If misfortune happens to pass this comic your way, flip to the page with the one-panel comic surrounded by dotted lines before you pass it over. The one with the picture of the guy looking at his fridge, saying “Hey. You ever notice you’ve got alot (sic) of crap taped to your refrigerator?” and at the bottom it says “Tape this to your refrigerator.” It’s clever in an “I know I’m not but look at me anyways!” fashion, complete with a spelling or grammatical faux pas for that final punt of embarrassment. And thus is the philosophy of the Tom Pappalardo humor.
Or I presume so. This may not be representative of Pappalardo’s normal work; Failure, Incompetence is a collection of unpublished comic strips, a self-proclaimed wastebasket of a creative mind (and, my God, does it ever show). Failure… assumes an air of smug, detached irony, as a lot indie comics are wont to do. And it could’ve been forgivable had the material actually been good, which the front cover almost promises. Colored in a tacky, 70s-upholstrey green, the cover has a bespectacled business man, all laughs and giggles, dropping his suitcase and doing a jig. The drawing’s cartoony, yet understated and attractive. Where did he come from? Won’t you let him back into the limelight, please? Alas, he’s never seen again.
Instead we’re treated to losers and slackers in panels overstuffed with thick marker lines and detail, as though these suburban wanderers biggest adversary isn’t boredom but a little white space. You can call it art brut, but it honestly comes off more like frantic busywork. And Pappalardo makes no apologies about it. In his introduction, he acknowledges the “bad puns,” “illegible lettering,” “inconsistent artwork,” and “recycled ideas.” But he’s sick of his “self-deprecating-apology schtick” and doesn’t want to do it anymore. Well, thank you salesmanship.
After prohibiting us to enjoy the book at face value, and shedding the kvetching routine, Pappalardo resorts to the worst thing of all: a forced vociferousness (“So screw you. I rule,” reads the next paragraph) that we know is phony. And he knows that we know. So to stay ahead of the audience he takes the last resort of pumping up the volume and cramming as much as he can together, each page becoming a collision of doodles and dialogue. They’re mostly passé potshots at obvious subjects like Starbucks (“Filtered through the asscrack of an old homeless man”), rock stars (“The next song is about how alienated I feel” the singer addresses to his stadium audience), and the comic industry (with Spawn hat flying off his head, a kid exclaims “Holy moly! A first edition die-cut foil-wrapped special insert pull-out-poster-included limited signed numbered rare first issue of Cloth-Man!).
Two comics do hint at what Pappalardo might be capable of with a more serious attitude. The first runs eleven pages, the longest story in the collection by a large margin. It revolves around another retail slave that populates Failure…, John, working at a tacky dollar shop. A larger mall had recently been built next to the mall John works in and is slowly sucking the life and money from John’s mall. It’s a clever unique perception of suburban America (the mall John works in opens “their doors to mom-and-pop stores similar to the ones [it] helped displace less than a decade before”), but before any polemics are set up or even before John takes any actions, the story shrinks back to its usual self and ends with a joke about public bathroom masturbation.
The other good comic is a six panel stretch about a clown who drops a 200 pound weight on his head, break dances, and does Nixon impressions to the elated laughter of an audience. After the gig, he loses the grin but the sound of laughter remains even as he waits for a bus alone. And lying in bed that night, he stares at the ha ha has still hanging over him. The sad clown’s been done to death, but it’s always been the sad-on-the-inside routine. Here, the laughter itself, the lifeblood of the clown that begins to sear like acid. It’s a crisp, precise cogitation on the fine line between being laughed at and being laughed with, something all too fitting for a comic that toes that line with the grace of Bozo in size 50 shoes.