Monday, June 10, 2019

Tom Van Deusen's Expelling My Truth

Tom Van Deusen's comics are interesting because they can best be described as "autobiographical satire." His latest effort, Expelling My Truth (Kilgore Books), actually leans toward some uncomfortably real feelings about his career as a cartoonist, wrapped in part in his ongoing critique of capitalism and fame. Van Deusen's autobio comics have always straddled the line between over-the-top offensiveness and sharp critiques of both himself and autobio in general. That tension he creates has resulted in a series of hilarious comics, in part because Van Deusen obeys what I call the Comedy Law of Punching: "Punching down is easy and cruel, punching up can be didactic and pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny." In other words, Van Deusen is at his best when he makes himself the butt of his jokes, skewering the conceptualization of himself as an Alpha male type.

In the short first strip, Van Deusen goes after some low-hanging fruit: pretentious and talentless "conceptual" art gallery shows. This one features a man sitting in his chair, playing on his phone. Van Deusen's stand-in (a grotesque version of the cartoonist, complete with squared teeth and shaggy hair) is as angry at the justification for the piece that other people offer as much as he is angry about the piece itself. There's a bit of righteous anger on display...only for him to note that he has to catch a bus, deflating that persona and revealing his own persona when he urges that people must "expel their truths."

Van Deusen can also get just plain weird. The second story begins with him once again stomping all over personal boundaries and space by creepily asking to hold a woman's infant while they were riding a bus. The oblivious protagonist then accidentally happens upon rock star Eddie Vedder's house, and then things get weird. Vedder is friends with an alien who brings him drugs and catches Van Deusen peeping in his window. Surprisingly, he invites Van Deusen in, gets him high, sings him a new song (titled "I'm High") and gives him a television. The final, full-page splash panel reveals the punchline without hammering the reader over the head with details. Van Deusen's art ranges between the slightly grotesque and cartoon naturalism, which is just the right tone to strike for this kind of story. There aren't a lot of funny drawings so much as the art smartly supports his concepts.

The final story is both funny and bleak. Van Deusen's tech billionaire boss invites him over to hang out with his teenage son, who apparently is thinking about becoming a cartoonist. His son is unsurprisingly mopey and entitled. His comic, the Red Revenger, is a revenge fantasy against the mild inconveniences of having to wear a uniform to school and generally exist with other human beings. The truth of why he's there quickly becomes evident. His boss gets Van Deusen to admit that he hates his job. Furthermore, Van Deusen admits that as a cartoonist, his work is time-consuming, painstaking, carries little financial reward, is digested in mere minutes, and doesn't even attract women. In other words, he was there as a warning for his son, manipulating Van Deusen in the way that he views everyone as a tool to be used. Even in a strip as grim as this one, where Van Deusen openly wonders why he even bothers, he still manages to throw in a gag at the end.

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