An Example of Kim Deitch's Work
by Jeet Heer

Like many other art forms, animation has both an official history and a more interesting secret lore. For the standard, sanitized version of animation history, you can turn to any number of authorized biographies and studio brochures celebrating prominent producers such as Walt Disney or William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. But these men were Hollywood big shots who spent so much time negotiating with banks that they were rarely hunched over drawing boards. If you want to know the real lowdown on 20th-century American animation, told from the perspective of the artists whose physical labour and demented visions actually went into the creation of cartoons, you should ignore the conventional corporate histories and turn to renegade comic-book artist Kim Deitch, who will be speaking at the University of Toronto tonight. Both in his new graphic novel, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Pantheon), and in his frequent public lectures, Deitch offers a refreshingly revisionist take on the history of animated films. Deitch can almost be said to have inherited his erudition about animation. He was born in Los Angeles in 1944, the son of Gene Deitch, a struggling amateur cartoonist who would go on to become an Academy Award-winning animated film director. In 1956, Gene Deitch became creative director of Terrytoons, a once-lively studio that had degenerated into cranking out the annoyingly repetitive Mighty Mouse series. He revitalized Terrytoons by retiring the exhausted Mighty Mouse and encouraging his staff to adopt a sleek, ultra-modern style that contrasted sharply with the lushness of the dominant Disney mode of animation. "My father's ideal is to make cartoons that are pure design," says Kim Deitch. Although he won an Oscar for his short film Munro in 1960, Gene Deitch was increasingly unhappy with the direction animation was taking in the United States. Because television had become the chief buyer of cartoons, stiff and arid "limited" animation became the industry norm. Believing Europe offered more opportunities to make the type of films he was interested in, he moved to Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s. There he began a successful second career that continues to this day, adapting cartoons from children's books, notably Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Back in the 1950s, the young Kim Deitch was able to meet some of the now-legendary figures of cartoon history. He also remembers a childhood where he was allowed to riffle through storyboards. "I used them as home-made flip-books," he recalls. Even as a child, he preferred the "old-time" feel of old cartoons to what was then being made. "In the early 1950s, they were still showing these old cartoons from the 1920s on TV," he notes. "They always had farmers and humanoid cats chasing around mice. Maybe I was just reacting against what was around me, but I preferred these older cartoons to the design-oriented films my dad was making. It's not nostalgia for me. I'm just fascinated by how technology met Victorian culture in the early part of the century." In 1967, Kim Deitch started doing psychedelic comic strips for "underground" newspapers such as the East Village Other. He fit in well with the ethos of the underground cartooning scene. Like his friend Robert Crumb, he melded a graphic style reminiscent of the early 20th century with shockingly contemporary stories about sex and drugs. (Neither man ever had much use for rock 'n' roll.) When the counterculture faded in the early 1970s, most hippy cartoonists turned in their pencils. However, along with a handful of their contemporaries, Crumb and Deitch have kept their "crazed commitment" to comics, using their weathered hands to draw longer, more mature narratives. The Boulevard of Broken Dreams is Deitch's most ambitious work to date. In 120 or so intricately designed pages, he unfolds an elaborate family saga that is also a magic realistic retelling of animation history. In fashioning the book, he relied not only on his father's memories, but also the shared knowledge of his brother Simon, an animation buff who helped co-write a portion of the book. The graphic novel opens with the idealistic Winsor Newton, a late-Victorian humanist who wants to use animation to edify and uplift. Although he is a gifted showman, he is disillusioned with the vulgarity of his successors by the end of his life. Two of Newton's disciples, brothers Ted and Al Mishkin, live through the same struggle between art and commerce. For Ted, the visionary, art is so important that he almost becomes possessed by it: His muse is an impish cartoon cat named Waldo, whom Ted sometimes regards as real. As commercial pressures mount to make the animated Waldo cute and kitschy in the Disney mould, Ted's muse wreaks havoc on his mental health. Al is more pragmatic, yet his willingness to make deals also ends up carrying a high psychic price. In this version of animation history, Deitch doesn't shy away from the dark tales that are suppressed by more genteel writers. Sordid compromises with commercialism, union busting, McCarthyism and alcoholism are all part of his tale. The happier legacy of the past can be seen in Deitch's own art; with his cartoony lushness and inky vitality, his drawings pay homage to great animators of the 1920s and '30s. "It's life's old story," says Deitch. "Things develop and get better for a while, but it's always a struggle to keep the bulls--- away.
Copyright 2002 National Post