This interview was conducted via telephone and transcribed by Comics Journal editorial intern Ian Burns and proofread by TCJ's Kristy Valenti and myself. Thanks to all! –Ed.
IAN BURNS: One of the new features [in The Search for Smilin’ Ed] is this huge fold-out here, and I was wondering, now that there’s over one hundred characters in your own personal universe, does having it that large affect how you create new stories at all?
KIM DEITCH: Well, it certainly gives me a lot of advantage in terms of I’ve got all these characters and I can use them in stories, but I’ll tell you, bein’ a character of mine isn’t all that great [Burns laughs]. If I haven’t got a good idea for ‘em, forget about it. A character’s only as good as he is contributing to the storyline that I want to tell. The only one that’s really lasted all this time is Waldo, and even him I’ll lay him off for years at a time if I don’t feel I’ve got a good story.
That’s why I think those stories are pretty good is because I never tried to force one. I never got up in the morning and go [adopts southern drawl]: “Hmm, I’m gonna make me a Waldo story!” [Burns laughs]. I don’t do that: to me, the play’s the thing, and it’s got to be a good yarn.
DEITCH: God knows that’s a gimmick that’s gotten plenty of mileage.
I will say this: in “The Sunshine Girl,” the long story in Deitch's Pictorama, that character Eleanor — I got to like her so much that I’d say the story I’m working on now was suggested by the fact that by the time I was nearing the end of that story, I got to like that character so much I hated to give her up. But ironically, now that I’m doing the story she doesn’t really have that much to do with it [Burns laughs]. At the beginning, discovering this manuscript, and then there’s an epilogue at the end and this woman occasionally mentions her by name as she’s describing something she did, so….Well, you just have to see where things go, you know? I had it in my mind that I’d like to do another story with her and maybe I will but, oddly, I didn’t really do that at all. I just used it as a jumping-off point for another story with a new character.
BURNS: Great. Back on the fold-out: Did you go through any in-depth laying-out process for all these characters, or…?
DEITCH: When I submitted the idea to Kim that we do The Search for Smilin’ Ed, the reason I did it is I figured this one I’m working on now is going to take me so long, I’d like to have something come out in the meantime, so people don’t forget about me. But, he said, “OK, I think this will make a good book, but you know what, I’d like to have an article in there talking about ‘The Kim Deitch Universe.’”
Now, I didn’t make that term up. But you know the Marvel Universe: it just means the interconnectedness of all my characters. And when he said that, I immediately, feeling cocky [Burns laughs], said: “Well, hell, if you guys are going to have an article about The Kim Deitch Universe, the least I can do is draw it!” [Burns laughs.]
Having said this, then I’m going, “Oh my God what have I said? How the hell am I gonna draw that?” [Laughter.] But, in a way that worked out, because I even spun off my own uncertainty: I was proud of the thing I worked up, it’s almost like a story but it isn’t a story. It leads you into it. Along the way I got the high concept: “let’s have it all happening inside my head.”
BURNS: Right, that’s what I was just going to say: it’s all centered around that image.
DEITCH: Yeah, and once that happened, then I really started catching fire. I did several elaborate sketches of it, and it wasn’t exactly pure fun, but it was happening. I knew I was onto something good and it came out pretty good, I think. It was hell: I had two computers cave in under me because that was a huge file. I had to get Paul Baresh to cut it in half. If you look at the Universe ones that they printed separately, you look really careful in the middle you can see where there’s a slight differentiation, ‘cause we were doing it in two hunks. Pretty much the biggest file I ever worked on. “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ roll” for Kramers [Ergot]; those were bigger, but they didn’t give me the trouble that this one did. “Kim Deitch Universe” was really blood, sweat and tears. But not the concept, so much, once I got going on that.
But the real bitch was colorin’ it, which usually is sort of fun for me. But I never had such a big busy thing. Like I said, first I started on my wife’s computer and it crashed, and then I went over to the other computer…it was giving me all kinds of trouble till I cut it in half.
BURNS: Well, this has got to be one of the first color pieces you’ve done in a while, right?
