“…I sincerely hope these stories manage to entertain you all
Those are the final words of writer/artist Kim Deitch’s introduction to this new collection from Fantagraphics; it’s a large book at 12” x 9” and 192 pages, and the author’s forward adopts an equally tall tone. It’s always difficult to separate reality from fiction when Deitch’s work is concerned, so the reader might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at his account of being put up by a patron in an isolated Virginia homestead in the late 1980s, where he lived for three years in a perpetual state of work, running for miles and drawing for upwards of 80 hours a week. Perhaps it was like the conclusion of the film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring
, and Deitch also mastered martial arts on a frozen lake and dragged a large stone up a mountain in penance for his childhood indiscretions. By the time Deitch sets up a mocking art correspondence with imprisoned serial killer John Wayne Gacy, an experience that would subconsciously inspire parts of the very book you hold in your hands, dear reader, you’ll seriously be wondering if perhaps the artist isn’t pulling your leg a tiny little bit.
But then, after the book is done, you’ll understand that blurring the line between fact and fiction is one of Deitch’s greatest strengths as a storyteller -- hell, longtime fans will have realized that long ago -- and it’ll become clear that the spinning of entertaining yarns is not merely the overriding theme of Shadowland
, but is posited by the author as the sole redeeming quality of humankind as a whole. In this way, it may well be the ultimate Kim Deitch saga, the most complete embodiment of Deitch’s obsessions with history, ephemera, fantastic visions and metal breakdown. No wonder he hopes he’s being entertaining himself.
Shadowland is a collection of comics Deitch produced for various publishers from the late ‘80s though the mid ‘90s, all of which add up to the grand, century-spanning tale of the Ledicker family and their extensive set of relations, employees, and associates, all of whom are involved in American entertainment in some way. Medicine shows, dime museums, carnivals, brothels, movies - they’re performers and creators, visionaries and cogs. The title Shadowland refers to an early movie theater that serves as a key location in the book, and it’s pregnant with significance - Deitch is always wild about silent films, and his sprawling plot sets up movies as one of the ultimate forms of human storytelling, and a literal saving force in several characters’ lives. Yet, movies are watched from the land of shadows, where the flesh-and-blood audience must sit, just as humankind, while capable of beautiful creations, are otherwise brutish, covetous, murderous, doomed creatures, often ruined by their very capacity for entertainment, though never entirely bound to some dull duality of good vs. evil. If the book is to bear that title, it is to stand as both an ode to the creative verve of people, the things they put outside them, and a requiem for everything dead and dying, everything inside of them.
Shadowland kicks off like every red-blooded graphic novel ought to, with 33 consecutive splash pages
. And gorgeous pages they are, fashioned like promotional posters and full of margin decoration and panels-within-panels; Deitch’s characters are thus literally presented as objects of entertainment and hype. But this first chapter tells the sad story of not any human, but Toby the pig, faithful performer in the Ledicker 3 Way Oil Show of the late 19th century, a traveling entertainment extravaganza concocted by paterfamilias Doc Ledicker as a means of selling his alcohol-heavy miracle medicines to every stripe of local rube. Hey, it’s all entertainment, one of the rare traveling forms of such in that time period, and Toby is an entertainer
He starts out as a piglet, performing in the blackface serenade portion of the show as an infant ‘coon’ (no, this won’t be the book’s last taste of period racial attitudes), but soon he’s gotten too big, and must make his living high-diving from a tiny ledge into a tinier bucket of water. And fate has even more awful things in store for Toby, the Flying Pig, since pigs grow up too quickly, and are easily replaced - Doc has secured a new performer, and Toby is up for the slaughter. Desperate, and instinctively acting upon the fanfare for his old act on the night of his replacement/slaughter, Toby throws himself up toward the dive, dragging Doc’s clown-painted young son A.L. “Al” Ledicker with him -- the young boy loves the pig, and attempts to restrain him -- and makes a final, fatal jump into a now too-small tub of water. Al survives, and Doc decides to memorialize the dramatic occasion by having a poster made (much like how every page of the chapter is already a ‘poster’), stuffing the pig’s remains, and carting Toby’s mortal shell around throughout the decades as a posthumous attraction in subsequent dime shows and museums of oddities, a task gleefully taken up by the grown Al, still always wearing clown makeup, always an entertainer, who keeps the pig with him until his death in the late 1950s.
