Is That a Joke?
- Ray Fenwick (Author)
Hall of Best Knowledge. Fantagraphics Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tim Blackmore
There’s a certain desperation that marked comics from the 1990s, one signaled by a combination of narcissism, focus on quotidian bodily functions, the aesthetic of ugh, pretension to Art, and badly performed mechanical artwork, explained away as being original or naïf, anything but laziness on the artist’s part. So when I read Ray Fenwick’s Hall of Best Knowledge, I thought I’d done some time travelling. The book is a series of hand-lettered single panels that appear one to a page, and consist of jaggedly performed pseudo-calligraphy. Each panel reveals to us an author, possibly in college (later we learn otherwise, but I’m trying not to ruin whatever charm this book has going for it), who is a world expert on everything. The expert mostly pumps himself up at his readers’ expense, where the unseen author concludes that the "goals of true comedy," are "To increase one’s social status at the expense of the degraded victim." And on it drags, page after weary page. The book is completely overshadowed by the eerie work of Edward Gorey, and the astonishing gymnastic penmanship of Chris Ware, so I suspect Fantagraphics is hoping to tap a similar vein of ironic broodiness.
I’ve been wracking my brain for a way to say something pleasant about this book, and there are some things that made it occasionally funny. Fenwick’s character often cancels the lectures he is presumed to give, and these repeat cancellation notices become wittier with each iteration. But enough: this is a tired book with little to recommend it; its premise is slight, the pretentious revelations are dull (I know, I know, they make a review like this one part of the joke. "Ha!" As Fenwick’s character would say. Good one.), and it’s badly drawn- there are masses of astonishing calligraphic artists out there, but We, as Charlie Brown used to say, Got a rock. For those now in a rage that I’ve attacked what is no doubt the wittiest slice of irony this side of Voltaire as passed through the nose of superior college professors and postmodernists everywhere, I note the book was listed on two Canadian book lists as being in the top ten graphic novels of the year. Shows you what a critic knows, ha?
- Expanding Boundaries by Shih-Wen Sue Chen
Books reviewed: Animation in Asia and the Pacific by John Lent and Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing by Esther Y. Iwanaga and Rajini Srikanth
- Is That a Joke? by Tim Blackmore
Books reviewed: Hall of Best Knowledge by Ray Fenwick
- Telling Secrets by Tim Blackmore
Books reviewed: Secret Identity Reader: Essays on Sex, Death and the Superhero by Lee Easton and Richard Harrison
- Globality in Comics by Andrew Yang
Books reviewed: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware and Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle
- Unpopular Culture by J. Kieran Kealy
Books reviewed: Unpopular Culture: Transorming the European Comic Book in the 1990s by Bart Beaty
MLA: Blackmore, Tim. Is That a Joke?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #203 (Winter 2009), Home, Memory, Self. (pg. 146 - 147)
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