A doorman-protected building in New York’s upper-east-side isn’t exactly the kind of setting that immediately springs to mind, when one attempts to imagine the digs of an alternative cartoonist, but as I disembark from the elevator, the familiar beard and pony-tailed Kim Deitch greets me with a smile and a, “Brian?”
The inside of his apartment is very clearly realm of his ilk, full of old books, and records, and a stunning antique toy collection, including some old Krazy Kat dolls, and a band of tin rodents that look remarkably like some distant relatives of Chris Ware’s creation, Quimby the Mouse.
An old black-and-white cartoon from the early-30s is playing on the television. “This is exactly what I expected to be playing when I arrived,” I laugh.
“At any given time, it is,” Deitch’s wife, Pam, answers.
Deitch explains that he’s copying the film for a friend. It’s an short by Terrytoons—the company that would go on to create Heckle & Jeckle and Mighty Mouse, and, for a brief period in the mid-50s, employed Deitch’s father, Gene.
Deitch apologizes for the ongoing cartoon soundtrack, but really, for an interview like this, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The last few books have felt very interconnected.
Yeah, to some extent, The Shadowland stuff was done in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and a little bit of that actually overlapped with Boulevard of Broken Dreams—I was doing the beginning of Boulevard as I was doing the end of Shadowland. I was working on what would become Alias the Cat when I was still finishing up Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It pays to overlap. You don’t want to wake up one morning, and go, “oh my god, I’ve got to start a new thing today.” I always try to start something new as I’m finishing the last thing up.
Do you get attached to characters? Waldo, for example?
Yeah, I do, but I also enjoy just letting him sit there, for a little while. Right now, he’s kind of in mothballs. That’s why the character works so well, because I don’t really force stories on him. I wait until I feel like I’ve got something good for him.
In Alias, he pops up toward the end. It’s not really a book about him at all.
Yeah. Basically, Alias the Cat is three comic books, and each one of those is carefully planned. I thought the first was going to be a one-shot, standalone comic. In fact, I won the Eisner as a one-shot thing. I though the second piece was going to be another standalone. But then, when I was out publicizing Boulevard of Broken Dreams, I started getting this idea of the Alias the Cat thing, which seemed like a good conceivable prequel to the “Midgetville” story. Once I got that idea, I started having flashes about how I could tie some of the loose threads of part one. It’s a very interesting combination of very carefully preplanned units and a certain element of spontenaity running through it, in terms of how it gets from here to there.
Alias comes about because of the toy collection. Are those based on actual toys?
Wanna see em? [Takes me over to the collection of black cats, lining the shelf above Kim and Pam’s bed, on which a large and incredibly content black and white cat is currently lounging.]
[Spotting a cat that looks remarkably familiar.] Is that Waldo? What’s the story?
It’s a good one. I had a bogus ad in the comic, offering $1,000 for the Waldo doll. It seemed like a pretty good idea, because I knew there wasn’t one. Then a buddy of mine invited us to hang with him for a weekend in Connecticut. He was going to take us to a good flea market—and it was a really good flea market. So, we had to get up at the crack of dawn, and we were there, without any coffee. We were waiting for the coffee stand to open, and [Pam] was going, “oh jeez, I hope we find a cat.” And then she goes, “wait a minute, there’s one, over there—oh wait a minute, this is Waldo!”
There was this $1,000 price tag on it, and I’m still not really taking this in. I’m going, “uh huh.” It turns out that my buddy and his wife made this and planted it there. So we’ve got a picture of Pam holding it, on The Stuff of Dreams. They did the face with felt-tip. One of these days I’m going to have to get in there, with a brush and Indian ink and redo it.
So the story grew out of that moment of confusion?
No, the story was there. The way the story happened was, I got a job from Time Out Magazine. They wanted to do some kind of a walking trip of New York City. That was the assignment, and I had to come up with the angle. The angle I came up with was a tour of flea markets. At the time, it seemed like the flea markets were located in strategic places. The guy said, “that’s cool, and maybe you can get some other sites in there, like the Flatiron Building,” so I got that in there. And then I put the Strand bookstore in there, too.
It ended up being three pages of a New York tourguide in the magazine. I had such a good time doing it, that I didn’t want to stop. So I cooked up an idea that would keep that going. While I had an expense account, I was taking a lot shots of the flea market for reference, and plus I found all of this cool stuff that I didn’t use in the story.
And then, one day, I was doing situps in this room, right here, where I can see the TV, and then this movie came on called Bird of Paradise with Joel McCrea and Dolores del Rio, made in ’32, where these maidens get sacrificed to a volcano, and at the time I was like, “you know, I’ll steal that story,” and at first, I thought that’s what I did. I had that scenario, but then it got mixed up with the flea market. I didn’t steal the story, but I was heavily influence by this little potboiler movie. Plus, when I was about twenty, I was in the Norwegian merchant marines, so I had some experience at sea. All of those nautical characters are loosely based on sailors I met back then.