As such, in 33 splashes, Deitch provides a tragic little summary of the book’s themes, as characters are self-consciously presented to us as participants in an ‘act,’ a story, as entertainment both drives people (and animals) to survive, and ultimately kills them, though a type of immortality is attained through particularly vivid showmanship. There’s also all the accordant themes of love intermingling with exploitation, and laughter rising from horror. Even after you’ve read the rest of the book, it’s worthwhile to flip back through that first chapter - Deitch somehow slips in nearly every major character in the book as a participant or an onlooker, including a few tucked away in the margins that otherwise couldn’t possibly be present, and it’s great just to stare at their interactions with the knowledge of what’s in store for them. All of this is even more impressive when you consider that Deitch created this book piecemeal, in the form of one-shots and short miniseries and anthology contributions, for several different publishers over the course of nearly a decade - it’s either a masterpiece of careful planning or canny improvisation, take your pick.
As the book progresses, Al Ledicker emerges as something of a focal character, though only the very last chapter is told mainly from his point of view, and even then not exclusively. He’s quite marvelously complex, and it’s good that we see him early as an idealistic child; in the very next chapter, he’s an embittered carny owner in the 1920s, teaming with the Ku Klux Klan to frame his show’s alcoholic black geek for a murder Al committed, then filming the man’s execution for later movie exploitation. This story is told by Al’s wife, Kewpie, who soon stumbles onto the secret infiltration of Earth by space aliens who’re obsessed with the antics of humans throughout history as fine entertainment, and have a habit of recording the best parts on laser story chips to form little movies. Needless to say, actual human movies provide a special experience for them.
The book then bounces all over the 19th and 20th centuries, Kewpie viewing much of it from above the Earth itself, as the many bizarre events of Al’s and his family’s lives are revealed, virtually everything structured as someone telling a story to someone else, whether it’s simply Kewpie watching things as a ‘movie,’ or more of an in-story story like Doc lecturing a crowd on how he discovered the secret of endless youthful vigor, as part of his faux-miracle cure pitch. The waves of time are of great interest to Deitch:
“I've always been interested in history. And even in my own brain, I often feel like I'm replaying past and present in my head at all times. I'm writing a comic book and then I'll think about some conversation I had with a kid in second grade. Time is like one big wide continuum, surging through me at all times. It's an odd feeling. There's a definite interest in different aspects of history. I feel like I've been here from the beginning, since I crawled out of the ocean as some primordial ooze
That’s from a 2005 interview
with the Montreal Mirror.
And yet, nearly everything in Shadowland also doubles back on itself, challenging what we think we already know. Doc’s medicine pitch has a great, mystical personal significance. The seemingly wicked Al retains little reservoirs of kindness, even as we get the full story of his life’s bitterness. One character seemingly dies, only to miraculously rise again to life. Minor characters from early on, like Doc’s sister Emily, return as major forces in the continuing story. She’s a particularly wicked one, operator of a corrupt college and a brothel/convent at the dawn of the 20th century, and literally seduces
young Al into her world, though all are eventually upset by young Molly Crafton, an orphaned girl (orphaned thanks in part to the Ledickers), who finds salvation, then personal ruin, then salvation again in the world of silent films.
Some people live, but most people die. All of the characters we spend time with are devoted to amusement, the audience just a distant, albeit surrounding element. There’s sex, violence, hallucinations (wouldn’t be a Deitch book without that), the threat of psychosis (ditto), eventually tumbling into the (then) present where Deitch himself essentially plays a dual role as both a ’realistic’ version of him, and as his own pseudonym, Fowlton Means, the latter of which enjoys various vivid sexual and film preservationist adventures in the finest author’s surrogate tradition.
