Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Kim Deitch: A Novel Approach

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“When I’m starting to think of a good idea, I visualize myself walking into a comic book store, and I ask myself the question ‘What are you not seeing here that would absolutely knock your socks off, in terms of a book?’” Kim Deitch poses the question from his apartment in the Upper West Side, surrounded by shelves of DVDs of old movies, pulp novels, and books. A large black cat, Roscoe, periodically comes up to him for attention. His wife, Pam, has a collection of stuffed black cats (most aged into grays) inhabiting a few shelves in the other room. “You don’t expect that question is going to be answered right away, but by asking that question, it starts the wheels turning. After a while your subconscious mind starts to feed out little clues towards what that might be. That’s when I start to get rolling. 

“The secret of my work routine is that I think I’ve cultivated a relationship with my subconscious mind, so I figured out that it’s a different part of your brain. For instance, there’s the part of your brain that does interviews or other things in your life. One way I get at it is that I take my work to bed with me, especially when I’m creating it. Last night I did it; I take a look at what I did in the day and troubleshoot where it’s weak and needs improvement. By doing that before I go to sleep, my brain works on it while I’m sleeping. I wake up in the morning and I get working on it as soon as I get a cup of coffee into myself. It’s amazing how the little problems start to solve themselves, because even though you don’t think your working on it, something back here is.”

The soft-spoken Deitch wears jeans and a white t-shirt, given off a relaxed aura like an old hippie, or a Zen Buddhist. Emerging from the Underground Comix scene of the 1960s, Deitch evolved from a capable cartoonist to a unique voice in comics, his work blending a love of the pop culture now gone with a romantic fondness that never devolves into sappy nostalgia. Maybe it’s because all of his characters are too busy haunted by their own demons, or from Deitch’s flag character, a 1930s cartoon cat named Waldo who is actually a demon incarnate.

“I’m very much inspired by R. Crumb,” Kim admits of his infamous contemporary. “I’d say he’s my biggest idol in comics. He was one of my hugest inspirations for getting more involved in all this. While I’d already been involved, he just raised the bar and made the whole level of commitment that much higher.
“I’d like to think that I’m not that much different, in terms of level of commitment, than someone like him. I’m not as good an artist as him, but I don’t know who is. I just try to tell good solid stories. I try to make them real enough so that I’m believing them dramatically when I write them. It’s a big deal in my life. I’ve been doing this in forty-odd years, and I’ve finally gotten to the point where I like to draw. I’ve trained myself up to the point where I do like to draw and have trained myself up to reasonably good work habits. I’d be lost without it; it’s what I do.”

“One thing I had going, which is why I feel sorry for kids today, is that it was a lot easier to be a hippy or beatnik and live on the cheap (or virtually next to nothing) while trying to figure things out. That’s next to impossible today. I like talking to young kids, and in fact I do a lot of it when teaching and lecturing. I’m very careful when I talk to them and say ‘Okay, you’re hearing what I did. You can get some ideas from it, but don’t try to do exactly what I did because it’s not going to work today. You’re going to have to figure out a lot of the details yourself.’”

Despite Crumb’s influence, a larger influence is undoubtedly in someone near and dear to Kim – his father – animator Gene Deitch. Gene’s career started in Los Angeles, working as an animator for UPA; he then worked his way to Detroit, working at Jam Handy (“[They] made just about all the industrial films you ever saw up to a point,” Kim points out); and ended up running the New York office of UPA. UPA is best known for animating two stalwart characters of the 1940s through ‘60s, the comically sightless Mr. Magoo, as well as Gerald McBoing Boing, as well as the TerryToons theatrical shorts (which boasted Mighty Mouse amongst its ranks).

“Some of the stuff he taught me was real basic, like always finish what you start,” Kim said. “He also said ‘Kim, one thing you’ve got to remember is that most of anything is lousy,’ which I took for a long time as totally cynical but, then over time, I realized ‘It’s a valid remark, because we’re not trying to be like everything, we’re trying to be like the gold inside the quartz that isn’t lousy.’
“The other thing he told me was ‘Always try to give your customers just a little more than they’re expecting.’ I try to take that a little further and give the customer a lot more than they’re expecting. I got a lot of good stuff from him along those lines.

“Also, he was keeping me on my toes, and was quick to inform me that I wasn’t such a great artist and that when he was my age, he could draw circles around me. Like ‘Maybe you want to take a look at writing instead. That might be more up your alley.’ He’s a good guy, and I had a tremendous childhood with him.”

