I Wish I Was Joking is a short collection of Tom Van Deusen comics that originally appeared in publications and series such as Intruder, The Seattle Weekly, and Sam Henderson's The Magic Whistle. Van Deusen describes these strips as "nonfiction, autobiographical" comics, but each story is clearly a tall tale of escalating absurdity. A few describe Van Deusen's creepy encounters with famous people and reality television contestants that clearly never happened. But that’s the fun: Van Deusen's keen sense of the ridiculous and wise-guy comic timing create stories that are over before you want them to be.
The opening strip shows Tom going door-to-door selling his comics, amusingly earnest in explaining why he's doing so: "You see, alternative comics lack an effective system of distribution, and…" He rings what turns out to be the wrong doorbell at musician Dave Matthews's splendid home, which leads to an uncomfortable (and hilariously gross) revelation. I have no idea why Van Deusen chose Matthews as the celebrity star for this strip, but that randomness is part of why it works so well. The last line is perfect.
In another comic, Van Deusen is interviewed by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO, for a customer-service position ("Greetings, human!" is Bezos’s way of saying hello). He draws Bezos as a stooped little homunculus devoted to his Alexa device, which is uncomfortably all-knowing. Again, it's a silly story, but with some unobtrusive satire regarding privacy and worker exploitation issues blended in.
Bezos turns up again in his very own comic (appropriately titled "Jeff Bezos"), which presents a typical morning in his gazillionaire's life: he boards his giant robotic apparatus—the "Amazon Bezobot"—then, on a whim, decides to get himself a cup of "authentic Seattle coffee." But things just don't go smoothly:
Again, Van Deusen crafts a very funny piece, which also works as a metaphor for Darwinian "Survival of the richest" business practices. This could have been just a didactic depiction of how the extravagantly wealthy undermine or destroy the efforts of "the little people" with their rapacity and grotesque sense of entitlement (reading it in the context of the Trump era makes these elements even more acute), but in Van Deusen's hands the laughs come first and foremost.
Among the other strips is a weaker episode where Van Deusen visits the Real World house on assignment and encounters some less-than-stellar intellects; the target of dumb jock contestants seems too easy to make much impact. But the two appearances of a deadpan strip called “Undercover Grandpa” hit the mark. It would be fun to see more of this series.
The cover art leaps out at the reader with Van Deusen's hapless, is-this-really-happening expression providing the focal point. It's his general expression throughout the stories, where his character is presented as an everyman, often even a victim—especially in the comic about his Amazon job interview (frankly, evidence suggests that working for Amazon is indeed tantamount to being a victim). Two of Van Deusen's previously published comic collections, Eat Eat Eat (Poochie Press, 2015) and Scorched Earth (Kilgore Books, 2016), feature a very different version of autobiographical Tom—namely, a vile, misogynistic narcissist, the embodiment of Van Deusen's gutsy, no-holds-barred satire/commentary of (you guessed it) misogyny and narcissism. Everyman Tom is certainly easier to take.
In addition to being a very funny guy, Van Deusen is a talented cartoonist. His progression is clear from earlier comics like Eat Eat Eat to the confident line, detail, and backgrounds of I Wish I Was Joking. His Jeff Bezos in particular is a wonderfully mean caricature, but Van Deusen has a curiously light touch; he somehow maintains it even when limning some pretty despicable characters.
As with Kelly Froh's Weekend Casserole, which Van Deusen published under the auspices of his Poochie Press imprint, the production values of this comic are excellent. He always ponies up the extra bucks for the thick, quality ivory paper. Also like Weekend Casserole, I Wish I Was Joking isn't nearly long enough: I laughed throughout but was left wanting more. These "autobiographical" comics are darkly funny and always entertaining. Even if they are all just a pack of lies.