The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
A review of a new comic strip novel by an ‘underground comix master’, full of complex plot lines and psychologies, stories about and parodies of the underbelly of the cartoon business, all drwan exquisitely.
Waldo the cat is a demonic figment of Ted Mishkin’s imagination. Yet so diabolical is this evil Felix-The-Cat doppelganger that he has wreaked havoc on every aspect of Mishkin’s psyche. Waldo is both scourge and muse to Mishkin who, in case you’re wondering, originated and draws animated cartoons for Fontaine’s Fables, a Thirties-era animation company that featured the crazy feline as the star of an ongoing popular cartoon feature.
By the way, did I mention that Mishkin is also unreal and along with Waldo is one of the many tragi-comic characters in Kim Dietch’s exquisite new comic strip novel, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the first book length sequential narrative by this underground comix master.
For those like me Sixties underground comix were transformative. Given the many repressive post-war taboos against comics and rock and roll, alternative comix were a breath of fresh ink for they ridiculed and exposed hypocritical government prohibitions against language, art, and ideas, not to mention sex. Deitch is the creator of one of the best of these underground comix, Tales of the Sunshine Girl, which appeared regularly in the East Village Other in the Sixties and early Seventies. The subversive strip is about a portly naïf, young flower child (she actually looked like a daisy) searching for existential truth (and aren’t we all?). Deitch, whose father was a respected UPA animator during the forties and fifties, developed a primitive cartoon style that conveyed layers of psychological complexity cut with acerbic wit—wedding autobiography to social concern. Yet, after the Sixties/Seventies he did not achieve the same fame or acclaim due him as did R. Crumb or more recently, Chris Ware.
Deitch’s latest comix are situated around the animation industry, with emphasis on behind-the-scenes doings as well as parodies of classic characters. Among his betes noir Deitch reveals intense enmity for Disney who, in Boulevard, is overtly and covertly accused (and rightly so) of extruding the heart and soul from animated cartoons. This is vividly clear in the subplot of Boulevard, when the exploitative (and ultimately exploited) Mr. Fontaine humiliates a great cartoon pioneer, Winsor Newton (influenced by the real-life Winsor McKay) who created “Milton the Mastodon” (based on McKay’s “Gertie the Dinosaur”). Seduced by the need to make profit the opportunistic Fontaine forsakes psychologically complex cartoons for more crowd-pleasing Disney-esque attractions.
Throughout Boulevard Deitch creates emotional tension between those who are fervent about original iconoclastic cartooning versus those who proffer derivative, market-driven pap. However, this book is not merely a polemic against mediocrity, but rather a gripping narrative about failure, betrayal, passion, and cruel twists of fate. Poor Ted is not only betrayed by Fontaine, who in turn is betrayed by Ted’s brother Al (the production manager of the Fontaine Fables who is having an affair with Fontaine’s wife) but by Lillian Freer, an animator who Ted loves, who in turn is sleeping with Al, but is guilt-ridden throughout her life.
For all the lurid, soap opera details and to understand how the “Broken Dreams” of the title grip the lives of everyone in the book you’ve got to read Boulevard in one sitting. And it is well worth the effort not only because the three chapters, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “The Mishkin File,” and “Waldo World,” are so brilliantly conceived, paced and written, but because the drawing is virtuoso. Deitch’s earlier comix have a lighter and more rigid line, here the line is bold, the rendering is flawless, and the detailing will keep you interested for hours.
What I found truly inspiring is how frighteningly real Waldo comes across. The recurring apparition in Ted’s mind is unmerciful and masterful not only because it weaves so fluidly through a degenerating life but also because it is a stunning analysis of how dementia really takes control of the mind.
Other Articles By Steven Heller
- Marshall Arisman: Facing the Audience
- Edward Fella: Letters on America
- R. Crumb: Odds and Ends
- Tomi Ungerer, A Childhood Under the Nazis
- The Swastika: Constructing The Symbol
- Art of the Third Reich
- Design History
- Graphic intervention
- The Small Crit
- Zap Comics
- Quick Cuts, Coarse Letters, Multiple Screens:
- Ladislav Sutnar and Knud Lönberg-Holm
- Otto Bettmann: Father of Retro
- Advertising Arts: America Becomes Modern(istic)
- Erik Nitsche: The Reluctant Modernist
- Old Guns
- Graphic Design Magazines: Das Plakat
- The Object Poster:
- Walter Herdeg, editor and founder of Graphis
- Cult of the Ugly
- Paul Thompson, director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum
- Don Norman, Usablity Expert
- Merrill Berman, Design Connoisseur
- Neal Gabler, media critic
- Ladislav Sutnar, Web Design before the Internet
- Typographica Mea Culpa, Unethical Downloading