DEITCH: I usually do a few. I did a one-page “Life of Paul Winchell” that was in the last McSweeney’s and, what else have I done? I just did a poster, but actually I did that with black-and-white separation. Yeah, I guess you’re right.
BURNS: Was it Corn Fed [Comics] that you did all in color?
DEITCH: No, no. And plus those Corn Feds, that was before Photoshop. That was done with black ink and gray Zipatone, and just mixing shades to make colors, which was how I originally learned to do color. And I could make up whole color scenes without using any color at all. It still comes in handy: I just did a silk-screen poster that way. But you now, workin’ on Photoshop spoils you. [Burns laughs.] You can just get everything exactly right in Photoshop. But I tend to get too fussy. I swear I’d still be puttering around with “Kim Deitch Universe” if I’d had the chance.
BURNS: I’m still learning all the ins and outs of that program.
DEITCH: Well, I’m not exactly an expert. I am not fast, but I think I’m getting an interesting technique together: It’s sort of based on the Seurat Pointillism. You just blow things up really big, and mixing with dots of color takes a long time, but you can get some really nice, flowing color effects that way.
BURNS: The Search for Smilin’ Ed features this huge archive of pop culture that’s honeycombing Earth’s core. Since it’s one of the dominant themes in your work, why do you choose to depict the history of pop culture in your fiction?
DEITCH: Well, I’m a big fan [Burns laughs]: you know the parts of pop culture I like, and more specifically, I really think that the 20th century was a real golden age for that. And also, just philosophically, I feel like the human race is a lot better at producing entertainment than they are at running the bigger show — you know, existing in the world, so it’s something more easy to celebrate. Another thing I was riffing on: you know what the Akashic records are, the mythological place where everything is supposed to be? Well you know now.
BURNS: Yeah, I do now. I’ve heard of the Borgian libraries…
DEITCH: Yeah, well, the Akashic records is mythological; Somewhere out there it’s all stored away. God, it’d be wonderful if it was true. Who knows, I tend to be a bit skeptical but… [Burns laughs.] One can dream.
BURNS: Are there any areas [of pop culture] you haven’t got to explore yet? I’m actually wondering if there’s anything you haven’t covered.
DEITCH: Well, I’m still not through with the movies. And there’s a lot more about the movies in the book I’m working on now, in terms of pop culture.
I guess I finally got into music a little bit in that music story I did in Deitch’s Pictorama. I wouldn’t mind trying some other music stories, but then the problem with that is, my musical tastes are so far afield from what even my own readers are into that, boy, it’s like banging my head against the wall, doing that too much. That’s part of the reason I couched that story “The Cop on the Beat and the Man on the Moon and Me” in a framing story that was about the early days of comics. Lure ’em in on something that they’ll find interesting then hit ’em with all this obscure history that you know: half the people don’t even give a shit about.
BURNS: [Laughs.] Right, like the classical jazz stuff, or maybe even pre-Bebop era stuff.
DEITCH: Or pop music: Who cares about Bing Crosby? Well, I do, but [Burns laughs] not a lot of other people…. But then I also figured, he was great once, and he even made a lot of authentic jazz records in his younger days, goddamnit! [Burns laughs]. Let these rock’n’roll phases at least know that such a thing happened. I’m not gonna sit there and do story after story about it but I feel that one of the things about today is that people are just musically ignorant, you know, rock’n’roll has been hanging around too long: It’s time for some other stuff. I liked it as much as the next guy once upon a time, but it just hasn’t grown in any interesting way that appeals to me. I collected 45 RPMs just like everybody else did, but at a certain point I started discovering there was something else in the world. And I just wanted to get on my soapbox one time and talk about it a little bit.
BURNS: There’s certainly some people that are trying to dig up some of those influences, but not many.
DEITCH: But even then they’re trotting on safe ground, talking about the blues and jazz, but you know what’s really interesting to me about music, is it used to be, back in the ’20s and ’30s, that all these musical influences were all over the place, you know? Hawaiian music got a little bit jazzy. Popular music got a little bit jazzy. Jazz music got a little bit un-jazzy. There was a lot more variety in it all then people seem to be aware of.
