All dug up.

*I have truly been lax in my comics reading. No, not because the blackouts have started again (goddamned $5 brandy - and you call yourselves Christian Brothers!!), but because I’ve been lured onto the rocks by the siren song of books without pictures. And there was hell to pay.

Dugan Under Ground

I found the hardcover edition of this 2001 prose novel by Tom De Haven sitting around at a chain bookstore in the bargain basket. Immediately, Kim Deitch’s dustjacket art caught my eye, which led me to scope out the huge lineup of back-cover praise from such luminaries as Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and others. And then it hit me - De Haven is the one who wrote last year’s prose-format Superman novel, It’s Superman!, which is due out in paperback in a few months. Naturally, I decided to pick this up, and I’m rather glad I did; it’s not a perfect book, and will probably be best enjoyed by comics history junkies like myself, but it’s got some interesting points, and a few great characterizations. A few weak ones as well.

Dugan Under Ground is actually the third and final book in De Haven’s ‘Derby Dugan’ trilogy, a set of novels following the cartoonists who worked on the famous (and fictional) Derby Dugan newspaper strip - their stories roar through over a century of American progress, though the books themselves weren’t issued at a lightning pace - the initial volume, Funny Papers, arrived in 1985, with the second, Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, landing in 1996. That’s one tome for each decade, though maybe by 2010 there’ll be enough new history forged to provide yet more to the saga.

Every book in this series is apparently self-contained; I’ll certainly cop to never being confused by the plot or the characters. But a good deal of the opening of this book feels sketched-in, poised more to refresh the reader’s memory as to what’s gone before than anything else; I could not escape the feeling that there were richer things, more resonant aspects to the work that I was missing due to my neophyte status. Again, this is nothing that sabotages the book’s comprehensibility, or indeed its pleasurable portions, but I felt that things were slipping by me nonetheless.

But maybe I was presuming too much; really, the whole book traffics in vignettes, bouncing madly through time and grasping at pertinent moments in the lives of its characters, abandoning major players among its large cast for huge chunks of pages to look at other things, narration styles and tenses flipping and flying all over the place. The book is divided into three major sections: Biggs the Cartoonist (subtitled 'The Sunday Page' - following the final Derby Dugan cartoonist, Ed Biggs, though a fateful Sabbath in 1960), The Brothers Looby ('The Dailies' - jumping back and forth between 1970 and 2000, concerning the affairs of Biggs protégés Roy and Nick Looby, the former a Dugan enthusiast turned reclusive underground comix superstar and the latter a long-suffering nebbish whose inks are nonetheless necessary to truly bring Roy’s pencils to life), and The Imp Eugene ('Comics and Stories' - bouncing all over the place, adopting different characters’ points of view, and generally filling in the story in a sideways fashion). Eventually it all more-or-less fits together, telling the tale of how Derby Dugan died in the trenches of the shrinking newspaper comics page, and was reborn as The Imp Eugene, misanthropic ‘60s icon, and then maybe died again, or maybe not.

Indeed, the book’s very title has a double meaning that keys one in to its core theme: ‘Under Ground’ means ‘dead and buried’ (as Biggs mentions early on), but also references the revolutionary underground of sequential art; thus, Dugan’s death and resurrection are both accounted for right at the top. Taken as a whole (and obviously I have no clue if this is a running theme throughout the whole series), this is a story about how pieces of disposable pop culture can outlive not only their creators, but the very confines of fiction and the page, living almost eternally in the guise of inspiration and occasionally reappearing physically in different forms. And this transformation from one state to another is arguably freeing - under De Haven’s eye, Derby Dugan the newspaper strip hero exists as an avatar for a certain manner of thinking, an idealism of the anticipated birth of the 20th century, smacked around by unfortunate realities of time and readership. The Imp Eugene, however, essentially is Roy Looby.

And Roy Looby is Derby Dugan too, as Biggs sees him at one point (the young man bears a striking resemblance to the cartoon character). He’s the reincarnation of a canceled classic as a living, breathing artist, a handy symbol of the effects old works have on young artists. Looby is also a mix of real-world comics artists, most pertinently both Robert and Charles Crumb (who are also present in the character of Nick Looby), though you’ll probably have some trouble getting exact with the identifications, as the former Looby is barely examined as a character (neither is Derby, or Eugene); he’s strictly an avatar for lost, angry, libidinous, grasping creation. Nick is far better fleshed-out as a character, a creepy sort, kind anxious and insufferably clueless, but also possessed of the decency to do the right thing at just the most crucial moment. His development is the most interesting of anyone's in here, maybe because (unlike everyone else) once he's introduced the book never quite lets him out of its sight. Contrast that to Biggs, who dominates the book's first section, only to play a supporting role for much of the rest of the story - you'd the think the final third of the book would be the one where it's all joined together, but you'd be wrong. Often, it almost seems like an extended epilogue (even though the main story isn't over yet!), at one point checking in on Biggs' things and using it to fill in the tale of the Loobys; such pacing choices are somewhat disorienting.

There’s plenty of other characters too, scattered around those 40 years of coverage: Roy’s abandoned wife Noreen, frustrated hippie cartoonist and wild-child Cora, underground publisher Clarky who gains a second life as a comics academic, misanthropic minicomics creator Glen - the latter two share one of the best set pieces of the book, a funny, educational, painful, and ultimately explosive college class on the history of comics, in which the pretentious critic and the flustered artist must unexpectedly join forces to defend the sanctity of comics as a valid art form. Its in moments like this (as well as Biggs’ late-night journey to the apartment of the magazine illustrator his wife is fooling around with) where all elements converge, and De Haven whips up a potent brew of historical detail, witty industry/art insights (this man does know his comics), character development, and pure narrative glee.

But all of these parts don’t always mix very well. If there’s any major flaw to Dugan Under Ground, it’s that De Haven appears to love his characters and settings so much that he ironically doesn’t seem to want to stick with any one for too long - a substantial visit with Noreen as a middle-aged woman in 2000 works well enough on its own, and gives a little insight into the main plot, but most of it just sinks back under the waves as soon as De Haven moves on to something else, and many of these discursions don’t really have the force necessary to stick with you. Surely this was meant to be cumulative approach to the narrative, but there’s just so much leaping around, sometimes to the detriment of the characters as fully-formed entities (and I'm not just talking about Roy Looby); instead of a panorama of nearly half a century, to be assembled like the jigsaw puzzles that provide one of De Haven's recurring motifs (symbolizing both the potentially fractured state of the mind and human identity, as well as the recontextualization of popular art from earlier eras), one feels like they're only seeing part of the picture, that they're surely missing something. Kind of like how I felt when I thought I needed to read the earlier two books - as I mentioned earlier, maybe it's just the style.

But it's not really a disappointing book, just lacking a certain concrete feel to its approach. De Haven's ending goes a long way toward covering for the book's weaknesses, bringing around that core theme again, in way that joins the past to the present in a more smooth and pleasing fashion than his actual work with characters and temporal leaping does. Perhaps a more devoted Dugan fan will get even more out of this finale than I did, having followed old Derby and his artists through over a century of stuff. But as De Haven (literally) says 'so long' to his characters, even those trapped in only this corner of the saga's timeline can understand that nothing ends with the closing of the book, or the cancellation of the strip, or the collapse of the head shops - they're inside you now, and you'll do with them what you will.

Heh. That's just like you.