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Untitled - Fantagraphics
augurie s of bril l i a nce :
The Kim Deitch
Universe
by bil l k a r ta l opoul os
Kim Deitch’s
body of work comprises an ever-expanding system
of subjectively narrated intergenerational stories
that refer to, elaborate on, qualify, and sometimes refute one another in a great metafictional tapestry spanning more than forty years of production. This may seem like a
lot to lay on the present volume’s cockeyed yarn about a kiddie TV show host from the
1950s, little grey men, the frog murderer of France, and a talking cat named Waldo. But
The Search for Smilin’ Ed is a story that takes as its premise the existence of a world where
such things can coexist in one room and on one page as surely as they do within the mind
of this extraordinary cartoonist. If “Kim Deitch” the character is frequently represented
as desperately attempting to corral the fictive and fictional forces swirling around his
drawing table, Kim Deitch the artist has created a visual-narrative landscape that contains
the potentially infinite possibilities of an entire imaginative universe.
Opposite: This 1969 Waldo page from the East Village Other blurs the distinction
between Waldo’s on– and off–screen lives. Above: Kim Deitch, ca. 1964.
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a he av en in a w il d f l ow er :
im agining underground comi x
If the Kim Deitch Universe had a Big Bang,
it was, according to Deitch, in 1965. Kim
Deitch, approximately 21 years of age, was
working the night shift at a White Plains,
New York mental institution. Deitch, creative
since childhood, was, by then, a Pratt Institute
dropout and an ex–Merchant Marine working
a series of “straight” jobs in the New York
City area. With plenty of time to kill in that
charged environment, Deitch read heavily,
and read poetry. He found his restless—but
unfocused—creative impulse galvanized by
a passage from William Blake’s “Auguries
of Innocence”:
The underground comics that emerged in the
late 1960s were first widely disseminated in
underground newspapers. The first major East
Coast underground paper, the East Village
Other, was founded in 1965, the same year
as Deitch’s late-night epiphany. At that time,
“underground comix” didn’t yet exist as a
movement or a cultural reference point, let
alone a (marginal) career goal. After several
years of censorship limiting their content to
child-age appropriate material, comic books
were almost exclusively considered junk
ephemera within American culture (although
newspaper comic strips retained some cultural
currency). Connoisseurship was almost entirely
in the hands of artists, isolated amateurs,
and fan communities, and any notion of the
medium’s future potential was, at that point,
largely speculative.
Deitch’s own youthful passion for comics
was re-stimulated by a chance encounter with
a pair of Winsor McCay Little
Nemo pages reprinted in an issue
of Redbook. Shortly afterward, he
visited a rare exhibit of McCay’s
work at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art. He also reconnected with his
estranged younger brother, Simon,
who’d never abandoned his own
interest in comic books. Observing
the influence of cartooning
on his own new paintings, the
creatively reinvigorated Deitch
embraced the possibilities of
the medium and began creating
comics. This act of faith in an
undervalued art form prepared
him to join the first generation
of underground cartoonists,
who were all independently
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
This stanza’s connection between the grandly
infinite and the infinitely humble provides a
key to understanding the particular shape of
Kim Deitch’s life’s work.
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strip, serialized comic books, and the graphic
novel. Through changing conditions, Deitch
has maintained his initial inspiration and his
investment in the once modestly regarded
comics form.
arriving at similar conclusions and about to
coalesce within the context of a burgeoning
countercultural press.
Many dozens of artists eventually
participated in that first flowering of avantgarde comics. Today, Deitch is one of a
relative handful—including Robert Crumb,
Bill Griffith, and Art Spiegelman—who have
continuously produced comics work since that
milieu dissipated in the mid-1970s. He has
doggedly amassed a body of comics that have
occupied every available form and format: the
anthology piece, the alternative weekly comic
infinit y in the palm of your hand :
a “ writer who dr aws ”
Deitch’s other great leap of faith was in his
own artistic ability. During his childhood, he
enjoyed frequent contact with many animation
professionals, including his father, the animator
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with the synaptic electricity that animates
Deitch’s weirdly eventful tall tales.