BURNS: I know Smilin’ Ed the character was based off of an actual kid’s show host, but does your character actually resemble the real Smilin’ Ed in any way?
DEITCH: Yeah, I got photographs of him: I didn’t get much information, but the photographs were around and like the picture in Bill Kartalopoulos’ introduction, that one I got right off the Google picture file. I actually taped a piece of paper over my computer screen and traced it. You know really, he wanted a photo, but I didn’t know where you were gonna get that, so I just tried to make something as close to a photo as I could for that picture. I remembered him pretty good: I’d forgotten about the glasses that he has in that picture.
BURNS: Obviously demonic possession was your insertion, but did he have those outbursts, or was that…?
DEITCH: Well he was constantly fighting with Froggy: Froggy was sort of his demonic side, because Smilin’ Ed did the voice of Froggy.
BURNS: Oh, so Froggy was an actual character as well.
DEITCH: Absolutely. There were even other weird characters that I didn’t get into: like there was Grandy the Grand Piano, and of course they didn’t have that on the TV show. I only found out about that when I was researching. ’Cause he’d been on the radio for years, years before I was ever born.
BURNS: So Grandy is this piano you’ve included in the background.
DEITCH: I included him pictorially because he was just too cool not to. But Froggy was the big cheese on the show, and the Froggy toy, a rubber toy, was a huge toy of my childhood. They were everywhere, in all different sizes, and they looked exactly like…well, in the introduction, again, Bill wanted a photograph of Froggy. Well I don’t know where the hell I’m gonna get one, and Kim Thompson’s just raisin’ hell, oh, “Where we gonna get these photos!” [Burns laughs.] So again, I took a piece of paper and pinned it on the computer and traced it off and shaded it, make it look as much like an actual photo as I could. I wasn’t trying to make people think it was really a photo, but a completely accurate depiction of what Froggy looked like on TV and what the Froggy doll that they sold all over the nation looked like. It looked to me on the TV show that they were using one of the toys they sold for the Froggy character.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEMON
BURNS: Going from Froggy to Froganardo [laughter]: I wanted to know where that melding of cartoons and culture and that demonic possession and demonology came about. For instance, with Waldo, you…
DEITCH: Well, it just came to me: I used to read the Jack T. Chick books about demonic possession — those little small comic books? The one they do on exorcism is a classic. I don’t know: did you ever see the story I did called A Shroud for Waldo?
BURNS: I have not read, but I did flip through.
DEITCH: That’s basically the story where it’s revealed that Waldo is not a cat but a demon, and I was just starting to think: “Well, here he is, he walks around, he talks…” He isn’t at all feline. And in that story Jesus and him are walkin’ along the street, and they pass a pet-store window, and Jesus points to kittens in the window… “Well those are cats, that doesn’t look anything like you!” [Burns laughs.] “Face it, you’re a demon!”
BURNS: And he’s Judas, right?
DEITCH: Yeah, he’s the reincarnation of Judas. That just came to me too; I’m fascinated by the Jesus story anyway, suddenly it just made such great sense. Judas, in his own weird way, there are aspects of sympathy for that character. So it just worked.
BURNS: With the revelations of the Gnostic Gospels…
BURNS: …there’s a whole well of mythology that hasn’t even been touched yet.
DEITCH: I’ve been keeping up on all of it too,’cause that’s one of my hobbies.
BURNS: Well, staying on the demon topic, with all the [new demons in The Search for Smilin’ Ed!]…Hecate, Rudolphos, Shotsy, Chandra, Behemoth, Abraxis, Abeloneas, and Froganardo…How did you come up with there specific traits?
DEITCH: My brother had a book, it was reproductions of old demons, old drawings. Most of those characters came from them: I might have slipped something in. Well, Froganardo just came out of my own sick mind. [Burns laughs.] The rest of them, even the names on most of ’em, were out of this demon book that my brother had. So that’s an easy answer.
BURNS: And Froganardo, he appeared before Smilin’ Ed, right?
DEITCH: No, no he’s special for Smilin’ Ed.
DEITCH: And I doubt if he’ll ever show his face again.
BURNS: He was pretty horrible.
