Wow. I can’t think of many other times when I have received something to review that’s rankled me as much as The Arcade of Cruelty. To call it misogynistic, racist, and homophobic wouldn’t be an overstatement. Neither would it be incorrect to call it just plain boring and baffling. And I don’t say that just because of the use of the n-word or c-word (hey, there might be kids reading this). The vast majority of this just isn’t funny.
But I digress. The Arcade of Cruelty is a thick, wonderfully bound and laid out book of black and white comics by Joseph Larkin. The material is presented as a retrospective of his work, with the idea being he is dead, even though he’s not. It starts with a look at his earlier works, which primarily consist of manipulations he’s made to what I assume are his class pictures and elementary school yearbooks. It moves on to do the same with high school yearbooks and then includes drawings Larkin made in school. Remember when you used to do the same thing? Well, they look about the same and are just as unfunny as you’d expect them to be all these years after the fact. The consistent layout of each page is to have the title of the piece, the year it was drawn, and a brief comment made off to the side of each piece of work.
The book is broken down into multiple sections like this, each with a different focus and a title page wherein there is a brief overview of the collection. I actually really liked the more abstract stuff in the “Everything Else Is a Pale Ghost” section. The next section, comprised of tons of comic strips, shows a slight improvement in the drawing abilities of Larkin but still aren’t very funny. So many of the comments with the comics are so self-deprecating in their nature that it makes me wonder what the hell is going on. Does Larkin think that consistent use of put-downs of himself is funny? Or does he seriously believe that his work sucks? If that’s the case, why include it in a book? And if there’s so much of it in the book, why put out the book at all? Or is the whole thing a big mind-fuck to begin with? Like, “Oh, if I’m self-deprecating they won’t find it funny and that’s what’s funny about it!” Shit, man, I shouldn’t have to think so much to figure out if something is funny or not.
An example of one of Larkin’s comics is entitled “Joseph Larkin’s Snappy Comebacks to Women.” It shows a drawing of what I assume to be him with three word balloons that say: “Is it that time of the month AGAIN?!” “I hope you get cervical cancer and die from it,” and “Shut up, Bitch.” Hilarious, right? Or not. The next section jumps to some monotype prints Larkin made in art school, followed by some collages and both are actually pretty good. I could go on and on, but by now you probably get the idea. I will say that there is a section called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Raped,” which is as un-funny and offensive as you might guess it is. The only section that even made me laugh slightly was the one titled “Always Never Forgetting,” featuring many satirical comics regarding the post-9/11 period.
In the end I was and still am very confused. This is so well laid out and the quality of the paper stock and cover could easily challenge any other comic anthology out there, but the constant self-deprecation and sexist (not to mention homophobic and racist) content ruins any chance this might have of being redeeming. Is all of it supposed to be a joke, as in, “I don’t really mean it. I’m making fun of other people and that’s why it’s funny.” Or does Larkin really have problems with these people? I know not all comics necessarily have to be funny and the ones that are obviously not meant to be are sometimes the more intriguing ones in The Arcade of Cruelty. Too many unanswered questions and pointless drawings make this seem as though it’s almost more about psychology and not comics. Either way, it certainly wasn’t worth my time. And it’s certainly not worth anyone else’s, either. –Kurt Morris (Also-Ran Comics, www.also-ran.com)