Artist Kim Deitch wakes up at 4 A.M. every morning. In less than an hour, he is sitting at his drawing table, doing what he has done for more than fifty years: drawing comics. His latest—and most ambitious—graphic novel, Reincarnation Stories, reflects back on his long career while being utterly unlike anything he has ever done before. In this epoch-spanning pseudo-autobiographical book, Deitch leads the reader on a time-hopping, picaresque journey through his soul’s previous incarnations, tracing a mysterious thread that runs through his personal histories, real and imagined, back to before the dawn of recorded time.
It is tempting to say that Kim Deitch has already lived several lives as a cartoonist. Deitch, along with Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Robert Crumb, was among the first wave of artists drawing comic strips for the East Village Other and other underground newspapers in the countercultural mid-’60s. Like his peers, Deitch followed Crumb into the new format of underground comic books, or “comix,” after Zap debuted in 1968. He contributed to underground anthologies including Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s Arcade and published two issues of his own comic book series, Corn Fed Comics. After the underground milieu dissipated in the mid-’70s, Deitch continued to work consistently, occupying every available format that came along. He drew comic strip serials for the emerging alternative weekly newspapers, short comics stories for new anthologies including Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW, and individual comic books for new independent publishers like Fantagraphics.
The searching, short-form psychedelia of his early underground comics became the foundation for more sustained and refined work. Deitch’s wild visual imagination was already steeped in early cartoon animation (his father is animator and cartoonist Gene Deitch) and midcentury comic books, like Mad. As his artwork gained in precision and density, he incorporated the influence of Victorian illustrated fiction, early film, and other forms. And as Deitch steadily worked through the eighties and nineties, his stories became longer and more complex. When major publishing houses helped establish the long-form graphic novel within the book trade in the early twenty-first century, Deitch was there and ready to go.
In 2002, Pantheon Books collected his serial The Boulevard of Broken Dreams as a graphic novel. Although drawn over a period of years and across multiple formats, the book’s complex, coherent narrative revealed a novelistic intent all along. A string of books have followed: Alias the Cat, Shadowland, The Search for Smilin’ Ed, and more. Ricocheting between the past and the present, Deitch takes us from the medicine-show circuit of the American frontier to the early television industry to the Brooklyn loft of an online dealer in custom-made anthropomorphic costumes and dolls. His complex approach to narrative locates strategies shared by nineteenth-century serial literature and postmodern fiction. He strains beyond the novel, lightly weaving each new story into an organic, ongoing meta-narrative that links his books together. And through these tales stalks his signature character, Waldo the Cat. Like an unwelcome Roger Rabbit character wandering Deitch’s “real” world, the wisecracking cartoon cat presents an ominous threat to the sanity of the characters to whom he appears—including “Kim Deitch” himself, increasingly present as the self-referential author of his own stories. His books resist the elevator-pitch style of marketing, but the cult of Deitch, which includes his critically-acclaimed peers, recognizes each new book as a major event. If there is an author ready to follow Philip K. Dick from the pages of pulp to the Library of America, it could be Kim Deitch.
Reincarnation Stories explodes with the full range of Deitch’s visual styles. One chapter, “Hidden Range,” visualizes the unproduced screenplay for a mystical Western film written by one of Deitch’s previous incarnations, the writer Sidney Pincus. Deitch’s fine crosshatching recalls the covers of early twentieth-century dime novels, while the heavily narrated storytelling unfurls like a silent film. The chapter “If It’s Weird It Works” revisits Deitch’s time as an artist working for the East Village Other while sharing an apartment with his late colleague, the artist Spain Rodriguez. Here Deitch reactivates the psychedelic imagery and page layouts of his underground work, while incorporating in facsimile two of his earliest pages from 1968, closing a circuit and highlighting his own past life as a young hippie cartoonist. In “Young Avatar!,” Deitch imagines an alternate career for himself as the author of a series of comic books about the untold adventures of Jesus Christ as a boy. These pages roll out with the clarity of midcentury children’s comic books like Little Lulu and Richie Rich. The predominantly black-and-white graphic novel explodes into eye-popping technicolor for several phantasmagoric pages.
The past life regression that frames this book’s interrelated narratives begins with a very real event: several years ago, Deitch suffered a retinal injury, followed by an uncomfortable recovery period. It was a terrifying and potentially career-ending event for any visual artist. As he lay face down, unsleeping, night after night, Deitch may very well have experienced the types of odd memories and reveries that launch this books metaphysical wanderings. But good luck to the reader who attempts to decipher where this book’s recollections end and fantasy begins.
Deitch’s narrative is populated with real-life figures: early Western film stars Jack Hoxie and Buck Jones take starring roles alongside obscure pulp fiction writer Wycliffe A. Hill. The more well-known filmmaker D. W. Griffith makes a cameo appearance. Deitch’s genuine enthusiasm for factual cultural history—however much he plays with it—is one of the most “true” elements of his work. The unalloyed affection that animates Reincarnation Stories radiates in his tributes to Spain Rodriguez and to another late colleague from Deitch’s underground days, the cartoonist and editor Jay Lynch. Neither nostalgic nor mournful, Deitch celebrates his former compatriots in terms that are as funny, charming, and vulgar as their own comix were.
Even as Reincarnation Stories reaches its conclusion, there is a sense that Deitch can’t stop spinning out narrative threads. One appendix follows another, then another, then another, each offering a new narrative trail. Deitch ultimately breaks the cycle of reincarnation by imagining a far-flung science-fiction future in which he and his beloved wife, Pam, can enjoy their current earthly paradise for eternity.
If there is such a thing as “creative flow,” Kim Deitch has mastered it. “One thing I always try to do is look at what I’ve done that day, and review it right before I go to bed that night, just to let your subconscious mind in on the situation, and what you’re trying to do,” he told interviewer Zak Sally in 2004. “You’d be amazed at how well this works sometimes—something you thought was absolutely insurmountable, you’ll usually find that your mind was working on it while you’ve been asleep … I find that the morning is the best time for all that conceptual stuff.” Even among his peers, Deitch is legendary for his disciplined work ethic. He puts in forty hours each week at the drawing table, meticulously logging his hours.
Reincarnation Stories ends by laying out the first threads of Deitch’s next great, self-reflexive yarn. In his next book, How I Make Comics, he intends to share the key lessons that have allowed him to maintain a productive streak from 1966 to the present day. There is a very good chance that Kim Deitch is sitting at his drawing table and working on it right now.
Bill Kartalopoulos is a comics critic, editor and curator. He is series editor for the best-selling Best American Comics series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, including the most recent edition, The Best American Comics 2019. He is currently writing a history of American comics for Princeton University Press and teaches courses about comics at Parsons and at the School of Visual Arts.