DEITCH: Unless I wake up in the middle of the night and get a great brainstorm.
BURNS: What do you do to start laying out a page, and how long does that generally take you?
DEITCH: You know what happens is I ease into laying out, because when I’m coming up with a story, I’m also drawing and doing sketchbook stuff, and when I’m mentally played out, rather than just start working, I’ll just shift over and start drawing. I’ll go back to the last point in the story where I thought I was going good, and just start drawin’ a picture of that, and that’ll start giving me an idea, so even by the time I’m ready to start doing layouts, I’ve pretty much designed everything as I was writing it, and in a lot of cases, have drawings that are just about good enough to be layouts.
Like in the story I’m doing now, a lot of my brainstorming-drawings that I was doing while I was writing it, I’m feeding them into the actual layouts, ’cause in many cases they’re good enough, so a lot of it is happening as I’m conceiving the story. Then, at a certain point I’ll start shifting over into the traditional approaches where breakdowns — another term you could use for breakdowns would be readable roughs — especially in comic books, I like to have the whole story in readable roughs. Meaning that you could take these rough drawings and see what is going on, and all the writing is there, and basically the way the page is going to be laid out is there. So I’ll do that, and then comes layouts.
Layouts, the way I do them, pretty much… the layouts is where the drawing happens, ’cause I’ll do really tight layouts, and if they’re just fine I won’t even change them that much when I trace them off onto Bristol board. I try to be doing the layouts a little ahead of when I’m going to be tracing it off because that way, say, if I did a layout 10 days ago, the bum drawing, if there is some, is more likely to jump out at me when a little time has passed. So then it goes on Bristol board and I tighten up, trace off onto Bristol board and ink.
BURNS: They are so tight, because some pages have the more traditional panel by panel, but some, they tend to start up in a background section in the corner, and then flow really nicely out towards another foreground layer.
DEITCH: Well, you know I like splashy layouts. My big influence on that was I was studying people who drew comics before me. Jack Cole: he used a lot of tilted panels and stuff, and just sort of more elaborate things than just panel panel panel panel. I like to make it a little more fun.
BURNS: So what is your fascination with midget characters?
DEITCH: I don’t know…[Burns laughs]. The early one, Blanche Microft, I happened to be reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and just in one of his ravings in that story he starts talking about some cute girl midget, and it stayed with me and it ended up in that story.
As far as the Midgetville thing, well, you’re always looking for ideas, and ideas come from everywhere. And that particular idea, the initial catalyst, was there was an article in the New York Times, it was like an urban legend story that there was a community of teeny houses that must have been inhabited by midgets in New Jersey somewhere, and ‘cause there’s no midgets living there any more ….So I thought, “Ah…this is good.” So I took a pilgrimage over to see that, and that was the root cause of that particular outgrowth of midget stories.
I don’t think I’m really just…I think it’s just potential material. I just land on that potential material at that time. I don’t really think that I’m obsessed with them [Burns laughs.] I mean you know there was 30 years between Blanch Microft and Midgetville. The other inspiration for Midgetville besides… and I don’t think midgets necessarily lived in this New Jersey town, I didn’t think the town was going to be much, but I thought going there would be an interesting right of passage to get me into the story, which it was. But also, there was this attraction in Coney Island. Coney Island has had different parks there, and one of the parks was called Dreamland, which burned down in 1911, but one of the big attractions of Dreamland was a midget village: and the midget village was basically peopled by professional show business midgets. In fact, it was the same troupe that they eventually used in The Wizard of Oz about 28 years later: Singer’s Midgets. But, you know you could go to this town, and it was all a show. You paid a ticket and you got to see the midgets going to the little midget post office and you could see a little cut-away house where they’re doing everything that big people are doing, only they’re midgets doing it, nothing weird. But that always stayed with me, and I think my Midgetville is as much influenced by this fabled attraction in Dreamland as it was by the New York Times article about a so-called Midgetville in New Jersey.
BURNS: And the Grey Ones, in this story [The Search for Smilin’ Ed], seem to be more of a connection with…this was before you created Waylow, wasn’t it.
