Wednesday , September 30 2020

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

The beaming cartoon cat on the front cover of Kim Deitch’s aptly titled The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Pantheon) looks innocent enough. But turn the volume over and the same ‘toon head leers at you salaciously: innocence & experience in one four-fingered figure.

Largely set in the early days of American animation, Dreams reprints a quartet of black-&-white graphic tales centering around Ted Mishkin, an alcoholic cartoonist haunted by the vision of a demonic cartoon cat named Waldo. Mishkin is like Elwood P. Dowd the way Jimmy Stewart has reportedly said he wished he could’ve play him: sans the crowd-pleasing cuddliness. The young cartoonist begins his career working for Winsor Newton (Deitch’s fictionalized version of Winsor McCay, creator of the classic comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” & the first animated cartoon, “Gertie the Dinosaur”) then is hired for the fledgling Fontaine Fables Studio. There he creates a series of groundbreaking cartoons starring the hallucination who has been following him around since childhood.
Deitch’s book jumps through various stages of Mishkin’s roller-coaster career: from top animator at Fontaine to hack funny animal artist for a comic book company in the 50’s – w./ periodic extended stays at Berndale Acres Sanitarium. The story’s a forlornly melancholy one, and Deitch the artist captures it through his trademark stiffly eye-popping style. Mishken and his mentor Newton are repeatedly betrayed by the industry, while their personal lives fare no better. That’s life on the Boulevard.

Our hero nurtures a life-long infatuation for co-worker Lillian, who instead is involved in a loveless affair w./ Ted’s brother Al. A ‘toon version of Lil appears alongside Waldo in “Dream Street,” a Fontaine feature that provides a darkly ironic counterpoint throughout the book. At one point – when Ted discovers his love & brother embracing – images from “Dream Street” flood the page, overwhelming Mishkin. Few graphic artists are as capable of making hallucinogenic madness look so simultaneously effulgent & mundane.
Deitch has long shown an affinity for the Kenneth Anger view of Hollywood Babylon (he once did a weekly alternative press strip entitled “Hollywoodland”), which shows up in a series of subplots surrounding the other denizens of Fontaine studios. The mysterious defenestration of Reba Fontaine, wife of the studio head, gets repeatedly revisited like one of the career-busting scandals from Anger’s famous chronicle of movietown excess. The fortunes of Fontaine Studios – its unsuccessful attempts to ape the Disney style at the expense of more honest artists like Mishkin, its union-busting activities that led to Lillian’s dismissal, its later revival as a source for pop culture geegaws – parallels the unfortunate trajectory of studios like Fleischer, whose more unique visions were demolished by the Disney monolith. Deitch’s genius lies in his ability to make us care about these long-lost battles, to see the squandered potential and the heartbreak of putting your life in an industry that doesn’t give a rat’s ass for personal expression.
As an early figure in the underground comix movement and the son of a Terrytoons animator, Deitch is uniquely qualified to look at this enduring conflict between art & commerce. Boulevard has been showing up on several comic critics’ Top Ten lists for 2002 (including Andrew Arnold‘s) and for good reason. It’s one of the best expressions to date of this energetically eccentric cartoonist’s unique take on the highs & lows of pop culture.
(ADDENDUM: For a more detailed discussion of the art & motifs in Deitch’s work, check out the first of The Comics Journal‘s Message Board “book club” discussions, moderated by comics critic/Deitch fan Yakov Chodosh.)

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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