How often do you borrow stories from old movies or cartoons?
Well, you just figure that your mind is like a sieve. You’ve got to get inspiration from somewhere. When you’re walking through the world, looking at things, talking to people, and reading things, any time, you jump on it. I’ll tell you, here’s the thing about writing: just about any good story starts out as a half-baked story. If you get an idea that doesn’t go anywhere, instead of just giving up in disgust, file it away, because you never know, you might be able to get that angle back later.
You need to get something going in your mind where all of these stories are different states of being there. If you get enough of those going, and you’re working on something, hopefully there will always be one story that’s almost ready to go when you need to come up with a story, but you need to keeping fueling the old brain pan with ideas, so that’ll happen in confluence and thing will be there for you. That leads into another thing, which is, part of writing stories is that you need to be able to use your subconscious mind better, so it’s working in concert with your conscious mind, so you can turn those ideas into a useable story product.
Your stories seem to get more an more intricate, as the years go by. Is that a conscious effort on your part?
Well, to tell you the truth, I’m trying to keep a watch on that, so that they don’t get too intricate. I think that, at my worse, the story has too many ins and outs, and nooks and crannies, so that it starts to lose focus. That’s only good up to a point. So, if I’m consciously trying to do anything, it’s to keep it simple, so that you don’t get lost in the ins and outs.
Do you tend to lose focus on the characters, once the story becomes too intricate? In Shadowland, even as you get really deep into the story, new characters arise. Some of them are even dead-ends.
Sure. You know, I think it was about two beats after Shadowland that I got too convoluted. I was doing a story called “The Search for Smilin’ Ed,” and I think that has its moments, but it’s also got a lot of repetition and stuff that’s just too damn convoluted. You’ve got to have these experiments. Some make it, some don’t. the best you can hope for is a good batting average.
Do you feel as if you aren’t experimenting as much at this point in your career?
I’m definitely experimenting—maybe even more so. Right now my big experiment is, everyone’s going, “graphic novel, graphic novel, graphic novel.” You know, it gets my brain going. What is a graphic novel? To call a long comic a ‘graphic novel,’ is maybe a reach, maybe it’s not. But hey, maybe there are other ways of doing it. In my opinion, there have always been graphic novels. This edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson [pulls book from shelf], which is the way it came out—the way Mark Twain sold the book—every page has a picture on it.
Did all of his books appear like this?
I think they were all heavily illustrated. They were all heavily influenced by the Victorians—Dickens books [pulls another book from the shelf]. Dickens didn’t draw them, but he hired the artists. He said, “we’re going to have this sort of picture,” and that’s the way it went. In this, he had George Cruikshank. They came to loggerheads, because Cruikshank is so celebrated that was used to dictating plot to the writers that he worked with, which went absolutely nowhere with Dickens, because they were two type-A personalities colliding.
Check this out [pulls a third book from the shelf]. You know Thackery? Dickens biggest rival? Vanity Fair. They rarely publish the book with the illustrations, which is tragic. There are 190 illustrations, draw by Thackery, himself. Since he’s drawing them himself, he even spots them into the text. To me, that’s a graphic novel, so where my mind is going, is: maybe this illustrated text thing can be used a lot more imaginatively.
The book that influenced me a lot is Diary of a Teenage Girl, by Phoebe Gloeckner, which alternates text chapters with comics. I was talking to her about it, and she said that she was also really interested in Victorian novels. My direct influence from that was in Alias the Cat, where there was this oral history that he taped. I thought that I might be able to use that same effect as hers. It’s mostly comics, but I can drop into illustrated text, because it gives me a chance to get a little more into the character’s head, in a way that you don’t necessarily get to do so easily in comics. That got me interested for the project that I’m doing now—I wanted to get a project going with my two brothers.
My brother, Simon, contributes to this fanzine called Mineshaft. He collaborated with me for Boulevard. And then he started doing pictures for some kind of a Golem story, that was coming up in his head, and that looked so interesting that I thought he could sell it to someone like DC. It’s a Golem story, but it’s a different one than the ones that everyone is always telling, set in the middle ages, and it’s still got a heavy Jewish thing going for it, too. My youngest brother is a pretty good writer, so I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great, if we could get him to flesh out the story?’ And it worked. My kid brother wrote this really good story.
They were really interested in this illustrated fiction thing, too. So I thought, ‘why don’t we do a whole book like that?’ not that this is going to be the career changer for all of us, but let’s take it one step at a time. So now we’re doing this book called, Dietch’s Pictorama, which is going to be illustrated fiction by me and my brothers, in different combinations. One story, my brother Seth wrote and I illustrated, then there’s this Golem story, which Seth is writing and Simon is drawing. Originally I was doing to do one backup story. It was a 31 page story called, The Cop on the Beat, The Man on the Moon, and Me. That was going to be it, but I was having trouble getting enough illustrations out of Simon to make the Golem story the lead, so I thought I’d make mine the lead story, and if we ended up with two lead stories, fine.
[Continued in Part Two].