DEITCH: She came out of a character called Wagandi, these little black midgets, people that were in Shadowland. And, in my own mind, Waylow is probably like a civilized version of one of these Wagandi pygmies, although I never actually say it: but that’s true those are midgets of a sort too, aren’t they?
DEITCH: Hmm [laughs]. I don’t know what to say. I seem to be interested in midgets, I guess [Burns laughs]. I have nothing against midgets.
BURNS: You treat them very respectfully [laughs].
DEITCH: I try to give odd types of people a fair shake. For instance, when I used the Furries, I think I turned the Furry character into a sympathetic character.
BURNS: He was one of the great ones, yeah.
DEITCH: The thing I’m working on now, I’m almost ready to send Kim Thompson layouts of to look at.
BURNS: Now, is that the prose book? I just got done reading your huge interview with Gary a couple years ago in the Journal.
DEITCH: Yeah, it’s a spin-off of the long story in Deitch’s Pictorama called “The Sunshine Girl.” It’s going to be called The Amazing, Enlightening, and Absolutely True Adventures of Kathryn Whaley. And the setup is: that girl Eleanor, in the earlier story, I’ll explain how she’s married to some guy who’s serving in our Army in Iraq. The way this story starts out, the guy just gets killed, and it just rocks her world upside down. She finds this old abandoned manuscript up in this upstate New York property that her aunt Kathryn leant her and it’s in the form of a long letter to her, but what it really is this woman’s autobiography of basically growing up in a small lumber town in upstate New York and all the weird adventures that happened to her subsequently till she’s an old lady.
BURNS: Is that going to be illustrated fiction?
DEITCH: Absolutely. In Deitch’s Pictorama I started experimenting first with illustrated fiction, where I just took some of my brother’s work and added a lot of pictures to it. By the time I got to my own, I started experimenting around, throwing in the occasional word balloon, throwing in comic-type splash panels. This book takes it even further. There’s oodles of pictures and every now and then it just about turns into comics. Not so abruptly as the way Phoebe Gloeckner did in Diary of a Teenage Girl, but I’m trying to do what a lot of people are trying to do right now, which is come up with a hybrid medium that you could tell more sophisticated stories with but has all the pizzazz that we love in comics so much.
BURNS: Right. And in the [TCJ] interview you seemed to be really interested in finding that happy medium. Have you really come to some sort of realization about what the perfect blend is, yet?
DEITCH: Absolutely not. [Laughter]. I don’t know if I ever will, but you know something’s going on, I think this one has certainly got more of comics about it than the stuff I did in Deitch’s Pictorama. And also, really, a zillion of my things have been billed as graphic novels, but I actually think this is the first real graphic novel that I’ve written.
DEITCH: The other ones, they’re collections of related stories that virtually make a whole.
BURNS: They’re comics.
DEITCH: Yeah. But this one… I doubt if it’s going to be serialized in any place, it’s all one long story, and it has a text that would almost, but not quite, stand without the pictures—but that’s a moot situation anyway, because it’s never going to be asked to do that. So, yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing.
I’m hoping to be able to put layouts of it in Kim Thompson’s hands soon. I keep getting stalled, because it’s all these pages. I got a million scans I gotta make, and what I did is, I started out drawing and writing at the same time, but just sketchbook stuff. Now I’m blending…I’m actually doing proper layouts, but where I started the layouts, I just went to some place in the middle of the story, where I knew the hardest fucking art was, and started there, and that was working out, so I just went all the way to the end. So then, now I’m starting back at the beginning and trying to meet up in the middle again and I’m real close.
“CONSIDER THE BEAVER!”
BURNS: The new story is “Consider the Beaver!” And was the general idea for that rooted in your feelings for the 21st century? ’Cause Waldo so prefaces that idea with 9/11 and Bush…
DEITCH: Yeah, we’re off to a great start…nothing really great has happened since the century turned, and also, the other thing I was trying to do with that story was, since this was a stop-gap while I was working on my new story, that story is also a prequel to the story I’m working on now. That character Charles Andreas Varnay is one of the main characters in the story I’m doing now. And the whole situation with beavers is, the way that story ends is, all the things he tried to do for the human race have been pretty much a bust, and there’s even a question that he might even be a big fraud. We never really find out, but he’s starting to spend more time studying beavers. I was just at that point in the story where this guy’s wistfully looking at these beavers on his property, and I just took that a little beyond the story, the ending of the story I’m working on now, and played with it.
