A review a day: The Search for Smilin’ Ed

by  in Comic News Comment

While I like this book, I have to ask a problematic question about it. Look below to find out what it is! And there’s some NSFW stuff below the jump as well. Just so you know.

So Fantagraphics recently released The Search for Smilin’ Ed, which was serialized a while back but also contains a brand-new story as well. Kim Deitch created this bad bear, and it costs a measly $16.99. That’s not bad – it’s 160 pages long and is really packed with content, as Deitch really puts a lot on the page. And, for the most part, it’s pretty fascinating. But I was struck by something in the book, and I must ask:

Is this comic racist? You may find that a ridiculous suggestion – Deitch has been doing comics for 40 years and I very much doubt if Fantagraphics would have published this if they thought so. I don’t know much about Deitch, having only recently discovered his comics, so I don’t have much background with him. And, I should point out, that as a middle-class white man in the United States, I probably have no leg to stand on when it comics to seeing racist stuff. But a few pages in this book bothered me, and I wanted to go over them.

This is very much a white man’s book. In fact, it’s very much a New York-hippie-intellectual-sexually repressed white man’s comic. That doesn’t make it bad, mind you – in fact, it’s quite a neat book … for the most part. But we have to keep in mind that almost everyone in this comic is male and white, and when black people do show up, it’s problematic. First, let’s look at page 22:

This is obviously a satire, and because the character speaking, Waldo the Cat, seems to be almost pure id in this comic, it’s not too hard to forgive. Waldo is telling the reader about ideas he’s given Deitch over the years that Deitch hasn’t used. On the previous page, Waldo told us his idea about “a faggot cyborg AIDS monster … jerking off in the New York City reservoir,” and “if it comes, every man, woman and child in New York will get AIDS!” So this is, of course, Waldo being as offensive as possible, so his use of stereotypes on this page is part of that. The “faggot cyborg AIDS monster,” of course, exhibits none of the stereotypes of homosexuals, because it’s a robot – we only have Waldo’s use of an offensive word. Here, the clichés are much more visceral, but again, as it’s satirical, I think we can forgive it. Maybe.

There are only a few other black people in the book – one shows up when Smilin’ Ed tells the story of his life. He was tied to a stake in the backyard of a black man living out in the wilds of Georgia. This man fed him constantly in order to fatten him up. The man doesn’t show up often, but here’s the only words he speaks in the book (page 45):

There are also the “gray men,” who are actually from the South Pacific (page 69):

And one more very small drawing in the background on page 125:

There’s one more black person in the book – when Deitch is sitting around early in the book talking about Smilin’ Ed with his friends, one of them is black, and he even has a line of dialogue! He’s not stereotypically portrayed at all, but I wonder if that’s because Deitch is basing him on a real-life person. And that’s the extent of any people of color in the comic. The man who tied Smilin’ Ed to the stake is perhaps the most disturbing, although the last two examples aren’t that great, either. The first instance, from page 22, is an example of Waldo’s feverish imagination, so we can, perhaps, overlook that. But I’d like to point out that while other characters might be gross exaggerations of people, they aren’t examples of “types” – there’s no one that we can look at and say, “They’re an obvious ‘white’ stereotype.” The fact that the only thing a black man says in this comic is in a patois that is stereotypically rural, uneducated, and “black” is troubling, at least to me. Coupled with the way Deitch draws all the black people in this book makes me wonder about it. It’s not like everyone in the comic is an offensive stereotype and therefore this doesn’t stand out. It’s not like there are a wide variety of black characters or even non-white characters. The only saving grace is that every character in the book is a bit ridiculous, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the black characters are ridiculous and portrayed stereotypically, does it?

As I mentioned above, I’m really not the best person to determine this sort of thing. I felt uncomfortable reading this comic mainly because after the first time this happened (in Waldo’s weird brain), I kept expecting it to happen again. But I can’t figure out why Deitch does this. I’ve tried, but I don’t know. So: Is this a racist comic?

But what about the rest of it? Does my discomfort color the rest of the comic?

Well, that’s the vexing thing – as Deitch doesn’t load up the book with stereotypes, it’s easy to forget about them for long periods of time and concentrate on the narrative, such as it is. It’s not that the narrative is bad, it’s that Deitch is more interested in experimenting with breaking the fourth wall and layering different levels of reality into the book, so the actual story doesn’t matter too much. Deitch begins by writing about a television show he and his brother used to watch in the 1950s called Smilin’ Ed’s Gang. In 1954 Smilin’ Ed disappeared and was rumored dead, but his body was never found. So Deitch goes searching for him, but finds that a more difficult proposition than you might think. As he begins his search, Waldo the Cat, one of Deitch’s oldest characters, shows up to search for Ed himself, intersecting briefly with Deitch’s search before spiraling into more and more bizarre places, as Waldo meets up with some of his old demon friends. His friends are also part of Ed’s story, as Ed himself has a demon inside him. Waldo eventually starts e-mailing the script of the very comic we’re reading to Deitch so that he can draw it. And the book ends with beavers.

Because every comic should end with beavers!

So there’s not much of a narrative, but that’s okay. Deitch has a grand time twisting the way reality presents itself, bringing together his entire career in cartooning so that it all exists in the same odd universe. Deitch’s intricate artwork completes this surreal adventure – it’s an astonishing piece of detailed work, with monsters lurking in panels and scenes shown from different viewpoints to add interesting nuances. Deitch mixes his own, “real” world skillfully with Waldo’s imaginative one into a haunting phantasmagoria, with strange creatures flitting through our consciousness and then disappearing. It’s a very wild comic that asks the reader to enter this topsy-turvy world and accept what’s going on. For the most part, we do.

That’s why the few instances of Deitch using stereotypical depictions of black people all the more troubling. As I wrote above, I’m really not much of a Deitch expert or even a racism expert. Am I missing something with regard to the way Deitch portrays these characters? Am I overreacting? This work was serialized before in Zero Zero (except for the story about the beavers), so I imagine people have read it and not had a problem with it. Without those few pages (which, honestly, we could easily lose or alter), this is a very keen, weird comic. With them … beats me. I can’t say those few uncomfortable pages ruin it for me, but they do change my perceptions of the book. Dang. What say the congregation?

Tomorrow: This comic stars something called a “super-hero.” I wonder if those will catch on?