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The Con Artists (review)

Creator: Luke Healy

Faber & Faber, 2022

After a work-related hiatus of two months, WCBR returns.

The Con Artists is a slice of life comic book created by Luke Healy, and published by Faber & Faber in 2022. (Faber & Faber is not known for publishing comics, and so we decided to categorise this as an independent publication – which sounds a bit silly in retrospect given the company is a well-regarded and well-known publisher of books.) The front cover and the back cover feature endorsements which suggests that The Con Artists has some comedic or at least jokey orientation to it. In our view, it is anything but that. The Con Artists is in our view borderline sinister in its tone, but Mr Healy does a remarkable job at concealing that, so that the themes within the story creep up on the reader.

We anticipate that part of the miss assessment of the themes of the book is attributable to two of the main characters being aspiring comedians. Central character Frank is a comedian of apparently low-level talent. Given this comic is semi-autobiographical (the symbolism of the glued-on moustache is hard to avoid) we describe Frank cautiously, lest Mr Healy ever reads this review. Frank is likeable but lost in life. We see some of his sketches on display at stand-up comedy performances. What might have initially been funny on a first read becomes poignant in its failed earnestness, and then depressing and disturbing when the lines are repeated before various audiences throughout the course of the comic. We appreciate that comedians, at least in our experience, often use comedy to master and anxieties, as a way of venting or exploring the things that trouble them in their personal lives. Nonetheless, there is something entirely sad about Frank’s lacklustre tilts at the windmill of live comedy. It is as if he knows deep in his heart that this is not his forte (he ducks out of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival on no good excuse), but he continues to slog away at his craft before strangers, a ritual of half-hearted immolation.

Frank’s friend Ro is much more together, ambitious, and willing to try her luck in Edinburgh. Ro is in some ways the foil to Frank. Ro is what Frank could be if Frank was more disciplined and organised in his life.

A third character, Giorgio, is the antagonist and focus of the story. Giorgio is a childhood friend of Frank’s. We wondered whether given Frank’s considerable anxieties of Giorgio’s state of mind and living arrangements Giorgio might have once been an object of Frank’s affections, but there is no other suggestion of this within the comic. (With enormous apprehension we have also categorised this story as a “romance” comic: not because there is any romantic love, but because the main characters interact in a relationship which is committed, unilaterally tender, and abusive.) Giorgio is one of those people who is charismatic and likeable on a first meeting. He is self-obsessed, but in a whimsical and high-spirited way.

But as the paint scrapes away on their relationship and the things that Giorgio does – the passive-aggressive posturing in the audience of a comedy set, the injuries which evoke pity and help, the way Giorgio makes money, and the final call upon Giorgio’s parents – causes the reader to conclude that there is something very dark sitting within Giorgio’s heart. It is selfishness painted black. The many characters sitting within the comics that this critic has read and reviewed over the past year, have not evoked the same sense of revilement that Giorgio did by the conclusion of the story. Giorgio is devious, mean, and amoral, and too weak to recognise that in himself. The tone of the comic is belied by the simple, cartoonish art. The art, like the comedic background, is a sly distraction from what is really happening.

This comic gave us much to think about. The Guardian’s review was much more effervescent and Drawn and Quarterly bizarrely describe the comic as “playful, hilarious”. We do not think so. We think instead Mr Healy has crafted a predatory character camouflaged in an otherwise wistful urban landscape.