Even before the phrase “underground cartoonist” came into the popular vernacular, Kim Deitch has been an underground cartoonist. He began drawing comics for the “East Village Other” in 1967 and became editor of “Gothic Blimp Works” in 1969. The two publications didn’t just publish many cartoonists that went on to become well known, but helped develop the aesthetic of the underground. Deitch went on to contribute to many major comics anthologies and magazines including “Raw,” “Heavy Metal,” “Weirdo” and “Zero Zero” and has received most of the comics industry’s major awards.
Many of his books and stories inhabit an alternate universe of the early Twentieth Century of burlesque theaters, nickelodeons, traveling circuses and animation studios. It’s a strange, immersive and beautiful world full of movie stars and con artists, visionaries, dreamers and businessmen. It’s a strange pop culture that Deitch has created, but perhaps no stranger than the one we have today.
In the past decade, with the publication of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Shadowland” and more, Deitch has gone from being known largely as an artist’s artist to one of the most celebrated and acclaimed cartoonists of his generation and a first-rate storyteller. His new book from Fantagraphics, “The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley” is proof.
While the book is difficult to explain, Deitch spoke with CBR News about the new publication, which involves a small town in upstate New York beginning in the early Twentieth Century, an aspiring filmmaker who wishes to change the world, revolutionary agricultural practices, beavers and much more. Plus, the world-famous cartoonist discusses his fascination with history and memories of his friend and editor, the late Kim Thompson.
CBR News: Kim, this book relates to an earlier story you crafted, “The Sunshine Girl.” Where did “The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley” begin?
Kim Deitch: “Katherine Whaley” literally began while I was finishing up that other story you refer to, “The Sunshine Girl.” I was having such a good time doing that one that I was getting sad that I was almost finished with it. I didn’t want to be finished with Eleanor Whaley. She was a character that really appealed to me. Also, I find that it is a good idea to overlap projects. It’s a smart way to keep the head of steam that you have worked up going from one project to the next. The first actual idea drawing for “Katherine Whaley” was a pencil sketch of a man in the costume of an 18th century dandy and a small wolfy looking dog. I didn’t know what story they would fit into yet, but, still finishing the earlier story, I began to phase in action drawings for what became Katherine Whaley.
I also had a story element that I had been carrying around in my head for years; a scene of Jesus Christ throwing the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. An Arab merchant is among them hurrying to finish scoring lines on the surface of a cylindrical metal urn. He does it by feeding acid through a hornlike device into a hollow needle while whirling the urn in a machine worked by a foot operated trundle. The whole thing vaguely resembles an early cylinder phonograph. And in fact the guy makes an accidental recording of the shouting voice of Jesus. In “Katherine Whaley” I finally found a home for this fugitive plot element.
You’ve written a number of books over the years about this time period. What it is about that era that fascinates you?
I have always been interested in history, and the history that occurred before I was born in particular. Even as a young kid, looking around at the world I was born into I had this feeling that all the really great stuff had come and gone and that I was merely seeing its leftover shards. You read books from different eras and you constantly find ginks like me with that same general idea. Right now I’m reading the biography of George Kennan, the well-known foreign policy advisor. His big lament is that Western culture was already in serious decline before 1920. I’m sure you can find many prehistoric old scrolls whistling a similar tune.
The structure of your pages are fascinating. You construct scenes where it’s mostly text with a few drawings and then other pages, which are more (for lack of a better term) “traditional” comic pages. What’s your process of writing and plotting out the story?
I tend to do both drawing and writing together, well, in tandem. I do a lot of pretty detailed sketchbook art while writing. Usually by the time I am done writing the story, I also have a sizable pile of these drawings. In “Katherine Whaley,” many of these were so right on the money, they were adapted into actual layouts without much retooling. Sometimes a sketch suggests a new continuity angle I hadn’t thought of before. Sometimes they end up representing stuff that doesn’t make it into the story at all. The actual process of sketchbook design art is not especially different for me whether I am in illustrated fiction format or comics.
Did you do much research for the book into early moviemaking?
All of my life I have been researching early moviemaking. It has been one of my hobbies since I was about ten years old and came across an English book my Father had called, “The Miracle Of The Movies.” The movies I tend to like best are what’s left of films of the silent movie era. The good news is that in spite of the fact that they tend to rot away, more of these old films seem to be turning up all the time. Old movie archaeology seems to be in full cry these days.
