The comic who mines gold from a comic

Cartoonist and comedian Luke Healy’s new semi-autobiographical graphic novel, The Con Artists, plays with the fuzzy line between fact and fiction

The Con Artists: from Luke Healy's semi-autobiographical graphic novel

“I feel like a lot of stand-ups love comics,” says author and cartoonist Luke Healy. “Maybe there’s not so much crossover but joke writing and comics writing are similar pursuits because they’re all about brevity, they’re all about reducing things down to the minimum of words possible to express an idea.” We are speaking on the release of his new graphic novel, The Con Artists, a semi-autobiographical account of a comedian undergoing a surreal and stressful point in his life. As a fan of both graphical storytelling and comedians, I realise how odd it is that the word “comic” can refer to both things without ever overlapping. While the supremacy of comics at the box office continues with huge Marvel and DC adaptations occupying each year’s top 10 for the past decade, stand-up comics are also in something of a golden period, swimming in Netflix specials, chart-topping podcasts and a seemingly never-ending discourse about how and why they ply their art, and to what ends.

There have been a few recent comic-on-comic interactions, of course. The Joker has occasionally been given an origin story as a failed comedian, not least in Todd Phillips’s recent, uber-successful Joker, which asked the burning question, “what is the least funny movie we can make about a comedian?” There is also the titular story of Adrian Tomine’s exquisite collection, Killing and Dying, which depicts the tribulations of a teen who aspires to comedy greatness, in one of the best graphic short stories of recent years. Even so, Healy’s The Con Artists reads as a fresh dive into the form.

Main character Frank is, like Healy himself, a stand-up from Dublin, plying his trade in London, whose anxiety issues are compounded when his friend Giorgio is hit by a bus, leaving Frank to help care for him as he recovers from his (not particularly life-threatening) injuries. Both Irish, gay and living in London, they have the kind of paradoxical close connection familiar to childhood friends, despite the fact they can go weeks or months without seeing each other and sometimes appear to have little else in common. As suspicions around Giorgio’s conduct mount, we watch as Frank attempts to care for his own mental health, a burgeoning comedy career and the needs of a poorly and sometimes obnoxious friend, all while trying to get to the bottom of the love/hate relationship that binds them together. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a comic written by a comic, it’s also one of the funniest books you will ever read about friendship, anxiety and the nature of truth and fiction.

“A very similar event did happen to a friend of mine,” he says, “they did get hit by a bus and did turn out to be scamming people. It’s not a one-to-one retelling of what happened, it’s a mash-up of a bunch of different events that happened.”

The Con Artists: from Luke Healy's semi-autobiographical graphic novel

During our interview, and throughout The Con Artists itself, the line between fact and fiction is fuzzy. Healy owns that Frank is basically him, albeit a heightened and fictionalised version. Sometimes the joins are hard to discern, even for those on which the story is based. “One friend did message me things like ‘this never happened’ and I was like, ‘it’s fiction!’” he says, “but there was some debate over what was true and what was not between myself and the real people I feature.” To be fair to these friends, this is a construct directly acknowledged in the book, which starts with Healy addressing the reader as himself, before changing his shirt and applying a fake moustache to become Frank for the body of the story. It works both as an excellent visual gag and as a gently subversive comment on the nature of auto-fiction.

“The book plays a little with that,” he says. “Lots of it is fiction, but the catalyst was that in 2018, I had a really stressful year. I wanted to write a book about this crazy thing that happened, I wanted to write a book about doing therapy, and I wanted to write a book about doing comedy, which I’d been doing for five years. It all sort of mashed-up and became one story.”

Healy’s last book, Americana, one of this paper’s best picks for 2019, was a sprawling account of his attempt to trek the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail in his 20s, a mixture of comics and prose that explored the physical and psychological feat of spending that much time in isolation. This arduous journey is, nevertheless, a delight to read, due to Healy’s razor sharp dialogue and incisive observation, which allows his expressive, cartoony visuals to capture photorealistic shades of human emotion. In Americana, it was in long essayish passages describing his loneliness, or depictions of the interpersonal dynamics of hikers and the indignities of life on the trail. In the shorter, more exclusively visual context of the The Con Artists, it’s the aspirational sermonising of two comedians discussing their future stardom, or the instantly familiar awkwardness of the “Hi, Mr Rossi” Frank proffers to Giorgio’s dad when spotted in the background of a Zoom call.

“Americana was comics and prose combined,” he says. “Comics is great for acting emotion and imagery, obviously, but it’s really bad for communicating detailed ideas, and can be bad for internal stuff, whereas prose is really good for that. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, with Americana, I always asked myself ‘what is the most efficient choice here?’ How many words will it take to express this in prose versus in panels, and I would trade out depending on which was the most efficient. In The Con Artists, I went back to doing full comics because the structure of it is based on stand-up sets, on hours. It works in these loops where ideas are revisited. I think introducing more words into that would have been chaos.”

The Con Artists: from Luke Healy's semi-autobiographical graphic novel

The Con Artists is a book about distances, albeit those of an emotional nature: between a man and his friend, a comic and his audience, or a patient and his therapist, constantly rebuking our protagonist for being too funny during their CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) sessions. “You think I’m funny?” Frank asks, desperately, in reply.

It’s a book filled with great gags, but also one that generates mileage from silence and spare panels, the sort of formal inventiveness not typically associated with the punch and impact of a comedian’s craft. I venture that I find it hard to picture most stand-up comedians writing a comic, since the pacing and longueurs of cartooning seem drawn from an altogether different skill set.

Healy is politely dubious. “Well,” he says, “the more popular style of stand-up is aggressive in its energy but, at the end of the day, stand-up is all about tension. It’s how you lead someone to a conclusion that you subvert at the last moment. I think silence is a very underused tool. Staring at your audience for three or four seconds affects people. If you go to open mics, everyone is so nervous, screaming and shouting but I’ve been performing for years and being very quiet and slow, which is so fun. No one’s gonna heckle you if you’re nice and chill. At least, I haven’t been heckled yet, which makes me a weird and wonderful exception because I’ve been doing it for quite a long time now.”

And did he, I ask while scratching my chin wisely, find writing a story about trauma, anxiety and therapy therapeutic? “When you’re writing memoir or semi-autobiographical fiction, I think you’re obsessively thinking about yourself because you have to be a huge narcissist to write about yourself,” he says, only half laughing. The Con Artists is really about a character working out why he continues to have a relationship with this friend who is obviously hurting him. A lot of the ways in which I approach forming a story are similar to the way that CBT asks you to think about your behaviour — what kind of person are you? What kind of behaviours do you have that lead you to these cycles in your life? It’s interesting to write about something that happens once, but it’s more interesting to write a book about something that you do over and over again, and you’re not sure why.”

The Con Artists by Luke Healy is published by Faber & Faber