a worl d in a gr a in of sa nd :
mad , wa l do , a nd hum a nis t sat ire
Deitch’s approach to fiction has something to do
with his roots in popular American satire. Like
many of his fellow underground cartoonists,
Deitch grew up reading (and re-reading) issues
of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad in its original
incarnation as a four-color comic book that
satirized the ascending mass media culture of
the 1950s. Deitch’s own early characters—like
many other underground characters—began
as countercultural subversions of mainstream
media icons and stereotypes. Thus, Waldo is,
in Deitch’s terms, “ungelded,” and exhibits
and cartoonist Gene Deitch. Deitch developed
a critical self-assessment that his drawing skills
lacked the consistency and fluidity required
by professional animation. Today, he still
considers himself a “writer who draws” rather
than a naturally gifted artist. Making a strength
out of a perceived weakness, Deitch invented,
for his proto-underground comic strips, a
character he knew he could draw consistently
well: a devilish cat named Waldo, inspired by
the anthropomorphized cartoon animals that
populated the sometimes crude but often lively
early black-and-white animation he’d absorbed
as a child.
Deitch has determinedly developed his
art in the decades since. He now stands as a
master of the form, and is certainly among
its most distinctive stylists. Deitch is well
known among his peers for his unrelenting
work ethic and diligent schedule. He executes
multiple developmental versions of each page
until he arrives at a compact but fluid narrative
composition. His elaborate page designs
ricochet like a tricky pinball maneuver, and his
dense crosshatching style creates a vibrational
equivalency between light and dark—between
positive and negative space—that resonates
Opposite: Deitch’s first published comic strip featuring Waldo as a character.
This strip was drawn in 1966 and published in the East Village Other in 1968. This page:
By 1970, Deitch had developed Waldo’s essential character design and personality.
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work exists in a direct tradition stretching at
least as far back as 1930s Tijuana Bibles, eightpage pornographic booklets starring popular
comic strip characters and other celebrities.
Beyond providing titillating laughs, such work
is inherently subversive because it dares to ask
behavior unsuitable for Saturday morning
television audiences—or Comics Codeapproved publications.
The initial charge of this kind of parody
comes from seeing culturally sanctioned cartoon
types transgressing cultural norms, and this
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detective Miles Microft—appeared in his early
underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s.
As Deitch accumulated a body of work, his
Blakean strategy—his drive to discover endless
potential in the materials at hand—impelled
him to re-invest in the content of his previous
work. With each new piece, Deitch pursues
implications barely hinted at in his pre-existing
stories, develops richer backgrounds for his
established characters, and imagines their
surprising, far-flung futures. By successively
re-shading his already subverted media icons,
Deitch has compounded the humanistic
element of his initial satires to develop durable,
dimensional characters.
Another kind of satire peeks out from behind
the controlled façade of media production.
Frequently this functions as ironic critique,
pointing out, for example, that the smiling faces
on television are not as friendly as they appear,
and that manufacturers of “wholesome” media
can be cynically motivated. Deitch himself
frequently imagines the backstage history of
American popular entertainment, from the early
film and animation industries back to carnivals
and medicine shows. His artists, entertainers
and impresarios are all deeply, sometimes
pathologically, flawed. But where critical
satirists would identify hypocrisy, Deitch finds
what these characters do beyond the panel
borders designated for public viewing. Even
more broadly, this kind of parody is implicitly
humanistic. Satire shadows and shades
controlled representations of human character,
and relocates them within the greater spectrum
of life’s expressive possibilities.
Several of Deitch’s frequently recurring
characters—including Waldo and the psychic
Opposite and top: Sketches for “Hell to Pay,” a 1986 Waldo story published in
RAW #8, imagining the long-lived character’s possible future. Above: Evangelist Billy Graham
metamorphoses into Froggy in this comic strip from a 1969 issue of the East Village Other.
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possibility: Is Waldo the cat “real”? Elsewhere,
Deitch firmly answers in the affirmative.
In the key comic strip serial A Shroud for
Waldo, he exposes his walking, talking cat as
a low-grade demon—with a shocking Biblical
lineage—who only appears to those individuals
“beyond the pale” of everyday experience
and perception. Deitch’s audacious conceit
embraces and connects all of his previous
work, reinforces his core themes, and extends
his fictional world through space, time, and
mysterious cosmology.
a sympathetic relationship between the ways
in which we fail and the things we would
like to imagine. Deitch presents the history
of popular entertainment—our humble “low
culture”—as both the site of fascinating, vain,
desperate, creative ambition and as humanity’s
saving grace.
