Tough Times in Toon Town

Kim Deitch (with Simon Deitch)
The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Pantheon Books

About 15 pages in, you start wondering just what exactly is going on. Of course, it's a comic book, and there are plenty of the normal conventions of the comic-book form to guide you along from panel to panel and page to page. Slightly strange-looking humans walk around and talk to each other in the form of never-quite-perfectly lettered word balloons; cute anthropomorphic cats cavort, singing songs and playing tricks on each other. It's all very normal, and it almost feels like one of those comic books you would've read when you were a kid.

But about 15 pages in, that's when you start to wonder--the beautiful, obsessively rendered drawings are as sweet as your favorite great-aunt, but there's something slightly unsettling about it (like your favorite great-aunt after a soothing quantity of pain pills). And those humans talking to each other are just a little weird, and for some reason they all seem to be certifiable or alcoholic or otherwise engaging in some sort of behavior that you'd never see in those comics you read as a kid. And that cartoon cat--well, it seems that that cartoon cat might actually be real (or a real hallucination, at the very least). Even the story you're being pulled through seems stuck halfway between childhood and adulthood. It's a horribly sordid and depressing story that is somehow unsettlingly beautiful and full of glee at the same time. Reading this comic is like stepping into someone else's life--and lordy, is it a strange one.

Welcome to the world of Kim Deitch. Over the near-30-year course of his comics career, Deitch has slowly and subtly constructed a vast, interconnected cartoon universe that lives and breathes of its own accord. Boulevard... is Deitch's epic yarn concerning the birth and possible death of the animation industry. (It's a subject that is close to the author: Deitch's father ran the Terrytoons animation studio in the 1950s.) Over the course of a 70-year yarn, we follow the life of chronically inebriated and intermittently insane cartooning pioneer Ted Mishkin, his cartoon creation Waldo the Cat, and a cast of friends, family, co-workers and various others as they plow their way through infidelity, shattered confidences, dreams, death, the nuthouse, and the poorhouse. Intricate and complex without being complicated and overblown, this is a comic that mines the depths of tragedy, yet somehow never becomes tragic.

In the end, you don't really need to know what's going on--it's not your world, after all. You'll just be glad you got a chance to visit for a while.

 
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