Ralph Steadman's attitude toward his friend and collaborator Hunter S. Thompson is an extended spasm of violent contradictions. As documented in his memoir The Joke's Over, the famed illustrator forgives Thompson everything, yet zealously holds grudges. He's endlessly proud of the iconic work they created over the course of their decades-long collaboration, yet he desperately yearns to be recognized for the work he did without Thompson. He clearly loves Thompson, yet bitterly resents the outsized shadow he cast over Steadman's impressive career in multiple media. So it isn't surprising that Steadman spends much of The Joke's Over trying to work through his complicated, conflicting feelings toward the countercultural icon whose name will forever be associated with Steadman's own.
The book gets off to a roaring start, with a young, green, painfully naïve Steadman serving as Thompson's semi-willing sidekick during his gonzo assault on the bluebloods and landed gentry who flock to the Kentucky Derby. That exhilarating chapter plays like an alternate-angle take on Thompson's own seminal writings. At best, Steadman writes like he draws: with savage, violent wit and an eye for striking and surreal imagery. But while the Derby portion of The Joke's Over feels essential, too much of the rest of the book is gnawingly irrelevant. Its Thompson anecdotes would make for a terrific magazine article or a very short tome, but stretched to 400 pages, the book feels bloated.
The perpetually loaded Thompson, who remarkably manages to seem perpetually out of control yet wholly in command of every situation, is a fascinating, charismatic subject. But there simply isn't enough of him to go around. So Steadman ends up padding out the book with letters to Thompson, self-promoting stories about his own career (all that's missing is a catalog and an order form), and trite observations about the United States, which are no more trenchant or insightful than those of the average European backpacker. That's the principal irony of The Joke's Over: Steadman is eager to escape Thompson's legend, but even in death, Thompson towers over his frequent collaborator.