Swinging the Funnies

One of the delightfully weird things about the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s was how retro they were musically. Sex and drugs were thematic constants, but rock and roll? Forget it. R. Crumb, who led an old-fashioned string band that issued recordings on 78s, fetishized ancient blues and jazz guys. Justin Green went from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary to the largely pre-Elvis strip Musical Legends. And Kim Deitch, the best storyteller of the lot, sprinkled subtle jazz, crooner and dance-band references as a background score for his intricately lurid century-spanning foundation tales of American show business.

If Thomas Pynchon could draw, he might be Kim Deitch, whose primary subjects include rampant paranoia, the nexus between the real and the really imagined, parody as a means of containing the past, and decline and fall (in the Pynchonian lexicon: entropy). Having loved Deitch’s work for nearly 40 years, I come now to sing its praises because Fantagraphics has just published Shadowland, his most masterly achievement since The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2002). Boulevard tracks the fortunes of animation from pioneering visionaries to meretricious assembly lines, with delusions of theme park grandeur as the abiding punch line.

Shadowland, consisting of 10 interconnected stories, cuts a broader swath, sacrificing a degree of coherence to parade a startlingly inclusive array of showbiz trappings through a blend of melodrama, grotesquerie, science fiction and twisted comedy. Deitch can be arcane and ambiguous, and his humor can stick in your throat like a chicken bone, but this time he poses his premise with unusual clarity. Tiny, slow-moving, benign space aliens that look like pendants (complete with holes in their heads to accommodate chains) crashed in the United States in 1897. They could have repaired their ship and left, but became entranced by the plethora of amusements from opera and minstrelsy to pornography and evangelical preaching.

As showman Al Ledicker Sr., a smalltime Colonel Cody, explains: “They consider us a flawed species, but a highly entertaining one. And it’s our folkways, the way we entertain each other that they consider to be our saving grace. It’s what they consider us to be particularly good at, and a thing they were very interested in preserving.” They are “collectors and compilers,” even film preservationists; consequently, they are in control (how’s that for fantasy?). In a story that hurtles back and forth in time, touching down every decade or so between the 1890s and the 1980s (much of Shadowland initially appeared in a 1989 comics series), Deitch works in carnivals, circuses, medicine shows, dime museums, minstrelsy, jazz, shooting galleries, rainmakers, panoramas, shipwrecks, silent and talking movies, whorehouses, convents, corruption, murder, racism, sexual enslavement, geeking and a college for degenerates, among much more. Turning the pages has the effect of wading ever deeper into a nightmare that is all too familiar and yet wondrously novel.

The pages, incidentally, are full-size and handsomely printed, especially the single-panel pages of the first story (“No Business Like Show Business”), which replicate carnival posters, and the superb 1985 color elaborations of those posters inset at the end of the book. Boulevard of Broken Dreams has the advantage of hard covers, but the size and glossiness of the original comics are diminished. Shadowland, bound in thick cardboard, more accurately reflects the dazzling density of Deitch’s graphic style, which is at once disarmingly stiff and remarkably expressive—he can seat a dozen people around a table and let you know what each one is thinking.

The connection between jazz and comics as open-ended art forms that balance individual inspiration against collusive teamwork has been much noted—by, among others, Gilbert Seldes, Edmund Wilson, John A. Kouwenhoven, Albert Murray and Martin Williams, who put the Smithsonian Institution in the jazz reissue and comics anthology business. One of the first jazz-influenced symphonic works was named for George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and the Fleischer brothers found ideal expressions of dreamlike surreality in the music of Louis Armstrong, Don Redman and Cab Calloway, all of whom serenaded Betty Boop.

Kim Deitch comes to his obsession with old show business genetically. His father, Gene Deitch, not yet out of his teens when Kim was born (in 1944), designed the covers and enshrined jazz geekery in dozens of cartoons about the Cat for The Record Changer between 1945 and 1951, all of it collected in The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove (Fantagraphics, 2003). Between working as an animator for the innovative UPA and briefly running Terrytoons (a hopeless attempt to modernize that most hidebound of cartoon factories), he launched a short-lived newspaper strip, Terr’ble Thompson, which Fantagraphics collected and published around the same time as Shadowland, and later created TV’s Tom Terrific.

When Gene Deitch appears in fictional guise in Boulevard of Broken Dreams, he has the Cat’s pointy triangle of a nose (a precursor of Spy vs. Spy). His Terrytoons connection resounds through Kim Deitch’s work, in part because he is of the generation that grew up on televised Farmer Gray cartoons. Paul Terry and his Fables Studios serve as the basis for Fontaine’s Fables Studios in Boulevard. Kim Deitch himself appears in Shadowland, acknowledging in an introduction that its strangest character, the murderous Al Ledicker Jr., who spends his entire life in minstrel-like clown-face, may have been subconsciously influenced by the clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy, and then as a character who gets his material from the lover of his movie star heroine, Molly O’Dare.

The oddest invasion of real life into Shadowland is an anecdote depicting Sidney Toler as an alcoholic racist abusing Mantan Moreland and starring in a film of the Charlie Chan novel, The Chinese Parrot; that movie was never made with Toler, and I suspect that the characterization is also invented. The blending of truth and fiction sucks you into these Venus Flytrap tales. Deitch’s next major work, collating his 2002-2005 comics series, The Stuff of Dreams, is due from Fantagraphics this year. The most autobiographical of his works, it includes a close-up of his bookshelf, prominently displaying Brian Rust’s two-volume Jazz Records 1897-1942.

Originally published in March 2007

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