You know those optical illusions where you see an illustration of a boy fishing in a boat and then, once it’s flipped around, you see a bearded lady? Well, how about a vase that, once two shadows pull away, you see two living and breathing silhouettes of a couple of wiseguys? And how about if, once free, they commence to endlessly chatter about various things? Welcome to “Disillusioned Illusions,” the debut graphic novel by cartoonist Greg Stump. This sort of humor is brave and harder to pull off than it might seem. It does one thing in particular that requires skill and a certain temperament: it messes with you, tries your patience, and dares you to see it through to the end.
Now, I read and go out and see my fair share of absurdist humor and theater. I get the joke. Good or bad, this sort of thing is more likely to try my patience than not. Stump’s book reminds me of Dash Shaw’s “Bottomless Belly Button,” also published by Fantagraphics. It too is a prime example of something out to test the reader, see how far it can go with subverting expectations. In the case of Shaw’s work, the reader must be willing to take a leap of faith with intentionally arty/bad drawing and meandering plot, and is ultimately rewarded with an offbeat story. But, first, they are forced to decide to stick around as opposed to coast along with something more familiar. I mean, say, Batman is never going to force you to decide. Well, at least the intention is not there.
And so, these two wiseguys banter back and forth. The layout and composition is decidedly minimal. And to what end? Is it only to try your patience? Or is it also to stack together something interesting? Or, still, maybe it’s all meant to exist as this offbeat amusement. Let’s look closer. Oh, wait, let’s work with the idea that each silly moment of farce is building on to the next. The two guys begin by figuring out what their roles are. They appreciate the fact that they’re in a “graphic novel.” They realize that graphic novels are supposed to be cool and marketable. And, the longer, the better. So, they begin by padding the content and altering the page count.
The two wiseguys bicker over whether one should wear a vase as a hat. And then a new character, identical to the first two, is brought in to attempt to spice things up. His name is Rodney and it seems his main purpose is to underscore how little plot there is. In the course of events, you do get the feeling that Stump is bringing in anything and everything that might come across his mind. He definitely evokes a frantic and unstable improv comedy set.
Give any artist enough room and maybe they begin to reveal something about themselves or at least about their process. In the case of Greg Stump, he is a notorious kidder. He will pull your leg until he pulls it right off your torso. And then he’ll swing your severed leg above him as he yells out a battle cry. But he is also a meticulous craftsman. Remarkably, what you end up with here is a lot of very funny dialogue and a plot that does grow in a genuinely intriguing and entertaining way. And, most important of all, you will laugh.
All in all, I have to admit that this book grew on me. When it comes to wacky humor, I am open to just about anything. And I conclude here that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the reader or Stump has the last laugh. Because, yes, there is that prankster element running throughout. But the saving grace is an inventive spirit that also runs right along with the smart aleck foolishness. And there are a number of twists and turns as, indeed, one silly element stacks upon another. For those who love offbeat and experimental work, this will definitely appeal to you. Furthermore, just like an optical illusion, there is more here than first meets the eye.
“Disillusioned Illusions” is a 356-page paperback, published by Fantagraphics. You can find it by visiting our friends at Fantagraphics right here.