The Search for Smilin' Ed!
Fantagraphics Books: 162 pp., $16.99 paper
Graphic novels should be better. They should be so much better that serious readers bristle at the genre designation, which is too narrow and diminutive. Few artists have exceeded the limitations of either the market or the dual skill sets required by the form. Terrific writers who know how to work with artists, terrific artists who know how to work with writers: These abound. Perhaps like the art of the moving picture, "picto-fiction" (to cite a term introduced by Entertainment Comics in the 1950s) really is a collaborative art.
The art world has long since recognized the visual effect of comics, with artists such as Chris Ware and Los Angeles' Robert Williams selected for recent Whitney Biennials. The influence is too endemic to chart: Ellen Gallagher to Lisa Yuskavage to Robert Pruitt to Roy Lichtenstein. The comic world too has put forth its own heroes, such as Kim Deitch, whose work was the subject of a 2008 retrospective at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.
Deitch's new book, "The Search for Smilin' Ed!," is reminiscent of his first collection, "Beyond the Pale," a compilation of serialized stories from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Those works date to Deitch's involvement with the East Village Other, a paper that published underground comix artists such as Trina Robbins, Spain Rodriguez, Vaughn Bodé, Willy Murphy and Art Spiegelman.
Indeed, Deitch might be held in the same rarefied regard as Spiegelman, R. Crumb or Gilbert Shelton were it not for two things: first, that he was not as deeply entrenched in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll as those others, and second, that the confidence of his drawing — now unmatched, with his mad-hatter compositions, full to the last insanity — took some time to develop. Also later in his career came the sophistication of his fictive line, which is Deitch's peerless, singular contribution.
"The Search for Smilin' Ed!" was originally published in 1997 and 1998 in the underground comics journal Zero Zero, although the material has since been revised and smoothed. The visual style complements the narrative aesthetic — frames within frames — as Deitch, Deitch's faithful foil Waldo the Cat and a psychotic rubber frog unravel the mystery of an erstwhile children's variety show.
In the tradition of comic gimmickry, Deitch has loaded the book with extras: a four-page color fold-out as well as a handy "Key to the Kim Deitch Universe" that catalogs 104 Deitch characters. The story booms with Deitch's explosive composition techniques and the narrative recoil — somehow even the genetically modified beavers here make perfect sense — is no less compelling.
"The Search for Smilin' Ed!" offers perhaps not as discrete a narrative as those found in "Alias the Cat" (2002) and "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (2007), but the joy of Deitch is that his work is almost impossible to tug apart. And who doesn't want their demons, time travelers, midgets and voyeuristic aliens in one oily melee?
Reed is books editor of the Brooklyn Rail.