Jokes and the Unconscious (Cleis Press)

jokesheaderPoet Daphne Gottlieb and artist Diane DiMassa craft a tale packed with suffering, death, and more death.



113 pgs. B&W; $17.95 SC

(W: Daphne Gottlieb; A: Diane DiMassa)


A long, depressing story of death by cancer. Juvenile art that would look more at home in a low-budget zine than an $18 graphic novel. And yet, effective black humor, as in one panel with the grim reaper in clown shoes. A gay coming-out story that affects even as it cloys. And an ending that manages to redeem the whole experience. Kinda.


That's one take on Jokes and the Unconscious, a collaboration between gifted poet Daphne Gottlieb and naif artist Diane DiMassa. Gottlieb's loosely autobiographical tale details her father's long decline and death from cancer, and simultaneously, her blossoming romantic connection to another woman. We live the story through the eyes of Sasha, a young woman who takes a clerking job in the same hospital where her physician father not only worked, but eventually died. As she passes from room to room, getting patients to sign various forms, she encounters a circus of the naked, crazy, and very sick. The bleakness is broken by the humor of a series of off-color jokes on separate pages, apart from and un-integrated with the storyline. Gottlieb gets her point across: humor is how we deal with the darkness. (Jokes and the Unconscious being the title of a Freud treatise on the subject as well.)


Still, this is 100-plus pages of suffering, death, and more death, and neither the black humor nor a Joan Jett look-alike who falls for the author can do much to leaven the long day's journey into cancer.


And the uneven art doesn't help. Diane DiMassa, creator of the wonderfully titled Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, has a style that brings to mind bored doodling in the margins of high-school textbooks. Her stuff can be evocative, but it's almost always primitive. Her strength, though, is her working relationship with Gottlieb, who apparently told her to draw whatever she felt like, according to press materials. So when the author describes a sequence of Sasha's dates involving empty, unsatisfying sex with another woman, DiMassa draws a pair of inflatable fuck dolls side-by-side in bed. Those sorts of freewheeling interpretations make the journey a poetic one.


There's a lovely little catharsis at the end, when love emerges stronger than death, to paraphrase a The The song, but it's quite a slog to get there. If this collaboration between two accomplished women creators resonates, it's because it's grim as only real life can be. | Byron Kerman

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