graveyards on the trail of our ancestors. As an adult, I already had the benefit of his years of hard work; whereas my main character is pretty much doing all of hers on her own.

Even so, I still drew heavily on my own experiences for the strip. While I tried to broaden the comics to not be TOO US-centric and include the humorous aspects of many ethnic backgrounds, my main character is clearly working on genealogy in the US and I gave her Irish and German heritage because those matched the experiences that I knew best. One of my plans for the strip, if I ever start writing again, would be to introduce more characters into the strip that had ancestors from other backgrounds!

What would you say to other genealogists who may need a little genealogy humor in their lives?

I started Geneapalooza partly because there weren’t any other regular comics with a genealogy focus. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t genealogy humor; with a simple search, you can find hundreds of cartoons on the Internet that lampoon our hobby.

One of the easiest ways to find genealogy humor is just to talk with other genealogists. It doesn’t really matter how much experience they’ve had; nearly everyone has interesting stories about one of their ancestors or something that happened in their own research, and many of those stories are hilarious. I’d defy you to find any two genealogists swapping stories who haven’t also shared at least one good laugh!

Do you follow any other genealogy comics?

When I started to write Geneapalooza, I scoured the Internet to find similar comics to make sure I wasn’t stealing someone else’s format, but I came up short. The closest I found were a few website collections of genealogy humor – “one-off” cartoons, humorous stories, even funny posters about genealogy – but no regular serial comics that focused on genealogy. I’d love to know if anyone else has started one!

Do you know other genealogy comic writers?

No, but I wouldn’t mind getting to know some!

You haven’t published since 2015. Do you still feel that your comics are relevant?

Yes, because I don’t think the field of genealogy has changed all that much since then. Since the strip covers both “old” methods (like library research) and “new” methods (like online databases), it should be relevant for as long as both are still around.

Do you have any unpublished works you’d like to publish?

No, I planned ahead when I decided to pause the strip, so my main character finally finished the family genealogy book she was working on and I completed all the comics that I had designed by that point.

Of course, we all know that a genealogist’s work is never done, so there are always more storylines to develop. Apart from my main character’s continuing adventures in genealogy, it would be fun to explore her family’s reactions to the book. And the genealogy society she belongs to could always gain a few new members!

Do you have ideas for renewing your comic strip?

I’ve thought about picking up the strip again but the demands of job and family have kept me pretty busy. I’d have to find a new way to create the strip now anyway because the BitStrips app has been through a number of changes and it doesn’t allow people to create their own comics anymore. And nobody wants me drawing the strip by hand!

For the time being it’s a fond hope that I can start it up again, but probably not in the near future.

How has your blog been received by readers? Like it, love it, hate it? Mixed reactions?

I put a “Reactions” option on each comic and collected individual feedback. It’s been nearly universally positive.

I remember reading a review on a genealogy society website where one user said one of the comics made them mad; not because it was or wasn’t funny, but because he or she felt that one of the characters in the comic shouldn’t have had the reaction that I gave them. I still consider that comic successful though because it prompted a reaction about how genealogy itself should be conducted which can open a productive debate.

As I said above, many of my readers had different approaches to genealogy and so certain comics appealed to some groups more than others. For example, my sense of humor can be a little wicked when I find humor in the stereotypes of the world of genealogy. I tried to make those comics less about real people by exaggerating the stereotypes, like the person whose online tree went back to “Thor, of Asgard” or the woman who copied so many ancestors from other people’s online trees that she developed a repetitive stress fracture. A few people were put off by that humor, some felt that I shouldn’t even acknowledge those practices, and others found them wildly hilarious. Since everyone’s sense of humor is slightly different, I’m sure that’s a pretty normal span of reactions.

Fun Fact about Geneapalooza

Alert readers will also notice that neither of the two main characters in the comic have neither first or last names, while nearly everyone else in the strip does.

These were all deliberate choices because the strip is not about a single person’s genealogy adventure, it’s a commentary about genealogists and genealogy overall. Even if that distinction only existed in my own mind, I think it helped me keep a broader focus in writing the strip and hopefully made it a little easier as well for genealogists to see themselves in the adventures of the Geneapalooza characters.

About Esto Frigus

“Esto Frigus” is, of course, a pseudonym; a garbled translation of “Be Cool” into Latin. This name was chosen partly as a commentary on how most genealogists in his experience face the frustrations of their chosen hobby like the continual roadblocks or the occasional incompatibility between surviving records, and partly also both as a subtle plea to his readers about his sense of humor.

Esto was born in the United States but moved with his family to Belgium when he was 6. He lived there for 15 years. Esto now lives in Chicago with his wife and three children – two twin boys now in their first undergraduate year in college and a 12-year-old daughter. Esto has been in the IT industry since he graduated from college in 1985.

Esto’s own adventures in genealogy started when he was very young, since his father was the family genealogist and he followed him through libraries, family history centers and graveyards as a child and teenager. It is humbling to note that what his father documented through road trips, letter-writing and a library card still makes up 90% of what Esto knows about his father’s ancestry.

Most of his father’s research was focused on the ancestry of his own male line and those who passed on his (and Esto’s) last name. While he documented that line nearly completely back to 1804 when their Irish ancestor of the name came to the US, his father was never able to “cross the pond” in his lifetime although they made several trips to Ireland together. About ten years ago with the help of others, he was thrilled to finally find two records in Ireland that at least showed where the family had emigrated from. Last year he made another visit to Ireland and found the original parish records still in the hands of an older woman who allowed him to photograph the original records and helped him find the grave of his 5th great-grandfather. So he is very familiar with genealogy being a slow hobby and also the thrill that comes with breaking through the eventual brick wall.

Right before Esto started Geneapalooza, he finally finished his own book about his father’s ancestry and sent copies to his family and other relatives, so it was a natural thought to start off the main character in the strip on her own journey for the same purpose.

Over the years, Esto has broadened his research to include his other ancestors’ lines and his wife’s genealogy as well, so now he has brick walls in many countries!

Esto also started in genetic genealogy (DNA testing) when the first commercial test, National Genographic, came out in 2005. He has spent many hours and dollars in the pursuit of genealogy through DNA, and he is the administrator for his surname’s DNA project. DNA research is a whole other field – exciting, but still in its infancy in being able to solve the unanswered questions of traditional genealogy.