The lights are down at the West Side Y, but Kim Deitch is having a hard time overcoming some A/V glitches: The film projector keeps burning up stalled frames, and he constantly loses contact with the microphone as he stiffly reads his notes. But as slides of his work hit the screen, this seminal underground cartoonist with the lank gray ponytail suddenly becomes animated, supplying myriad voices for his characters, even vamping a scraggly baritone for one luckless crooner who bemoans “Ships That Never Come In.” Then, while waiting for a reel of 70-year-old cartoons to be threaded into the projector, he tells the story of some hapless young animators who screened a pornographic cartoon for bossman Walt Disney’s birthday, way back when. He imitates the Master’s calculating laugh: “Ha ha ha! That’s great! Who made this?”—then a stammer—”Uh, well, it was Charlie, and, uh, um, Joe there, and . . . uh, me.” “Ha! That’s just great! Great! You’re all fired!” The full house at the Y roars with laughter.
Kim Deitch is a born storyteller, though everyone—including his old man, the prominent animator Gene Deitch—felt he was a lousy artist. During an interview in his Upper East Side apartment, Deitch, 58, concedes that his father may have been right—”in the sense that I’m not a natural born artist, I have to just sort of force myself and have my wicked way with it.” And he’s been wicked since the mid ’60s, drawing sausage-limbed figures reminiscent of the black-and-white cartoons already ancient when he first saw them as a kid. “I can remember peering through the mail chute to see the neighbor’s TV before we got one,” he says. But Deitch doesn’t draw comix about blushing mice, slapstick farmers, or clowns in inkwells. His desperate human beings are trapped in prisons or nuthouses or strange cults, constantly fending off demons both astral and earthly. When “Miles Microft, Psychic Detective” (circa 1973) runs through a graveyard under a rat’s nest of tree branches, the voices of the dead well up from the tombstones, their moans and pleas drawn in jagged bubble letters that grasp and claw at him. An anthropomorphic moon (that in a different incarnation would happily have serenaded Betty Boop) grimaces and casts off droplets of sweat, fearful witness to Microft’s terror. The psychic’s tie, askew from haste, forms the visual knot of a taut, noir composition—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari channeled through American Gothic. Deitch speaks of his love of silent film—”a fascinating form of literature with words and pictures, just like comics!”—and his admiration for Mondrian’s intense abstractions of black, white, and primary colors. Such influences help explain why his rigid drawings become so lithe within the grid of his comic panels.
Fluid visuals propel Deitch’s new book, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (just out from Pantheon), a tale of America’s animation pioneers fictionalized from historical sources spanning the 20th century. He casts a gimlet eye on early cartoons, appreciating the innocence of the stories and images, while giving a full account of the human wreckage left behind as a sublime new art form morphed into a huge, bottom-line industry. Rather than peddle nostalgia, he convincingly connects a bygone age to our own. The early animators could easily have given the purveyors of MTV a run for their filthy lucre—drinking, dope, vengeful egos, flagrant affairs, and madness all wend through the book, fleshing out characters both onscreen and off. Waldo the Cat, one of Deitch’s most enduring creations, appears in this graphic novel in dual roles: as the lean, scruffy, and devilish cartoon star of the Fontaine Fables studio, and also as imaginary friend and goad to successive generations of the Mishkin brothers. In the ’30s, as Disney’s reign over cartoons became more totalitarian, all of the studios were driven to use rounder shapes because they were (in the words of a Disney animator) “cuter and more appealing.” In Boulevard, Waldo, neutered by his cherubic new form onscreen—”Those shits are turning me into a fuckin’ pansy!”—grows more antagonistic and dissolute within Ted Mishkin’s brain, driving the animator to binge drinking and to bobbing his head in toilet bowls, as if trying to drown his own creation.
Deitch comes by his appreciation of the dark side honestly: As a young man he worked the graveyard shift in a White Plains insane asylum, where Judy Garland once did a hitch. “Mental illness is kinda catching,” he says slowly. “Everyone was bonkers, even the kitchen staff was deranged.” Then a booming laugh. “They gave me the keys to the drug cabinet, liquid bottles of tranquilizers. Compazine. Not a good idea, man.” In the mid ’60s, after studying painting at the Pratt Institute, he got a job doing cartoons for The East Village Other. But by ’69, the neighborhood’s hippie scene was in a death spiral of muggings, burglaries, and bad drugs, and Deitch was living in a hole-in-the-wall apartment—literally. The glue-heads next door had clawed an opening to rip him off. Not in the market for a straight job, Deitch lit out for San Francisco, determined to make cartooning his living. “I basically had the big bright idea that all kinds of people were having,” he recalls. “A whole lot of people invented underground comix, independently of each other. It was in the air.” But unlike other founders of the movement, such as R. Crumb or S. Clay Wilson, who dumpster-dived the id in search of bizarre sex and ultra-violence, Deitch was searching for something else: “OK, it’s underground comix, that’s cool. We can do anything we want, that’s cool. But really, I just figured, let the qualities of the story be my guide.”
Boulevard is the story of people (and not-so-funny animals) who fall in and out of love, who get sick and die—who interact in emotional as opposed to plot-driven ways. Lillian Freer, union activist and ace ink-and-painter, grows from a little girl thrilling to an early animated vaudeville routine into the elderly caregiver of an invalid, doddering Ted Mishkin. Along the trajectory of her life, she’s portrayed as the muse of Art, Eve in the Garden, cartoon feline, and luckless paramour of a parade of unworthy cads, such as serial adulterer Al Mishkin at the studio and Waldo on celluloid.
The yarn encourages re-readings to decipher the complex page layouts; the art drives the story, rarely repeating what has been said in the text. Deitch’s brother, Simon (also a cartoonist, and one of the creators of Nickelodeon magazine’s “Southern Fried Fugitives”), helped lay out some of the scenes. In one, the action flows from a studio soundstage up onto a screen of cavorting animals, then moves into their dreams—characters imagining characters, who ultimately burst out of the cartoon and bring the action back into the “real life” of the story. The wonder of Deitch’s art exists right there, in that space where cartoons and reality disconnect.
Boulevard feels absolutely contemporary. Undoubtedly, years of uninhibited work in the underground has given Deitch empathy for those early animators who created an exhilarating new art form amid the Depression and gathering war jitters. Movements come and go, but individuals keep up the good fight. Some, like Ted Mishkin, are casualties, others survivors. Either way, their creations live on in the world. Or, as an irate studio backer complains, “Waldo the Cat is no Mickey Mouse”!
Fuckin’-A right—else, old Walt would be spinning in his grave.