Comics alchemist Kim Deitch transforms cultural ephemera into artistic gold. In “The Sunshine Girl,” the 80-page “pictofiction” (i.e., profusely illustrated hand-written story) that kicks off Deitch’s Pictorama (Fantagraphics), a brother and sister’s obsession with collecting bottle caps sparks a saga that delves deeply into the collector mentality and ultimately incorporates the author’s own late-’60s artistic flowering.
The story’s final image is Deitch at his most dazzling. The now-grownup sister, her drug-casualty uncle, and the author himself (sparking the owl in a corncob pipe), gather inside a cemetery shrine to a sainted Leary-like LSD purveyor grinning maniacally, in permanent cross-legged ecstasy, within a crystal block of vinyl. Images of Louis Armstrong, Guy Lombardo, and the Stations of the Cross surround the glowing guru, who is flanked by flaming replicas of his acid-laced Sunshine Soda. “I can’t hear him with my ears,” says the girl of the bottle-cap-bedecked Bodhisattva, “but I can sure feel him talking to my soul.”
Roly-poly Sunshine Girl dates back to Deitch’s stint as house psychedelic artist for the East Village Other, a late-’60s alternative to The Village Voice. Pictorama comes full circle in other ways, bringing together Kim’s writer sibling, Seth, and artist brother, Simon, in various combinations. The brothers’ father, Gene Deitch, a brilliant illustrator in his own right, introduces the family affair (check out The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove, a collection of Gene’s 1940s album artwork).
While most of his underground contemporaries succumbed to burn-out or worse, Deitch has steadily assembled a complex, interconnected, and increasingly confident body of work. The proof is on the walls of MoCCA, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, where “Kim Deitch: A Retrospective” is on display through December 5. Curated by comics scholar Bill Kartalopoulos, the show’s 96 pieces—from original comics pages to revealing rough sketches, skillful colored-pencil works, and his recent pictofiction—offer an excellent introduction to Deitch’s long, weird career.
The content of his underground strips and comics may have been juvenile (sex, drugs, and anarchy), but the basic elements of Deitch’s style were apparent from the start. Deitch’s favorite characters—Waldo, an amoral cartoon cat; Zoroaster, a malevolent rodent; Sunshine Girl, the acid princess; and Milo Microft, psychic detective—and his supporting cast of hundreds, nearly always seem to have been caught mid-flicker, as though they had been transported from some 1930s hallucinogenic fever dream produced by Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer in some overdecorated Coney Island of a studio haunted by transdimensional demons.
Deitch revels in the crazy fantasies of the men and women who first created his beloved vintage cartoons, movies, music, and bottle caps, haunted losers whose imaginations trumped even their wildest creations. Kim’s other big piece in Pictorama, “The Cop on the Beat, the Man in the Moon and Me,” concerns the world of Russ Columbo and Charlie Palloy, crooners who lived and died in the shadow of Bing Crosby. The story concludes literally inside Deitch’s head, as he imagines yet another bedazzled girl entranced by yet another ephemeral guru, this time singing for coins on the street. “It’s just another of life’s strange mysteries,” thinks Deitch, whose fertile mind seemingly contains no end of them.
Kim Deitch will discuss Deitch’s Pictorama and give a dramatic reading of “The Sunshine Girl,” with the help of artist Pamela Butler, at the Strand Bookstore on Thursday, September 18, at 7 p.m.