Chris Lanier discusses the new graphic novel by Kim Deitch, which follows the ups and downs of an old time animation studio, through the metamorphosis of their star character, Waldo the Cat.
Write what you know isnt just a literary defense mechanism designed to keep over-ambitious shut-ins from clogging the slush pile with anemic historical epics. It is also, applied correctly, a kind of mental discipline, which allows you to dig through your routine for its particular cache of gold. What Kim Deitch knows -- his own pile of gold -- is what goes on behind the curtain of cartoon celluloid -- at the drawing board and in the sound studio -- though he remains coy about what actually transpired at the company Christmas party, when the boss wife fell out the window, down to her death.
Kim is the son of Gene Deitch, a director with a distinguished pedigree in animation, working his way up the ladder at UPA and then moving on to become Creative Director at Terrytoons. During Genes stint at Terrytoons, while Kim was still a kid, Kim got to visit the studios, and meet the inmates. Years later, when Kim was producing his own art as part of the initial wave of underground cartoonists in the '60s, he realized he had gathered, through his childhood curiosity, a wealth of source material.
While the underground comics are generally remembered for their psychedelic visual textures -- eye-bending pop colors, paisley kaleidoscope mandalas, hand-lettered titles drifting distorted across the page like curlicues of reefer smoke -- there was often a streak of nostalgia running through them. This usually took the form of homages to (or desecrations of) earlier comic strip characters. Deitchs brand of nostalgia stood out for being drawn from the cartoons of the '20s; the rubbery characters look like seedier versions of the black-and-white figures who flickered out of the studios of Disney, Paul Terry and the Fleischer brothers.
The broad outline of Kims new graphic novel, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, follows the ups and downs of a Fleischer-like cartoon studio named Fontaine Fables, bursting with creative energy at the birth of animation, then slowly atrophying under the growing shadow of the Disney Studio. Deitch has drawn a comic book à clef, where historical figures and events make funhouse-mirror cameos. Winsor McCay and his vaudeville cartoon stage shows, the Disney Studio strike, Oskar Fischinger, the neutering of Betty Boop, and Kims own father -- among other recognizable people and places -- all leave shadow-impressions of varying density across the pages.
The changes in the artform of animation, and the shifting fate of Fontaine Fables, are given physical form in the mutations of the Fontaine Fables mascot, Waldo the Cat. Waldo begins his life as an imaginary friend to young Ted Mishkin, a troubled child who finds refuge from his lifes difficulties with his invisible feline companion (invisible to other people at least -- Ted first draws Waldo as a way of making him visible to his more well-adjusted brother, Al). Thanks to Al, Ted later gets a job at Fontaine Fables, and Waldo makes his jump to the silver screen. In the early Fontaine Fables cartoons, Waldo retains the edges of the id, but as the studio falls on tougher times, Waldo slums as a dim sidekick to a superhero rat in a comic book, and then finally becomes a waxy, flower-toting cherub as Fontaine Fables tries to ape the ascendant Disney style. By the end of the book, Waldo has actually achieved three-dimensional, physical form -- as a lump of merchandisable plastic, hawked in toy stores. The original spirit of Waldo watches over all of this, aghast, a profane ghost who appears to Ted, and others in the Fontaine Fables orbit, when their grasp of mundane reality is sufficiently eroded.
Its the struggle between art and kitsch that gives Boulevard of Broken Dreams its motivating force. It gets its sense of play from a series of visual sleights-of-hand. Deitch delights in the recursive playground hes created -- the fact that hes drawing a comic strip about a group of cartoonists allows him to constantly warp the line between the figurative and the figment. A psychotic break of Ted Mishkins, where cartoon heads burst into the comics panels like meteors or flashes of light dazzling the eyes, until the whole pictorial space has been transformed into a cartoon copy of whats actually happening, is a thrilling sequence.
In another dizzying passage, Deitch shows us the production of one of Fontaine Fables cartoons: a self-parodying cartoon, set in an animation studio called Fable Toons. We see the Fontaine Fables orchestra recording the soundtrack for a scene where the Fable Toons orchestra is recording a soundtrack: the trombone of a Fontaine Fables musician overlaps the screen where an anthropomorphized camera squiggles out an optical track on a strip of film. Further on in the cartoon, we see an animator at Fable Toons falling asleep at his drawing board, where Waldo lies frozen on an animation cel, hung on the peg bar. Then Waldo comes to life, jumping off the cel and onto the animators drawing table -- so Waldo has just made the leap from being an animated picture of an animated picture, taking life inside an animated cartoon -- which exists one step away from the reality of Fontaine Fables -- itself a drawing that came from Kim Deitchs hands. Of course, rather than getting lost in this representational labyrinth, its far easier to accept the drawing of Waldo jumping off the cel as alive. Its not, finally, a drawing of a drawing of an animated character that is jumping off the page -- its Waldo. And thats the point of Deitchs fascination with Waldo; with the weird totemic power a drawing can have, to take up a life of its own. Thats the charm of drawing a fictional character -- and also, when the id is off its leash, the terror of it.
The Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Kim Deitch with Simon Deitch. New York, New York: Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2002. 192 pages. ISBN 0-375-42191-2 (hardback US$21).
Chris Lanier is an animator, writer and cartoonist living in San Francisco.