There’s actually a key moment later on where Deitch actually depicts himself drawing earlier chapters of the book, the storylines having been fed to him by Mr. Means, thus drawing added attention to the book as a whole as a form of personal storytelling. This is a recurring trick with Deitch, who sometimes, in the context of recent works, refers to earlier works of his as mere comics, while his newest stuff endeavors to tell only a true account of real things, which inevitable proves to be just as outrageous as anything else. Part of the power of Deitch’s recent The Stuff of Dreams!
miniseries (to be collected by Pantheon later this year under the title Alias the Cat
) is that it’s presented as an autobiographical comic, one that entirely obliterates the line separating reality and fantasy in Deitch’s work.
Shadowland is even more self-conscious than that, in that it disregards any
pretext of reality whatsoever, even the modest portrayal of an alternate reality that most fiction wears as its skin. Not only is Shadowland all about characters creating entertainments (without any pretense of high art, which perhaps mirrors Deitch’s own feelings as stated behind the above link - “Comics are like a junk literature medium. In a way I think we should just relax and let it be a junk literature medium
.”), but it’s structured as a series of tales being told in various ways, and eventually, explicitly acknowledged as the singular presentation of said tales in the form of a comic, by Kim Deitch (well, and Fowlton Means, who's Kim Deitch anyway).
It fits perfectly - if all that humankind is really worth is entertainment value, as described in this book, it’s better to cast the book itself as rigorous a concoction of artificial whimsies as possible, so as better to enhance the themes. This never occurs, mind you, at the expense of characterization or emotion - Deitch way be all about stories, but his stories really do function as stories, not just drizzles of study in some metanarrative batter. Do note that every chapter of this book also works as a standalone story - they had
to, since they all appeared in different forums.
In this way, Shadowland even manages to circumvent criticisms that surrounded Deitch’s last long-form compilation, the Pantheon-published Boulevard of Broken Dreams
, which it is generally superior to. Deitch does not attempt to seamlessly blend his chapters into a unified, ‘proper’ graphic novel whole; the individual title sequences, obvious shifts in formatting, tendency toward brief in-narrative recapping, and occasional disappearance of a character or two are all hallmarks of individual entities being smashed together under one cover without the sensitive reconfiguring that a Chris Ware might perform. I would say that detracted a bit from Boulevard of Broken Dreams, but here it’s folded intuitively into the whole work’s construction as a series of stories, not all of them told by the same hand at an even nearly similar point of time. Similarly, Deitch’s tendency to draw everything from ‘reality’ to flashbacks to comics to movies to cartoons in precisely the same visual style seems less a distraction here than a unifying element, as if all of these little yarns ought to be glimpsed with the same texture, as they’re all bound together as what’s really important in the human endeavor. If Shadowland isn’t Deitch’s best collected work, it’s surely his most intuitively assembled through its very lack of discrimination.
It all soldiers forward (and backward, and forward again) until the finale, which as anyone could expect isn’t really a finish but a final stop in the temporal web, one last crack at the trio of milk bottles. The final chapter reflects the first, with Al Ledicker once again saved by an animal as a child, and once again left to reflect on things as a hardened adult. Once again, the beasts perish (this time along with some humans), all in the name of fun and liquor. Ledicker leans back and pulls out one of his father’s special cigars, and suddenly the book, which up until then had been entirely b&w, explodes into burning full color, as Al glimpses the afterlife that awaits good entertainers.
By that point, some character have found living paradise. Others, like Al, are on the road to ruin. But in the end, Deitch perhaps loves his characters too much -- yes, even the one whose clown makeup has been inspired by a certain convicted killer’s -- to deny them the possibility of a glowing place out of the boundaries of any understanding, a place glimpsed by creators and visionaries in life, but only inhabited after death. One where the lemon and plum hues are so dazzling, that those shadows that remain only serve to enhance the brilliance of glorious being.