The strange history of a cartoon cat
Graphic novel 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' ode to animation
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- They were the unsung heroes of the Golden Age of Movies, the forgotten men and women who took anthropomorphic mice, ducks and cats and turned them into living beings. They'd labor at factory-like studios, drawing, inking, and painting the tens of thousands of cels it took to make these characters move.
They were the animators, and Kim Deitch knew them when.
His new graphic novel, "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (Pantheon), offers a history of the animation business through the lives of several characters: studio owner Fred Fontaine, studio exec Al Mishkin, animator (and Al's lover) Lillian Freer, pioneer cartoonist Winsor Newton, and above all, Al's brother, animator Ted Mishkin.
Oh yes, and Waldo the Cat.
Waldo is the star character in the Fontaine Fables stable, but to Ted, he's also a devilish muse, a demon on his shoulder who comes to life during Ted's drinking bouts and moments of insecurity. He's the irksome id others can't see but Ted can't escape.
Deitch, 58, grew up around the animation business. His father was an executive with Terrytoons, a studio best known for Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. When Deitch was growing up, he'd talk to staff animators, many of whom had working in the field since the 1920s.
"The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" -- written with his brother, Simon -- has allowed him to paint a sometimes acid portrait of an age gone by. It's not so much a lament, he says, but he acknowledges that changes in the business have not always been for the better.
"There is something intrinsically tragic about animators," he says in a phone interview from New York.
'Taking comics to a new level'
Deitch himself had no plans to be an animator, but he had been entranced by cartooning since he was a child. He finally entered the business himself in the late '60s, around the time alternative comics were starting to gain notice.
"I was fortunate to get into comics at a time when comics were loosening up," he says.
During that period, Jules Feiffer had become famous for works like "Sick Sick Sick," a collection of his Village Voice cartoons, and people like R. Crumb were gaining currency in the underground press.
Winsor McCay, creator of the groundbreaking "Little Nemo in Slumberland" and the basis for "Broken Dreams'" character Winsor Newton, was the subject of a show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Winsor Newton, of course, is also named after the famous art suppliers, Winsor & Newton.)
Meanwhile, animation was in the doldrums. Deitch's father was primarily doing commercials.
"I watched animation break my old man's heart," says Deitch. "So I didn't want to go into animation. I thought this (cartooning) could be something. It was in the air ... the bright idea of taking comics to a new level."
He sent one of his first comics to Chester Gould, the rock-ribbed creator of the square-jawed Dick Tracy, of which Deitch was a great admirer despite his own avant-garde bent. Deitch wrote Gould a sheepish, apologetic letter to accompany his work, and to his surprise got a response.
"Dear Kim," Gould wrote back. "Apparently you want to be a cartoonist. Stay with it."
'Art harnessed to an assembly line'
Deitch did, always managing to keep his head above water in a fickle business.
"It seems like there was always enough success to stay in the game," he says.
"The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" had its origins in Art Spiegelman's Raw magazine, the font of many a graphic novel and alternative comic, in 1990. When Raw folded, Deitch published further installments with the alternative comics publisher Fantagraphics. "I had it in mind to be a whole thing," Deitch says, but admits he had to scramble when it came time to put the book together for Pantheon, redrawing many pages.
The book shows a business walking a fine line between art and commerce. (As Deitch says, animation is "art harnessed to a Henry Ford assembly line mindset.") Early on in the work, Winsor Newton blasts a gathering of animators at a late-1920s dinner. That anecdote was based on a real-life argument between McCay and producer Max Fleischer, creator of Betty Boop, says Deitch.
Then, in a reflection of the way animation was toned down through the decades -- indicating the dominance of Disney's lovable characters --a former Disney animator comes in to run the fictional Fontaine studio. The rough Waldo is cutesified and emasculated, and lets Ted know he doesn't appreciate it.
"I'm the one being humiliated up there!" he growls at a drunken Ted as they sit in a Times Square moviehouse.
The two battle through the years, as Ted is committed to a sanitarium (where he meets Winsor) and later moves in with his brother, fighting the bottle all the way. Lillian joins the Communist Party and is blacklisted before rejoining Fontaine. And once-expansive animated characters are reduced to the most minimal, product-shilling two dimensions.
You could say "Boulevard" is two-dimensional itself, of course -- just pen, ink and words. But the rich levels of story and character give it a three-dimensional depth. It's almost like ... a movie.
Deitch wouldn't turn down the siren call of Hollywood. But he prefers sticking with his current career.
"I'm really interested in doing more comics," he says. "There, I'm in charge."