Review by Win Wiacek
Kim Deitch has been one of most consistently effective stars of America’s Comix Underground for decades, although it’s only relatively recently that he’s won wider acclaim. This is primarily through interconnected prose and strip fantasies such as Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Shadowland, The Search for Smilin’ Ed and other multi-layered alternative history/faux biographies.
Much of his feverish output has been short stories about a down-at-heel carnival and the shabby, eccentric no-hopers who have populated it throughout the 150 years of its existence, the eerie aliens who have preserved its posterity and, of course, the immortal Waldo the Cat. That saga organically grew into explorations of the minor characters they encountered and soon a great big narrative snowball started rolling.
In The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley we return to the increasingly formalised, craftily chronicled Deitch Universe, albeit tangentially. Here the author focuses on other members of his inexhaustible cast, all the while tellingly revealing lost secrets of American history through a lens of scholarly examination, and conspiracy theory woven through popular culture scenarios of the past.
Notionally picking up on a minor player last seen in Deitch’s Pictorama, the story explores the incredible life of an unprepossessing little old lady, as disclosed in a letter left as part of a bequest.
The story-within-a-story begins in the grotty logging town of Lumberton, New York State. It is 1908, and demure Katherine Whaley, after failing as librarian and school teacher, takes a job playing piano in the brand-new movie theatre operated by old man Braunton. It’s just another way to deprive lumberjacks and dissolute townies of their hard-earned cash. Katherine makes the acquaintance of the charismatic Charles Varnay and his super-intelligent dog Rousseau, and Varnay’s esoteric and beguiling beliefs in the nigh-mystical powers of “Enlightenment” carry her off her on an odyssey of self-discovery.
Covering the major cultural landmarks of the early century, from movie mania, the Jazz Age, Great War and Prohibition, Katherine’s account swings between dubious memoir to laudatory manifesto as her perceptions and opinions of the mysterious Varnay swing from philandering charlatan to messianic superman. Whilst she might find it hard to accept that the philosopher possesses actual recordings of Jesus Christ delivering his teachings, undiluted by millennia of obfuscating organised religion, there is no doubt that Varnay has great power: after all he stopped her ageing and may himself be more than two hundred years old.
The beauty of this tale is the complex detail with which it unfolds and the grace and wit with which Deitch overlays historical fact with brilliant fabrication. With this surreal historiography of the little-known peripheries of the birth of cinema, Deitch concocts another utterly unique and absorbing graphic treat delivered in a lavish widescreen format. He once again shares the intoxicating joys of living in the past and dwelling in shared social memories.
Combining science-fiction, conspiracy theory, pop history, fact and legend, show-biz razzmatazz and the secret life of Beavers; displaying a highly developed sense of the absurdly meta-real, Dietch once more weaves an irresistible spell. It charms, thrills and disturbs, whilst his meticulous drawing holds the reader in a deceptively loose yet inescapable grip.
Follow the secret saga of the World According to Deitch and you too will succumb to the arcane allure of his ever-unfolding cartoon parade revealing the “Americana Way”. In Fact – or Fiction – you might already be there, but you’ll never know unless you look.