Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who is Kim Deitch?

The other day I wrote a post about the 'fursuiters', and I mentioned a cartoonist who had provoked the ire of at least one of these strange creatures by publishing a cartoon panel that was thought to misrepresent this odd subculture. Over the years this same artist has earned praise for his large body of work by employing themes such as addiction, media distortion, and the concerns of the entertainment industry in the early 20th Century. While R. Crumb now builds his status as a legend by appearing in museum shows, Kim Deitch quietly continues to expand his own legacy by publishing masterful comics that continually fly under the mainstream radar. That's really a shame, because in a lot of ways Deitch represents an evolution in the work of the very first wave of underground comics in America.

Deitch was there at the inception of the arts comics form. A perusal of the influential anthologies and periodicals that he has appeared in is remarkable in its breadth- The East Village Other, Arcade, Heavy Metal, High Times, LA Weekly, Pictopia, Raw, Weirdo and Zero Zero. Show this list to any fanboy, and their eyes will glaze over in envy and admiration. Appearances in only half of those rags would be enough to establish one as a major figure in comics history. Still the 64-year-old creator refuses to rest upon his laurels. His adventures with cartoon cat "Waldo" (said to be a demonic reincarnation of Judas Iscariot) remain both vibrant and bizarre. Instead of repeating a generic body of sight gags, Deitch's work becomes more and more complex and profound.

I first became aware of Deitch through a collection of Waldo stories called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2002). This title featured a 1930's-era cartoonist named Teddy Mishkin, a man teetering on the edge of alcoholism and mental breakdown. Mishkin is struggling to produce the latest "Waldo the Cat" animation short for the studio where he is employed. Meanwhile the inimical feline is starting to take on a real existence in Mishkin's life. This is all played out against a back-story which examines how changing attitudes and tastes for animation affected the smaller studios that labored to produce idiosyncratic and personal work, while other larger companies consolidated their power and strengthened their hold on the public imagination.

While it certainly doesn't hurt for the reader to understand a bit about the history of cartooning and animation during the first half of the last century, there are plenty of seedy details and strangely surreal elements to keep everyone involved. Often Deitch employs non-linear narratives that loop around, seeming at once to diverge from the main arc, and then suddenly return to the starting point with an alternative perspective. There are also repeat characters that pop up in his different stories. My enjoyment of Kim Deitch continued with Alias the Cat! (2007), which reintroduced Waldo as the insidiously meddlesome provocateur that I had come to know and love. This time around the protagonist is a former Czech munitions magnate and silent film actor. The charms of Dietch's style are consistent and sustaining.

What I particularly appreciate about Deitch's work is the full immersion that he is able to elicit with his astonishingly complete attention to detail. As wildly idiosyncratic as Deitch's universe is, it is accessible and seems counterintuitively welcoming for the reader. His settings certainly predate the lives of his primary audience, but there is a lot of embedded commentary in Dietch's work. Art comic giant Art Speigelman has said that, "Kim Deitch has created a private world as fully realized in its own way as Faulkner's." That comparison may make skeptical critics blanch. But I think there's merit in the association- because while Deitch's work is inextricably grounded in a specific past, there are themes at its core that resonate wildly in the present.

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Blogger Rick Byerly said...

oh yeah and no one should miss art all night sat! volunteering to hang for 5 hours

5:29 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Thanks for your work in assisting a great tradition.

9:05 PM  

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