It’s more evidence of the fucking Kim Deitch Universe [Burns laughs]. you know everything’s gotta be interconnected and it all has to make weirdly logical sense/ So this, “Consider the Beaver!,” along with everything else, is supposed to be the finish of Smilin’ Ed. It’s also the prequel to the Kathryn Whaley story, in the same way that the Kramer's Ergot story is a prequel to "The Sunshine Girl."
BURNS: This story seemed like a bizarre take on the utopian idea, because Varney’s got this plan for a beaver community, but it seemed to me to be more making fun of it…
DEITCH: It took a caustic view: the beavers start to evolve and they don’t necessarily evolve in a utopian way at all. They turn into similar crass creatures.
DEITCH: The crass human race. But part of the theme of the one I’m working on now is the human race is a work-in-progress, and we’re evolving yet, and in one way, you shouldn’t despair, because we could all blow ourselves up, it eventually might straighten itself out. I’d like to think it might be true. I mean one thing about the stories I’m writing, and maybe it’s because I’m getting older, I’m really starting to try to make sense of “what are we doing here?”
And so really “What are we doing here?” has been a theme that’s getting stronger in my stories. I’m trying to be very careful about that because you know you get too message-oriented and you can end up with sanctimonious stories that aren’t that much fun. But I’m trying to see if I can do that and still keep it fun…I want to figure out what the hell we’re doin’ here!
BURNS: It’s a good question [laughs].
DEITCH: I can’t help but feeling there is meaning to life, I’m not exactly sure what it is. But, I mean there’s just too many good things about the way we’ve evolved, I just can’t accept that it’s all just random occurrence. So more and more I’m grappling with that.
“It’s a cockamamie miracle.”
BURNS: [Laughs.] So Smilin’ Ed proper and the "Consider the Beaver!" story were more or less…well I guess they were over a decade apart, right?
DEITCH: I think that’s right, yes.
BURNS: So how do you think that your cartooning has changed or improved in the time? I know it’s a long stretch of time, but…
DEITCH: Well, harking back to something I said just a little while ago: I think that I am more concerned that stories are about something now then just be a far-out, wiggy trip, then I used to be. So there’s one specific thing. And you know, I know that’s dangerous ground to be trotting on too, but that’s an honest answer to your question. I hope they’re getting better; I’m working as hard as I ever did.
BURNS: Back to the layout question: the layouts seem even tighter. It is a more strict panel-by-panel, I think, too.
DEITCH: OK, well, that one was a return to comics. I hadn’t done comics in a while. I was doing Deitch’s Pictorama, and now I’m doing this one, and that is one change, I’m starting to explore…it goes back to the “graphic novel” thing, all of the sudden, Will Eisner coins this phrase, “the graphic novel,” and my initial impression of that was, “Oh God…” [Burns laughs], “How pompous can you get?” But then I started thinking, “Well, OK that’s one negative attitude you can take.” But the other attitude is, well, how could we really make a good graphic novel, how could we fine-tune what we call comics now into something that really would be something more than just a long comic book? So I am definitely experimenting along those lines. Again, that’s dangerous ground. I’m bound to get reactions from people going, “Well, wait a minute, this isn’t comics.” [Burns laughs.]
But part of the trade-off of being in this business, and not getting all that much money for doing this stuff, is that I get to experiment and do what I want to do. To me that was the great covenant that was in the air when I got into comics in the first place, back when underground comix got off the ground. So I figured this is a big part of it, you know? The day when I have to just be beholden to somebody to do things their way, well that’s the day I’ll go down and see if I can get a job at the local supermarket bagging groceries. Because, that will definitely be that the fun ran out of it, you know? So the miracle of my life so far, pausing to knock on wood, is that I’ve basically been able to do, pretty much, exactly what I want to do for 40 years and counting. It’s a cockamamie miracle.
BURNS: And that’s the dream.