Crass-for-the-sake-of-crass comics usually go one way or the other; there isn’t much middle ground. Either the author has a special touch that somehow makes the work funny despite the reader’s better judgment or he doesn’t, leaving a book filled with racist, homophobic, and/or simply offensive material, not only to the subject matter but good taste.
Joseph Patrick Larkin knows this, if the comic on page 237 of his Arcade of Cruelty is an indication. The comic is titled “Johnny Ryan’s Response to 9/11,” and it takes the aforementioned cartoonist of Angry Youth Comix to task for missing the point, this time without the apologies Larkin often offers with his style-imitation strips. It features a disgusting character pointlessly spewing the dirtiest possible language and really has nothing to do with 9/11, or anything else for that matter.
That’s not to say Larkin is an upstanding member of the comics world himself. The strip in question appears in a section devoted to 9/11 comics, and not in the artsy Art Spiegelman sense, but in the making-jokes-about-it-and-people’s-opinions-of-it sort of way. The rest of the book is littered with his deranged sexual ponderings (including a slew of jokes about rape), defacement of childhood yearbooks, and plenty of self-loathing. But Larkin seems to have the touch, using a tongue-in-cheek approach to give many of his strips a heavy helping of irony, with many of them truly at the expense of their author.
The setup is actually quite clever. Larkin is dead. He’s not, really, but according to the book he is. Arcade of Cruelty acts as a retrospective on his career and life, with the approach that it was more or less pathetic. The book opens with the childhood of Larkin—a series of defaced yearbook images. It is the delivery of the comments that works so well. The pages of Arcade are presented like a textbook, with the core content in the middle and commentary on the fringes. The defaced photos read as if they were written by the deranged child in school everyone just knew was going to either end up with artistic talent or in jail.
The book progresses chronologically, if it is to be believed that these items were created over the course of Larkin’s lifetime rather than as a concept hashed together in recent years. If it is a concept rather than spanning material, more kudos to Larkin. If it is really from his childhood, it is fairly safe to say Larkin was quite the strange child, but luckily he seems to be growing into an artist.
Those with sensitive tastes will be immediately turned off by Arcade of Cruelty’s subject matter. But those who can stomach material worthy of a Kevin Smith film will note that despite the shock value of the content, Larkin’s comics make the cut because the comedy really comes from the commentary they make, whether on their subjects (such as Chris Ware), the author, or the reader, who is presumably enjoying such jokes.
It isn’t all great, however. The collection features sections of monotypes, basically black pages with white smudges or indiscernible art, that seem throwaway and serve little purpose other than to fit in with the development-of-an-artist idea. One section is devoted to masturbatory fantasies of youth, featuring clippings from the bra sections of clothing magazines and the like; it’s only redeemed by the punchline of a final page that has nothing to do with the aforementioned topic.
There is much to like, however, in a majority of Larkin’s strips. And the wide-ranging references guarantee there is at least one strip that will absolutely win over readers who tough it out (for this reviewer, it was a Wesley Willis strip and the aforementioned Johnny Ryan bashing). Arcade of Cruelty is an apt title for the unhinged collection, but Larkin is smart enough to take most of it out on himself and let the reader in on the joke.
Reviewed by William Jones on July 9, 2012
Arcade of Cruelty