One could advance a pretty strong argument that Tom Van Deusen is the funniest cartoonist in America today — but, as with anyone whose humor hits a bit too close to home, his stuff is certain to offend disparate constituencies.
On the one hand, anyone whose hyper-sensitivity outstrips their common sense to the extent that they take him literally will think he’s a racist, misogynistic, self-absorbed pig of the lowest order — after all, apart from his early-2017 effort, I Wish I Was Joking, wherein he (successfully) experimented with making his “autobiographical” stand-in likable for change, that’s precisely how he’s always portrayed “Tom Van Deusen.” On the other, though, the minute some “MAGA” fuckhead were to realize that he’s actually aiming a sharply — and deservedly — accusatory finger at the very same mental toxicity he’s ascribing to “himself,” well, they’d probably end up feeling as butt-hurt as the “snowflakes” they’re always both bitching about and, frankly, outdoing in today’s Most Easily Offended sweepstakes. In short, then, if you go into one of Van Deusen’s comics determined to walk away from it feeling pissed off, you’ll find plenty of reason to be.
In his latest collection of short strips, the Kilgore Books-published The Big Me Book, Van Deusen is back in the full-on asshole mode that readers of his earlier works like Scorched Earth and Eat Eat Eat have come to know and not-exactly-love, only this time out he’s become addicted to social media as the latest outlet for his incessant need for adulation, encounters a magical cat who can grant him three wishes, and finds himself saddled with the curse of having his comic-book “thought bubbles” visible to anyone and everyone. Things don’t go well in any of these scenarios, of course — but they never do in these strips/books, nor are they supposed to. That would sort of defeat the whole point. The damn thing, though, is that noxious as the thoughts and actions of Van Deusen’s two-dimensional doppleganger are (strutting around in a Nazi uniform? Fucking a plastic sex-shop ass in public?), you will laugh. That’s a lead-pipe cinch. As is the fact that you’ll feel borderline-queasy for doing so — which, of course, makes the whole thing all the better.
Filtering individual and/or societal ugliness through a comedic lens is, of course, nothing new, but to do so by making yourself out to be the biggest d-bag of all? That’s where Van Deusen’s work breaks the mold. And probably where he loses some readers. After all, the natural inclination of any human being (okay, any other human being) is to make oneself look, if not great, then at least decent or okay, and if you just can’t let go of that assumption, then you might be inclined to think that Van Deusen is tacitly endorsing “his” detestable mindset rather than ripping it to shreds with a fair amount of gleeful contempt. I’m honestly not sure how anyone can miss the point as there’s nothing even remotely subtle about what our guy Tom is doing, but hey — I’ll leave the absolutism to the jerks he’s so clearly (and hilariously) eviscerating.
The other thing that might throw folks for a loop when it comes to Van Deusen, I suppose, is his drawing style. Seldom is wit this acerbic delivered by means of illustrations so overtly “cartoony,” but again — it’s a contrast that’s both absolutely intentional and supremely effective. Squiggly lines and smiley faces and vaguely Archie-esque figures typically associate themselves in the subconscious with light-hearted wholesome stuff, and that unspoken alliance is hoisted on its petard in Van Deusen’s comics, particularly The Big Me Book, which shows “him” behaving even more abominably than previous books have. If your head spins at the inherent dichotomy between subject matter and “delivery method,” that’s understandable enough at the starting line — but after a few pages, you’ll be convinced that it works.
As does the book in general, truth be told, not least because present-day circumstances have, depressingly, made Van Deusen’s comics more relevant than ever. A few years back, when he was just getting his start, one could be forgiven for thinking that he was punching pretty low, that of course everyone has an appropriate level of disdain for Neo-Nazis, egotistical bastards, irresponsible adult males trapped in a kind of extended adolescence, and woman-hating rat bastards. Then they took over, and we learned that they’d been out there in huge numbers the whole time.
And so Tom Van Deusen has graduated by default. Once not so long ago, his work was, by and large, seen as being simply amusing. Now, thanks to vicious purveyors of “alt-right” snake oil like Mike Cernovich and Stefan Molyneux, thanks to Charlottesville marchers’ chants of “Jews will not replace us,” thanks to Donald motherfucking Trump — and thanks to the millions of people who didn’t take the threat they represented as seriously as Van Deusen did — it’s become both amusing and necessary.