Six-months back or so I posted about how much I disliked Kim Deitch’s cover for The Comics Journal. Kim himself responded with a ridiculously gracious comment or two. Anyway, I promised at the time to try more of his work…and while it took me a while, I’ve finally gotten around to it.
So…my reaction to Alias the Cat was mixed. On the one hand, there is some undeniably beautiful artwork. The cover image is particularly striking; the contrast between the color background with the blurry lettering and the sharply rendered stiff black and white image is really arresting, and the cat (or, as you learn from the book, the guy in the cat suit) is seriously creepy; he looks like a zombie. I like the way that the front arm is way too long, and seems to be made out of rubber, too — it’s just so wrong.
And this apocalyptic panel, with the incinerated cat toys blasting out of the volcano is pretty great.
The fact that the supposedly “real” people in the boats look as much like dolls as the cat toys makes the image even more disturbing somehow. Deitch definitely ties into something unsettling about the obsession with kitsch. Look into the banal empty icon, and the banal empty icon looks also into you. This particular money shot speaks in some ways, I think, to my discussion of All-Star Superman. Where Morrison and Quitely see the old fetishized trademarked icon as redemptive, Deitch finds something a good bit less comforting. My favorite part of the book was when Waldo, the pseudo-imaginary semi-plush cat, ends up on a tropical, Edenic island, and proceeds to act the imperialist snake, turning the simple natives into cogs in his capitalist machine. Like some updated Kipling fantasia, they worship him and work in his factory, creating more and more Waldo dolls…until they inevitably turn on him, leading to the apocalyptic volcanic eruption in the picture above.
Deitch’s vision here plugs into several unpleasant racial stereotypes — natives as innocents, native as fools, natives as exploitable and natives as dangerous and unpredictable (even natives as trophy wives, alas.) Again like Kipling, though, those stereotypes give the narrative an unwholesome energy; Deitch is circling around something nasty about the way that fetishized icons are tied into other kinds of fetishes around, for example, race and imperialism; about how fantasies of simplicity and childhood are also fantasies of corruption. If the Morrison/Quitely Superman is a dream of comics’ past as larger-than-life utopia, this is comics’ past as trivial, furtive unpleasantness — Mickey Mouse as a puerile devil.
The problem is that where Kipling (for example) could be quite ruthless, Deitch tends not to be. The apocalyptic volcanic explosion does no real damage; Waldo doesn’t really do anything all that bad on the island, as far as I can tell. The narrative wanders off into a melodrama involving a half-gypsy fireworks manufacturer and his tragic love affair. This is told through narratives and meta-narratives; Deitch puts himself in the story, and he’s investigating events from the beginning of the century, while trying to find out about/deny the existence of the imaginary cat creature who seems to pop up everywhere in his life. His researches bring him in contact with various other characters who are all insistently “colorful” with a repetitive and tedious preciousness — reminiscent, indeed, of all those cat dolls that Deitch’s wife buys on ebay.
Essentially, while Deitch’s art and writing occasionally point towards something darker, overall he plumps for woozy hippie nostalgia. Is the cat real, man? Am I insane? What about all those weird coincidences where that old comic strip from the teens duplicated exactly what was happening in real life?! Trippy…but not, you know, too trippy. Deitch’s unreliable narrator is never actually unreliable; he never really tries to fuck with the reader the way, say, Philip K. Dick does in Valis. You never get the sense that he’s really questioning what’s real and what isn’t; it’s all just a comfortable, cute, in-joke. At the end it’s all about the same stuff as the Morrison/Quitely Superman after all: “y’know, to me that’s the wild beauty of this comics thing. I can re-create the world my way! Half remembered, half imagined. A wonderful place! Where midgets make bread softer than the pillow you lay your weary head on at night and deliver comic books once a month to all the kids in the neighborhood.” Infantilization as apotheosis — woo hoo. There’s a new place for a comics creator to go, huh? And good lord, isn’t there someone out there who just is so, so obsessed with, I don’t know, the Elizabethan era, or cave dwellers, or some time other than the early twentieth century? I know it’s hard to find another era quite as racist or generally unpleasant but…just for variety’s sake? Maybe?
So overall, I think I still have a lot of the same problems with Deitch that I had going in — mainly the insularity, the easy nostalgia, and a self-conscious goofiness that just isn’t all that goofy or unexpected. On the other hand, his art here is in many places very nice indeed, and there is definitely a story here that I would like to read…though it’s not quite the one that interests Deitch, alas.
Just as an end note, I wanted to add that one of the things I quite appreciated in the book was Deitch’s treatment of his wife. Often when you have a somewhat aubtobiographical story about a self-consciously eccentric guy in pursuit of idiosyncratic knowledge/bliss/whatever, the wife ends up more or less written out (as in Hideo Azuma’s “Disappearance Diary,”) or else figuring as the “normal” foil, who puts a brake on our hero and/or pulls him back from the dark side. (as in David Heatley’s My Sexual History) Deitch’s wife Pam has a touch of this; she’s occasionally exasperated with his goofy pursuit of Waldo. But though she’s definitely more sane than he’s supposed to be, she also gets to be a bit of a freak herself, trolling for cat toys on ebay and even dressing up in a cat costume herself at one point. She seems to have her own life and her own nuttiness, in other words, and while Deitch doesn’t go into it in great detail, he does treat it respectfully, rather than just as an appendage to his own. I appreciated that.
And for a contrast, Bill has a lovely appreciation of Deitch’s work in Kramer’s Ergot.