Encapsulated in one single volume is a rare 1955 comic strip, Terr’ble Thompson, a little boy with a red, white, and blue t-shirt and folded paper hat. Operating out of his clubhouse, Terr’ble makes history as he saves Cleopatra and her father from a dreaded tree virus, restores Santa’s faith in Christmas, and helps Christopher Columbus discover America – all while foiling plans of arch-nemesis Mean Morgan. Thompson’s brilliant in its word-butchering kiddy dialect, loose animated style, and straightforward make-believe sense of “and then he, and then…”. Gene Deitch’s single comic strip made an impact on young Kim.

“That was a huge influence, because I was old enough to watch him do those comic strips when I was a kid,” Kim recalls. “When you’re doing comics, there are times you’ve got to be by yourself, and there are other times where you’re inking and doing a whole lot of busy work that you’re happy to have some company. I think my father and I got a lot closer during the period when he was doing that strip.”

“I’m more of a wild and wooly character than he ever was,” reflects Deitch as Roscoe the cat eats a trail of cat treats off the coffee table in machine-gun like succession. “I was more of a roughneck than he ever was. It was good for me to get away from him at a certain point; animation loves nepotism, and I certainly would’ve ended up in animation like so many other children of people in the business. I think it was good that I didn’t and that I found my own way. It was very circuitous and could’ve been disastrous, because I got into all sorts of weird situations growing up. Somehow, weirdly, I think I was in the right place at the right time, which was when underground comics got off the ground, which way my big break.”

Waldo the Cat started as Kim’s exercise in cartooning: an anthromorphic character that could repeatedly be drawn from his developing skills as a beginning cartoonist. Waldo, eventually, took on a life of his own, and became a figure of torment for various Deitch characters (including Deitch himself), a cross between a trickster god and Felix the Cat. Waldo serves as the catalyst for Deitch’s 2002 graphic novel, Boulevard of Broken Dreams  (a collaboration with his brother, Simon), which is heavily based on the history of American animation in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Winsor McKay was more than the pioneering cartoonist of Little Nemo in Slumberland; by the nineteen-teens, he was producing ground-breaking animated shorts like Gertie the Dinosaur, taking the cartoons on a vaudeville tour, often “interacting” with the characters to the amusement of the audience. By 1927, he was being usurped by the new breed, like Max Fleischer and his studio. It was at a dinner for McKay, held by Fleischer, that the frustrated McKay snapped at his audience of drunken animators that they were taking his art and turning it to shit and stormed off.

Boulevard opens with Deitch’s thinly veiled Windsor Newton snapping at Fleischer cipher Fred Fontaine. Only in Deitch’s world, Newton had an apprentice, Ted Mishkin, who would try to carry on Newton’s legacy in spite of a black-furred demon named Waldo. The graphic novel is a direct line through the Deitch lineage, as Boulevard of Broken Dreams is heavily based off of the lives of the animators Gene supervised back at UPA. Kim starts the graphic novel with an anecdote about first meeting an elderly Ted, passed out with his drunken nephew, and works backwards from there, cementing the feeling of stories passed on verbally and polished over time, to the point where they blur into legend.

Waldo, Ted Mishkin’s initial muse, becomes the monkey on his back, pushing the mild-mannered animator to mental asylums and to alcohol periodically, enduring the Disney-fication of animation all the way to the crass commercialism of today. The tragedy behind Boulevard of Broken Dreams lies in the harsh realities dealt the “dreamers” themselves, as they try to survive a field that goes downhill before their very eyes,

The basis in history lapsed into Kim’s next Waldo project, Alias the Cat. With Kim himself as narrator and main character, the reader goes on a historical investigation “supported” by documents dug up by Kim in his quest for the truth behind Waldo the cartoon cat. What he finds is a string of influence concocted by the evil Waldo, his three-fingered gloved hands in everything from old movie serials to derelict midget towns. One chapter features an “interview” with one of the story’s characters, told in thirteen pages of prose with corresponding spot illustrations.

“One book that was a huge influence on me, (and it’s not that I loved it, but I did like it),” Kim reveals. “Was Phoebe Gloeckner’s book Diary of a Teenage Girl, alternating chapters of illustrated fiction with chapters of comics. I think that a lot of people have thought of doing it, but she was the first person to actually do it. My immediate response to that was to put in Alias the Cat a thirteen-page sequence where this woman was putting a spoken history on tape. So, just for that sequence, I did illustrated fiction, and I think I succeeded in getting a little more deeply into her head.”

