Review by Graham Johnstone
Kim Deitch is in his sixth decade of an interweaving meta-narrative about the weirder corners of American popular culture, usually involving a demonic blue cat called Waldo.
Deitch’s publishing history is similarly elaborate: combining pamphlet miniseries, with shorts and serials in various anthology titles, collected years later, often out of publication order, and even under different titles. All Waldo Comics collected shorts from the first twenty years, and included both scientific and supernatural origin stories for the titular cat. A Shroud for Waldo developed the idea of Waldo as Satanic demon, and wove him into the Christ story. Next came a quantum leap in scale and ambition, with The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a fictional history of American animation, which featured Waldo as both the subject of (increasingly saccharine) cartoons, and as the (increasingly dangerous) imaginary ‘friend’ of some of the characters.
That brings the Waldo strand up to the current volume which gathers The Search for Smilin’ Ed. Smilin’ Ed was a real life radio and TV host of children’s shows, half-remembered in the opening chapter, by Kim and his brother, and sometime collaborator, Simon. We join Kim’s avatar ‘Kim’ in a ‘performative’ (think Michael Moore) mockumentary of his increasingly fruitless search. In alternate chapters Waldo gives ever more fanciful accounts of his own involvement. For example, drawing on his cartoon stardom, Waldo finds a human with matching physique, and coaches him to appear in Waldo drag on the Smilin’ Ed show. Later, below a haunted museum, turned Armenian embassy, Waldo finds some demonic kin watching reruns of the show, which out-weird even his own accounts.
The Waldo sections, of course, let Deitch’s imagination run wild with the few nuggets ‘Kim’ has found. For example, ‘Kim’ confirms Simon’s memory that Ed died on his boat. The boat therefore figures in Waldo’s account, with children being lured “pied piper style” onto it. Ed’s watery death, moreover, Waldo explains as a cover for ‘the grey ones’ whisking him away, to compere their Earth culture multimedia channel. It’s both brilliantly imaginative whimsy, and distorted mirror of the real world. For example, Kim observes the show’s odd device of repeating the same footage of cheering children, and Waldo suggests this is to avoid children being led to dark corners of the studio. Disturbing, at the time, it’s more so in the light of subsequent scandals around children’s TV.
Deitch’s work is so steeped in his own world, that it may seem timeless, or at least firmly focussed on the past, but first serialised at the end of the 1990s, this is a thoroughly millennial story. It looks back on the popular culture of the 20th Century, and looks forward, albeit through fanciful fiction, to how that culture might be treated in the future.
Visually, Deitch is a master of page design, simplifying complex scenes into diagrammatic, near-schematic, clarity, and adding further coherence through his precise silhouettes, and implausibly subtle tonal hatching. The reduction, here, from pamphlet comic size sharpens everything even further. Other Deitch books include formative efforts, or lapses in inking quality, making this some of Deitch’s most consistently strong art.
Extras include a ‘21st Century Update’, a fascinating introduction by comics scholar Bill Kartopolous, and a colour fold-out panorama out the ‘Deitchworld’ cast, that’s a breath-taking tour-de-force.
Deitch’s next Waldo narrative would be Alias the Cat. So, is it necessary to read these books in order? Well, doing so reveals Deitch’s artistic and narrative development, however each of the books is self contained, so you can enjoy them in the order you acquire them.