The Quest for the Big Woof
Medium: comic
Year: 1991
Writer: Lenny Henry
Artist: Steve Parkhouse
Country: UK
Format: 75 pages
Website category: Comics
Review date: 11 November 2021
This seems like a bit of a forgotten comic. Googling it yields almost nothing, bar Amazon, Ebay, etc. I didn't see it in comics shops, but in regular bookshops and published by Penguin Books. The world treats it as just another book, really, except that it's also a graphic novel drawn by the great Steve Parkhouse.
It's surprisingly good. It also has a foreword by Alan Moore.
Lenny Henry's writing a new stage show, but this time he's doing it all by himself. He's without his usual writing crew. He's got writer's block. He's in trouble. (I laughed at the page of him turning into a skeleton and disintegrating while talking to his agent on the phone. "I am now somewhat uneasy.")
Fortunately, this is a graphic novel, so God shows up to help. Yes, God. The bloke on high. God likes a laugh, just like anyone else, so he's got a soft spot for struggling comedians. (This sounds better than mainstream religion to me.) He discusses comedy with Henry, who wants to be relevant and socially meaningful. While also being funny. God's willing to take him on a few trips through time and space in exploring this, although that's not to say that he lets Henry's assumptions go unchallenged. "You bloody comics are all the same nowadays. Whatever happened to just having a laugh? I used to wet myself at Laurel and Hardy. You didn't get them poncing around at benefits for Nicaraguan dolphins against the poll tax."
As a comic book, it's imaginative and unusual. The format, the playfulness, the manner and content of the God-Henry discussions... it works surprisingly well as a narrative, despite conforming to no known story template. I even like the ending, even though it's a non-resolution that's basically just Henry wrapping up what he's been telling us as if this were one of his stage shows.
As for the comedy... well, the earlier chapters aren't that funny, actually, but the book gets going when Henry and God become a time-travelling double act. In a way, it fits. Henry's discussing the meaning of comedy and circling in on a comedian's relationship with personal material. The book's discussion mirrors its content. Everything he says about childhood is great and it's at its strongest and funniest when he's talking about his dad's death. It's sharp, it's honest about his (often daft or misdirected) feelings and it's got a ton to say about his family and Jamaican culture. Damn, that was good stuff.
Steve Parkhouse is, of course, magnificent. His stylistic breadth is extraordinary, incidentally, as is the fact that you hardly notice because at the same time he's always completely himself too. He does The Beano (and then on the next page Henry does a nod to The Dark Knight Returns). He jumps from broad cartoons to slavery, racism and the 1960s civil rights struggle and it never even occurs to you that doing all that in the same work might be difficult for an artist. Henry gives him lots of likenesses to draw and Parkhouse nails them all without tipping over into Photoreference Land. (There are two ways in which likenesses can kill an artist. One is, of course, for the likenesses to be distractingly bad. The subtler way is for likenesses to suffocate an artist, who's suddenly copying rather than drawing. Parkhouse never, ever does that. He's their master, not the other way around.)
And, of course, Parkhouse is funny.
When I was a child, I was a big fan of Lenny Henry. I think we all were, at least among the children I knew. Reading this book, I still am.