By Bill Kohlhaase
Our choice for the Great American Novel is not about a boy named Huck, a sailor obsessed with a whale, or a jazz-age millionaire. It’s about a cat—an evil, hallucinatory blue cat—named Waldo. And it’s not a novel at all. It’s a comic.
The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Pantheon), Kim Deitch’s tale of delusion, drunkenness and the early days of animation, covers classic American themes of hope and hopelessness. It’s about promise and perversion, invention and exploitation, technology and entertainment, love and obsession. Though fictional, it’s based on actual historical figures: the animation pioneer Winsor McCay, early cartoon mogul Max Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye) and Deitch’s own father. Layered and literate, it brought deserved acclaim to the veteran underground comic hero when it was released in 2002.
Deitch, a self-proclaimed “cartoon brat,” is the son of animator Gene Deitch, who worked for a number of animation studios before taking over then-popular Terrytoon studios (Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Deitch’s own Tom Terrific) in 1956. Kim and his brother Simon Deitch, who collaborated on The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, were the inspiration for dad Deitch’s acclaimed strip Terr’ble Thompson!, which ran briefly in the mid-1950s (recently collected by comic house Fantagraphics). Kim established his career in the East Village Other back in the ‘60s, and went on to publish in Robert Crumb’s Weirdo and Art Spiegelman’s Raw, among many others. But it wasn’t until Deitch’s Waldo strips were collected in Broken Dreams that his genius, both as writer and illustrator, became generally recognized.
If Deitch’s follow-up in the Waldo saga, Alias the Cat!, doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor, it’s only because The Boulevard of Broken Dreams was such a triumph. The drawing in the latest volume is every bit as detailed and expressive, each panel carrying more meaning than a picture’s fabled thousand words. The usual Deitch devices are in play—leaps through time and space, stories within stories (even a cartoon within a cartoon), disparate characters whose lives cross at the most unusual times. Holding it all together is Deitch’s personal narrative, as he chases the mystery from the present, turning up relics and the occasional character that spin the story back into the past.
The book’s beginning seems contrived with the stock shipwreck and the resulting idyllic life among natives on an island paradise, a utopia that goes sour when bad cat Waldo swims ashore. The story takes a grand turn in its second section with a mysterious figure in a cat costume who battles munitions profiteers just before America’s entry into World War I. This is Deitch at his best, mixing faux and actual history, recreating bygone America and hitching it to contemporary times. The closing section, “No Midgets In Midgetville,” attempts to tie it all together, but doesn’t quite achieve the same tight knot of the earlier volume. If we hadn’t read The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, we’d think Alias the Cat! the most intricate and weirdly fantastic graphic novel ever written.
Except, that is, for Deitch’s Shadowland, written over 15 years ago and recently collected in a beautiful, big-format volume. Shadowland follows the struggles of the Ledickers, a carnival family whose patriarch resembles Buffalo Bill Cody, as their profession evolves in the first half of the 20th century. Coincidence, corruption and the fantastic take center stage. The story opens with a flying pig—like those horses that jumped from carnival towers—and ends with an elephant being hit by a subway. In between, there’s a sideshow’s worth of strange characters: a clown-faced son—think Krusty—modeled on the clown guise mass murderer John Wayne Gacy assumed when he entertained children; a pickled midget; ill-fated movie star Molly Dare (who also appears in Alias the Cat!) and shadowy aliens known as “The Grey Ones” who are obsessed with pop culture.
What Deitch makes of all this is a damning statement of commercialization and what sells in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Just as The Boulevard of Broken Dreams condemns the Disneyfication of cartooning, Shadowland is a fatal shot at the business of entertainment. It most resembles a Thomas Pynchon novel with its multiple narratives, fantasy elements, leaps through time and ribald humor. Deitch’s drawings are dense and cartoonish in an ironic way. The full-page panels of Toby the Flying Pig are framed in psychedelic jags and squiggles, with appropriate images hanging like a proscenium over the theatrics. Larger scenes hold the madness of Hieronymus Bosch.
The Great American Novel is still waiting to be written, but the Great American Graphic Novelist? It’s Kim Deitch.
Alias the Cat! by Kim Deitch. Pantheon Books, hardback, 140 pages, $23; Shadowland by Kim Deitch. Fantagraphics Books, paperback, 182 pages, $18.95.