The Search for Smilin’ Ed by Kim Deitch

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The Search for Smilin’ Ed
By Kim Deitch
Fantagraphics

deitchsearchforsmilincoverThe first time I ever really spoke to Kim Deitch was during an interview for this site. I’d met the artist briefly a handful of times, standing on the other side of a table at shows like MoCCA, but we’d never really shared more than a couple of words. After a few shows, I finally asked Deitch if he’d be interested in speaking with me for the Cross Hatch. He agreed, suggesting that we conduct the interview at his apartment on the upper west side.

When I arrived for the interview, Deitch’s wife Pam answered the door. Deitch himself was doing sit ups in front of a small television playing a tape of ancient black and white cartoons. The apartment was largish, I suppose, by Manhattan standards—though anyone who has spent any time in New York City can tell you that such a statement isn’t really saying all that much, and given the enthusiasm Kim and Pam devote to the pursuit of antiquing, they couple could have no doubt filled an apartment several times the size.

Along one wall was Pam’s collection of black cat dolls—knockoff Felix the Cats that had served as the jumping off point for Deitch’s Alias the Cat, a book I had recently finished, lending an air of surreality to the whole pursuit. The sense was only compounded by the presence a stuffed Waldo doll with a $1,000 price tag attached. A similar doll had also made an appearance in Alias. The resemblance was uncanny.

“Some friends played a trick on me,” Deitch explained. They’d crafted the doll and left it on a table at a flea market for the cartoonist to discover. A heck of a prank, to be sure, but even with so plausible an explanation, it was hard to discount how well the whole thing fit into the fantasy world that Deitch has spent his career crafting around himself.

Like Alias and a handful of Deitch’s other works, the origin of The Search for Smilin’ Ed seems firmly rooted in reality. Where the former was born on some flea market table, however, Ed seems to have risen out of Deitch’s own hazy childhood memories, an off-handed comment by a brother struggling with alcohol addiction.
It’s a perfect jumping off point for one of the artists characteristically layered pursuits—Deitch’s ever-exanding world of characters seems to fit perfectly between the realities of mid-century entertainment and the fuzziness of childhood.

Those familiar with Deitch’s work over the past few decades will likely not be surprised to discover that such memories are merely the jumping off point for a story of Hollywood conspiracies so much larger than the cartoonist’s character could have ever possibly imagined.

For those who didn’t read the work serialized here in its original form (myself included), The Search for Smilin’ Ed Serves as a multi-layered expansion of Deitch already decidedly complex universe—one glimpse at the foldout poster of the artist’s characters included in this volume should give the reader an idea of just how delightfully convoluted that world is.

For those who haven’t read any of Deitch’s work, this volume is seemingly as good of a starting point as any—that is, until Fantagraphics puts out the inevitable omnibus of his work. Smilin’ Ed should be regarded as something of a primer not so much for the story itself (which, like other volumes, builds on top of existing works), but rather for the supplementary material. The introduction essay by Bill Kartalopoulos offers some explanation of the characters contained herein, as well excerpts from Deitch’s long career. The aforementioned poster and included character key also offers some reference.

Short of an entire supplementary reference volume, even the most astute of Deitch scholars will no doubt experience a touch of difficulty keeping track. Deitch, after all, is building his own underground Hollywood version of Middle Earth.

But such complexity is part of the ride. And as with other works like Shadowland and Boulevard of Broken Dreams, it’s nearly impossible not to be sucked in, as Deitch digs deeper and deeper into his own seedy universe. It’s also impossible not to pull the old volumes off the shelf for another exploratory re-read. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to discover even more sprawling themes amongst the seemingly dissonant puzzle pieces, the pursuit of which will be a downright blast.

–Brian Heater