Kim’s knack for generating real world interviews and documents comes from a brief stint as a comic book reporter for fellow cartoonist Art Spiegelman:

“Something very specific inspired me to take the interview approach, which was about ten years ago, before there was reality TV there were reality comics. Art Spiegelman started dishing out these true reporter jobs for Details magazine. I walked into a really good one, where I went down to Virginia and interviewed this guy on Death Row, witnessed his execution, and went back to the scene of the crime, and talked to people involved with it. I had tremendous beginner’s luck with that story, and it seemed that everything was going my way. After a while, I started to feel like I was Jimmy Olsen. I was thinking ‘Jesus Christ, I’ve been missing my calling! I’ve been in an ivory tower all these years, making up stories out of whole cloth, but I could be talking to people. This could be the way to go.’

“On the buzz from that, I did subsequent stories. My beginner’s luck didn’t hold: I didn’t get such juicy stories anymore, and things were going crazy over at Details. They went through three editors-in-chief there, and that’s a whole story unto itself. At a certain point, I was like ‘That seems to be over,’ and in a way I was glad, because it was starting to get out of hand. On the other hand, I was getting so used to interviewing people, like in Alias the Cat, I’m still interviewing people, but it’s just people that I’ve made up. I don’t think there would have been Alias the Cat in that format if I hadn’t been doing those reporting stories.”

“If you’re calling long comic strips graphic novels (and I’m okay with that), maybe it’s okay to start fooling around with the format and making comics a little more novel-friendly,” Kim states. “In fact, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now. If I never do it again, Pictorama just seems like a natural progression in my work towards doing a proper novel. That is, in fact, what I’m doing right now is a proper novel. There are pictures on every page and, in fact, there’s more of a comic book format in it than there was in Deitch’s Pictorama, but it is trying to be more of a hybrid medium. At the end of the day, it is a novel that would almost stand by itself without the pictures, though I think it’ll be terrific with the pictures.”

Originally intended to define comic book stories done published as a complete story in one volume, the term “graphic novel” has since been hijacked into a commercial buzz word that applies to everything from trade paperbacks to comic strip reprints. Why not lean more towards the “novel” aspect as opposed to only the “graphic”? Hence Deitch’s Pictorama, a novel by Kim and brothers Simon and Seth that happens to have several graphics.

“It seems like comics are a great delivery system for dishing out words and pictures, but there are times when certain subjective ideas are better expressed in a novel,” notes Kim. “So wouldn’t it be great if I could get that working better in comics so it wouldn’t be so laughable, for instance, if comics get in over their head?

“I think of the Classic Comics version of Hamlet, which I have and love on a certain level. You see him standing there, and there’s a big balloon, with the whole ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy being one large balloon. It’s a novel thing to see but it isn’t really working dramatically. Maybe, tooling around, things can be made better.”

Kim is following Pictorama up with The Search for Smilin’ Ed, returning to older work for Kim’s investigation into the life of a late game show host from his childhood. After that, he continues his unique graphic novel approach with a project spun out of Pictorama’s main story.

“’The Sunshine Girl’ is a story told by this girl Eleanor Whaley about an adventure she and her brother had when they were kids in the ‘90s,” Kim says of the lead Pictorama story. “I really got to like that character so much by the time I was done that I didn’t want to let go of her. Following another rule I have, which is starting the next project before finishing another project, because you’ve got a head full of steam and keep going. Once you stop, it’s hard to get going again.

“This novel I’m doing is a spin-off of the story ‘The Sunshine Girl’. It’s not about the girl so much; in ‘The Sunshine Girl’, she was married to a guy who was fighting in Iraq and, in this story, she finds out he’s been killed in a roadside bombing and it shakes her entire belief system. She retreats back to this land that she’d inherited from her Aunt in upstate New York, and while she’s there she finds a manuscript that’s the life story of her Aunt, which is done as a long letter to her. So, with this new book, it’s going to be called The Amazing Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Kathryn Whaley. It’s the life story of this woman growing up in upstate New York and the strange adventures she had.”

Kim Deitch has no illusions, and feels his experimental format may not be for everyone.

“One thing with Pictorama is that, I don’t think a lot of people know what to do with it. I don’t think it’s exactly setting the world on fire. I think I stuck my neck out doing it and that I’m sticking my neck way outdoing the next one. It’s all experimental, and I hope that people like what I’m doing, but that isn’t my bottom line. My bottom line is that I’ve just got stories that I have to do. Right now, the economy stinks, and I’ve been saving my money and can live next year not making one red cent if I have to. It’ll take more than next year to do what I have to do. I’m naturally careful that way.”

Learn more about Kim Deitch.