Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, June 16, 2006
      ( 6/16/2006 04:36:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WAS I NOT STILL MY BROTHER'S INKER?" – What first drew me to Tom De Haven's Dugan Under Ground, when I saw a copy of the hardback on the Barnes & Noble remainder shelves, was its Kim Deitch cover: a typically frantic piece featuring a bald-headed, pupil-less kid being pursued by that kind of rapacious cartoon animals that could’ve appeared on the cover of Gothic Blimp Works. The cover turns out to be an apt representation of the onetime Comics Journal writer's seriocomic novel, the third in a trilogy devoted to the history of a comic strip entitled "Derby Dugan," which appears to be inspired by both the Yellow Kid and Little Orphan Annie. Under Ground opens on this imaginary strip in its declining days, as cartoonist Ed "Candy" Biggs unsuccessfully attempts to keep it going in spite of the syndicate's stifling rules. Due to Eisenhower Era concern about the influence of comics on the nation's young, Biggs and his predecessor have been forced to pull the orphan wayfarer off the road, plopping him into mundane suburban storylines instead of the more vivid adventures that were once his stock in trade, and in so doing consigned the strip to slow death as more and more newspapers drop the strip. Biggs makes an unsuccessful drunken suicide attempt after learning that his strip has been cancelled, but this does not turn out be the end of the Derby Dugan story. Enter the Brothers Looby to bring the character into the 1960's.

The Bros., Roy & Nick, are meant to remind us of Robert Crumb and his brothers, though De Haven is quick to establish that the Crumb and his underground counterparts are also very much part of the novel's world. Still, the proximity is so strong that at times you can't help feeling as if you're reading an underground What If? ("What if the Crazy Crumb Brother Had Been the Talented One in the Family?") Centerpiece of the book is Nick, the inker turned eventual sign painter, who perpetually lives in the shadow of his self-centered and misanthropic brother Roy. It's through Nick's wary eyes that we see his brother's success as a counter-cultural "icon" in the underground comix movement, and it's Nick who's there to assist in Roy's creation of his self-immolating masterwork, The Last Eugene.

The Imp Eugene, Roy's best-known comix creation (as described, he comes across like an even more obnoxious blend of Crumb's Mister Snoid and Deitch's Waldo the Cat), is an underground homage/swipe/updating of Derby Dugan. In their teens, Roy & Nick spend their free time being grumpily mentored by Candy Biggs, though it's quickly clear that Roy has talent that surpasses his teacher. (Both Biggs and brother Nick are craftsmen, where Roy is both something more and less.) Bald-headed Roy even looks like Derby Dugan, a fact which gets Biggs temporarily dreaming that Roy'll take on a revived version of the newspaper strip, but also becomes more telling once Roy takes his version of the character into a series of surreally autobiographical comix entitled Lazy Galoot.

De Haven's take on the underground scene seems fairly right on, though I can't help noting that he primarily keeps his focus on the year 1970, before any "wimmen" artists really made their name on the scene. (It Ain't Me, Babe, the first feminist ug anthology, debuted in '70.) The only female cartoonist we meet is a half-hearted illustrator of unicorns and fairies who primarily serves as Roy's sexual partner. In Under Ground's boy's club (when we're taken to a National Cartoonist Society dinner in 1967 with Biggs and the Brothers Looby, the only women they see are the other cartoonists' blond trophy wives), women primarily exist to provoke and bedevil the men around 'em – which, come to think of it, isn't that much different from the way they're presented in many a Crumb tale. The closest thing to a creative act the women in the book do is bake real good cakes or work on jigsaw puzzles, but, even there, male cartoonist Roy does it better than the chicks by taking pieces from more than one puzzle box and combining 'em into a collage picture.

Puzzle/collage imagery is a strong motif in this book: at one point, we see Biggs pasting Roy's student sketches of Derby Dugan into a book of random panels, while Roy's magnum opus, The Last Eugene, itself turns out to be a series of scattered panels with its final piece missing. The final third of the novel is itself a puzzle collage: a series of wonderfully wrought snapshots featuring all of the primary and secondary characters (wife Noreen, who seems more than a little inspired by Dana Crumb; Clarky, the fat and failed former comix publisher who writes a quickly remaindered appreciation of Roy Looby's work; girlfriend Cora, who briefly pops up as an actress in pornos) who circle 'round Roy. In the end, Roy himself becomes a missing puzzle piece: vanished from the hospital after turning up, Derby Dugan-like, as a helper in a Virginia homeless shelter.

One of the sadder points of the book – and this begins with the death of the "Derby Dugan" strip – is the way it charts the ephemeral nature of strip art/pop culture: the speed with which a popular entertainment can turn into a subsequent generation's footnote. We see this, most tellingly, in the way Roy Looby is barely noticed when he shows up for the first time in the 21st Century – and in the minuscule recognition that his publisher/champion, Joel Clark, receives for an appreciative tome entitled Nothin' Doin': The Imp Eugene and the Art of Roy Looby. Clark's book only sells 500 copies, a sign that the comix art he loves has become irrelevant to most present day graphic arts readers. That the novel tracking Roy's rise, fall and (possible) redemption is itself being sold these days on remainder racks is probably one more sign of how on the money De Haven is . . .

NOTE: I really shouldn't write about Under Ground without mentioning the very funny mock letters section that ends the book. Letters pages may not be very comix (most underground titles came out so sporadically as to make such pages untenable), but the sixties was a peak period for 'em in mainstream comics. "Who is stronger, Nick Looby or the Incredible Hulk?" is definitely a question for the ages . . .

NOTE II: Since writing the above, I've found two online Under Ground reviews written by names familiar to the comics blogosphere: Marc Sobel's take for Comic Book Galaxy, and Jog's more recent blog review of the novel. Both are worthy of your perusal.
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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