In narrative terms, the roots of the Kim
Deitch Universe may lie in Deitch’s unique
marriage of his cartoon cat’s offscreen life and
his popular entertainers’ backstage foibles. By
1975, Deitch had repositioned his vulgar Waldo
as the possibly hallucinatory companion of an
alcoholic named Ted Mishkin, pictured briefly
in the story at hand. Mishkin would take center
stage in Deitch’s graphic novel The Boulevard
of Broken Dreams as a dysfunctional animator
who, inspired by his imaginary companion,
creates a series of successful “Waldo” cartoons
for a fictional 1920s animation studio.
Boulevard supports one potential reading
of Waldo as a mere psychosis, the hallucination
of a demented individual, made accessible to
the reader through the devices of visual fiction.
But the book suggests another tantalizing
infinit y in an hour :
me tafic tion , serialit y,
and vic torian postmodernism
In addition to revisiting his previous narratives,
Deitch’s stories acknowledge the existence of
his previous comics as authored, published,
material objects. Which is to say, Kim Deitch's
fictional world includes Kim Deitch's actual
comic books. Each text makes its own mockevidential claims to truth, and each text may
later be challenged as the work of a potentially
unreliable artist who appears, increasingly, as an unsettled character within
his own stories. The very presence of a
signature at the end of each piece has
become an opportunity for Deitch to
further expand his master narrative.
In a work like Smilin’ Ed, which was
originally serialized, each chapter exists
both as a narrative component and as a
questionable artistic production. The
constant possibility that something
has been left out, misunderstood,
fabricated, or distorted by the artist (or
his sources) permits infinite alternate
interpretations, even as Deitch draws
his narrative strands ever more tightly
together. By keeping truth in flux,
Deitch has brilliantly turned the stutter8
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epigram: “I don’t know if this story is true,
but it’s true that this story is told.” Deitch’s
narrative strategy prizes storytelling itself.
His characters collect stories, especially lost
stories. His body of work presents itself as
a collection of stories about stories, and
his stories dramatize their own invention.
More than any of his other books, The
Search for Smilin’ Ed takes place within the
literal narrative tunnels—the passages—
that Deitch has built to join his stories
together. In this book’s new epilogue, a
cadre of Francophone rodents forges a
physical path towards Deitch's current work
in progress… while dropping references to
his first underground comic book story.
Clearly, Kim Deitch is having fun.
The Search for Smilin’ Ed, like so many
of his stories, is propelled by Deitch's own
quest for lost media. Deitch’s recollection
of the very real Smilin’ Ed McConnell, the
vanished host of a very strange 1950s television
program, inspires this wild and wooly journey
to the heart of his fictional world. Deitch's
long-time readers will delight in seeing wellknown characters like Miles Microft and Doc
Ledicker brought together for the first time in
pursuit of Deitch's object. Others less familiar
with this work should trust the man behind the
curtain and enjoy this book's carnival-ride tour
of the Kim Deitch Universe. You are holding a
world between your hands. The book is both a
guide and the destination. If you’re lucky, you’ll
become so familiar with the terrain that you'll
get lost here, too.
start rhythms of serialized storytelling into
a metafictional premise. The narrative space
between his episodes becomes a self-consciously
semiotic space that accommodates the real life
experiences of the author and his readers.
This may seem to be an explicitly postmodern maneuver. But just as likely, Deitch has
found inspiration in the Victorian-era novels
he devours, which often made their own false
claims of evidence and truth (and which were
also frequently serialized). It should, perhaps,
be no great surprise that Deitch, intent on
spinning art from historically “low” subjects
and forms, would seize upon the complex
narrative gestures shared by antique pulp and
contemporary experimental fiction.
Bill Kartalopoulos teaches classes about comics and
illustrations as Parsons, the New School for Design. He
regularly writes about comics for Print Magazine, where he is a
contributing editor, and reviews comics for Publishers Weekly.
He is a frequent public speaker and is the programming
coordinator for SPX: The Small Press Expo and the Brooklyn
Comics and Graphics Festival. In 2008 he curated Kim
Deitch: A Retrospective at the Museum of Comic and
Cartoon Art in New York, NY. He lives in Brooklyn.
the se arch for smilin ’ ed :
narr ative passages ,
lost and found
Deitch once shared a fascinating bit of cinematic
lore with me, prefacing his tale with this near10