Diggin’ Deitch

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 the great 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 in 1956 then-popular Terrytoon studios (Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Deitch’s own Tom Terrific). 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 ship wreck and the resulting idyllic life among natives on an island paradise. Paradise 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 we’d seen in the last 20 years.

Except, that is, for Deitch’s Shadowland, written over 15 years ago and 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 train. In between, there’s a side show’s worth of strange characters: a painted-face son—think Crusty–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. –Cabbage Rabbit

ALIAS THE CAT! by Kim Deitch; Pantheon Books, hardback, 140 pages, $23

SHADOWLAND by Kim Deitch; Fantagraphics Books paperback, 182 pages, $18.95

A version of this story first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly

You’re a Sick Man, Charlie Brown

Comparisons between famously depressive Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and raunch-and-rant cartoonist Ivan Brunetti seem a bit of a stretch. After all, Schulz never drew Lucy sporting a strap-on dildo, as Brunetti does, and having her way with Charlie Brown. But the two illustrators share a world-view. Charlie Brown never gets to kick the football, talk to the little red-haired girl or fly a kite without snaring it in a tree. Brunetti’s view of life is equally hopeless.

Even before the comic depictions of violent sex, self-mutilation, murder and mayhem that dominate Brunetti’s bound collection of early comics, Misery Loves Comedy, there are clues that he’s sick and conflicted. The title page shows Brunetti sitting by a wilted potted plant, a tear clinging to his eye, saying, “I’m sorry.” The introduction is written by his therapist. As you might guess, she blames Brunetti’s dysfunction on his parents.

Well, thank you, Mom and Dad! Brunetti’s insecurity and double-edged anger is the freshest thing in underground comics since Robert Crumb sent Mr. Natural into the desert. Read past his point-blank titles (“Please Kill Me”) and the illustrations of rape, slaughter and suicidal fantasies, and Brunetti emerges as an existential hero, confronting the world and his own demons with brutal honesty. You think you’re the only one who has thought of stabbing yourself in the eye? Or strangling someone wearing a Styx T-shirt, then pissing on their corpse? Think again. And the best part? He does it for laughs.

Brunetti was born in Mondavio, Italy, in the 1960s and began drawing at age 4. The family immigrated to America, where, like many comic nerds, he was bullied by his schoolmates. His father, whom Brunetti described in an interview for The Comics Journal #264 as “domineering and tyrannical,” made him give up drawing, forcing Brunetti to hide his doodling in the way most young men hide masturbation. He discovered the underground at the University of Chicago, jumped back into drawing and published his first issue of Schizo in 1994. Since then, he’s done New Yorker covers and appeared in Entertainment Weekly as well as Dirty Stories and Hate comics. His reputation jumped when he edited and wrote the introduction to last year’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction from Yale University Press.

Crude, absurd and surreal humor have been part of underground comics since their ’60s heyday. Brunetti personalizes that tradition, creating a brutally honest self-portrait that reflects our darker urges. “The mark of any great artist is his willingness and ability to say what everyone else is afraid to even think,” he says in a manifesto that opens Schizo #1. By this measure, Brunetti is among the greatest artists to have ever lived.

Misery Loves Comedy collects the first three issues of Schizo as well as miscellaneous strips and cartoons published from 1992 to 2003. There’s a variety of drawing styles ranging from the exacting, detailed portraits seen in “Six Reasons Why I Wish I Were Man Ray” to simple round-faced renderings influenced by Peanuts and Hello Kitty. Brunetti shows his skill as a copyist in scenes from favorite newspaper strips as only he can: daddy cutting a “felch fart” in a Family Circus parody, Dennis taking Mr. Wilson from behind, and Nancy offering to flash Sluggo if he’ll reciprocate.

Brunetti synthesizes his world-view, sometimes without words, in single-page comics drenched in snide irony. “Music Brings Us All Closer!” makes a hilariously cynical comment on pop culture. “A Modern Day Fable” shames Steinbeck’s The Pearl when an overgenerous cash machine leads to murder, whoring, drugs, suicide and donuts.

Brunetti’s long pieces transcend comic humor while delving into the ironies of applied psychology and philosophy. “Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum . . .” has all the pathos of Job scraping boils with a pottery shard. Brunetti argues dogma with Jesus in print-heavy panels as Christ finds a use for his stigmata that any 14-year-old boy would admire. “If I Were Dictator of the World” balances wild images atop typed paragraphs urging global annihilation.

Schizo #4, issued in 2006, is not included in this collection, probably because it stands apart from the earlier work with its focus on the frustrations of making art and sketches of Kjerkegaard, Erik Satie, Louise Brooks and film producer Val Lewton. Brunetti seems to have dealt with his depression and anger, channeling it into a childlike stylism that retains more than a hint of slime. In a tribute to Schulz, Brunetti is seen plinking at the piano, Schroeder-like, saying, “The damage of youth never subsides.” Those who enjoy Brunetti’s particular brand of depravity can only hope he’s right.

Misery Loves Comedy by Ivan Brunetti; Fantagraphic Books; www.fantagraphics.com. Hardback, 172 pages, $24.95.