In the telling of the movie that Varnay envisions making, I was reminded of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” which has a similar structure. Was there some model you had in your mind for what the movie could be or how it would work?
Well, “Intolerance,” in spite of the fact that it was a flop, did inspire a whole genre of generally messianic movies. It wasn’t a worldwide flop. It ran for ten years in the Soviet Union. I had different models in mind. There was a movie serial from the teens called “The Goddess.” It doesn’t exist anymore, but I read the book version culled from the newspaper serial that ran concurrently with the weekly episodes of the serial. It had to do with a young girl who is raised by a group of wise men, away from degenerate declining civilization, with the idea that she will rescue mankind from its inevitable doom at just the right time. I didn’t get my hands on this story until I was almost finished with Katherine Whaley, but I was aware of it. Another specific old film that I was inspired by was a 1915 film called, “The Hypocrites,” written and directed by a woman director named, Lois Webber. In it, there is an allegorical character called The Naked Truth, who wanders through the film, completely naked with a magnifying glass focusing it on various different aspects of human hypocrisy. It was a real surprise to me to find out that nudity in films made before 1920 seemed to be generally tolerated. Usually it was used in some “high minded” manner, but less so over time until the censors started cracking down in it more in the early 1920’s. So this is another part of film history that I worked into the plot of “Katherine Whaley.”
Molly O’Dare is a character whose story you’ve told previously. Why did you choose to bring her into “Katherine Whaley?”
In earlier stages of “Katherine Whaley,” I was using an actual serial star named Pearl White in the part of the story that my character Molly O’Dare eventually filled. Pearl White had been the star of the first big hit serial, “The Perils of Pauline” in 1914. From that point on until the early 1920s, she was the undisputed Queen of the serials. In real life, she was an earthy character who lived and played hard. To some extent, I based my character Molly O’Dare on her. And, at a certain point, I decided that this would be a great place to use Molly O’Dare once again. I think it works especially well in this story. It’s one of my favorite parts of “Katherine Whaley.”
I don’t want to spoil anything about the book, but I’m curious about the beaver dams. The idea of characters being rescued through underground tunnels has happened in your work previously. Where did that idea come from?
Well, when you read around in old fiction there is a whole genre of stuff that you might categorize as “hollow earth” stories. You know, hidden teeming civilizations deep within the earth. I guess you could trace them back at least as far as stories about Hell and all the way forward to the Shaver mysteries that were running in science fiction pulps just after world war two. The almost human workaholic activities of beavers seemed like a potentially good fit to a story of that kind. And I already had my own fictional hollow earth set up from earlier stories that I have written. It seemed to dovetail perfectly into the so-called Kim Deitch Universe.
Earlier, you mentioned overlap in projects and stories. There are also recurring characters and details in many of your books that have created a “Kim Deitch Universe.” At what point did you this start to develop? What do you enjoy about it both as an artist and as a reader?
I never set out to create a “logical” inter connecting universe of characters and plot lines — but then, who does? I think a situation like that just tends to evolve over time. I feel a strong need for all these stories to make sense to me. Being able to suspend belief and kind of believe that what I am writing is true seems to be very important to me. I didn’t coin the phrase the Kim Deitch Universe. My long time editor and friend, Kim Thompson did. He had been a huge Marvel Comics fan, as was I. And certainly, the Marvel Universe is a good example of that kind on interconnected bunch of characters and story lines. Fiction is a writer’s response to the world around him; his somewhat skewed reflection of it.
Having worked with Kim Thompson for many years, would you like to share any thoughts about him?
I’m still in shock over this. When I was in Chicago recently, I was told Kim had about two weeks to live. He died four days later! And just four months after he’d announced that he was diagnosed with lung cancer. I had worked with him as my editor more on than off for almost twenty years. I loved working with him and it was only getting better over time. In the obits, there was a lot of talk about what a hard ass Kim was. And there was some truth in that. Nobody could bring you down to Earth with such a resounding thud as Kim could. But you know, you need somebody like that in a business with so many risks involved, all the time. On the other side of the coin, reading some accounts of this well-known trait, I have to say, I got off pretty easy. The thing is, if you had an issue and were willing to air it with some diplomacy, Kim would always give you a fair hearing. I will miss him. I do miss him. There goes one of the all time greats of this business.
“The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley” is in stores now from Fantagraphics Books.