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Name That Toon : DERBY DUGAN'S DEPRESSION FUNNIES. By Tom De Haven (Metropolitan Books: $23, 290 pp.)

August 18, 1996|Russell Miller | Russell Miller is the author of a forthcoming memoir, "Capitals, or My Fourth Decade in America."

Once upon a time, comics were at the core of culture in New York. There was Broadway theater, of course, and ballet, and movies imported from the West Coast. But by 1944, when the city's newspapers went on strike, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia could burnish his fame simply reading the comic strips on radio. Those recitations loom large in the city's legend, so in thrall were New Yorkers to the funnies, even those without pictures.

Comics, their stories and pictures, and the men who created them, are at the core of Tom De Haven's "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies," a fictional memoir of New York that takes place earlier in the LaGuardia epoch. Its narrator, Al O. Bready, writes comics, and the "Derby Dugan" in the book's title is the name of Al's most famous strip.

"Derby Dugan," Al tells us, owns the hearts of New York and the nation. Grown men seek Al's friendship when they find out he actually writes the strips. But few find out; most know only of his employer, Walter Geebus, the cartoonist who floridly signs each episode.

Walter, it turns out, is a "famous moneybags," and Al works so deep in his shadow that even executives of the syndicate selling the strip believe Walter creates the whole thing. Al resents this, of course, but not enough to gripe. He hedges. He takes what he can get. "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies" rests on his sole consolation: Nobody creates the whole thing.

A snap-brim, rat-a-tat tone gives De Haven's book a busy feel, though not much happens. He fortifies the slight plot with his main characters' cleverly constructed dreams, recollections and allusions. He plays with cartoonish grace in the territory where creators' lives slop over into their work. When Al, sweet on a woman who thinks she looks like Myrna Loy, picks "Myrna" to name a new hero's love in a strip, he doesn't explain. Throughout, he's willfully dim about his own drives and longings.

Lack of introspection is fine for a hero in the comics. But it creates problems when the hero is the narrator of the story too. By locking the novel in Al Bready's first-person voice, De Haven gives in to Al's evasions and weakness. Neither narrator nor author explains what made "Derby Dugan's" Geebus-Bready years so golden.

"A big, strange mystery," concludes Al. De Haven shows little more. That leaves a gap in this novel about the world of collaborative art.

Indeed, De Haven never presents the product that was Al and Walter's incomparable "Derby." He goes all out to depict Depression-era New York; he upholsters his book with period brand-names; the taxicabs are diligently painted maroon, not yellow, and people drink seidels (large glasses) of beer. But he never finally lets readers curl up with "Derby Dugan" itself. We're told that Derby Dugan is a sarcastic character, that his talking dog, Fuzzy, is "insufferable," but we don't hear it.

Strangely, we learn most about the look and feel of Derby not from the novel's text but from its package. The volume, designed and decorated by Art Spiegelman (creator of "Maus"), echoes the question entangling Walter and Al: Who creates "Derby Dugan"?

In dedicating his novel to Spiegelman, De Haven implicitly endorses Bready's rule: Nobody creates the whole thing. Yet as Spiegelman's contributions to "Derby Dugan" mount, De Haven's recede. The cover features a Spiegelman self-portrait. A frieze of "Derby" characters, the Spiegelman version, hovers on every page. The frontispiece, a full-color Sunday "Derby Dugan," is credited to Spiegelman alone. The writer is erased, and Al Bready's complaint is made ironically concrete.

Still, even savvy pictures can't entirely distract from the artful grit in De Haven's script. Nor can their conscientious crudeness smother the wisps of fellowship, bile, confusion and regret that rise like grass from the cracks in De Haven's meticulously drawn Manhattan streets.

Like Al Bready's, all our minds are awash with petty slights, stunted affection, sparkles of pride and mixed feelings for friends. Tom De Haven might have made more decisive sense of the wash. He might have shared Mayor LaGuardia's conviction in the punch of unillustrated story. His premise throbs with promise, but you wish De Haven had more of that "Derby Dugan" pluck.

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