June of 2010 will see the release of a new collection from one of the pioneers of underground comix, Kim Deitch. Originally published in 1997 and ’98 in the anthology Zero Zero, The Search for Smilin’ Ed continues Deitch’s obsessive look at American popular culture by drawing a blurred line between fact and fiction. The story shifts between several narrators but begins with Deitch himself, spurred on by his drug addled brother on a quest to locate Smilin’ Ed, the nearly forgotten host of a 1950’s children’s show.
Deitch’s journy begins with a few clues at the local library and a nugget or two of information at a comic shop, but eventually runs cold at the site of the former Buster Brown Museum, which is where the real story begins. Waldo the Cat, one of Deitch’s better known creations, takes over the telling of the tale and takes the reader on a wild journey detailing the history of Smilin’ Ed, his demonic sidekick Froggy and a group of aliens chronicling mankind’s history. Many untold mysteries are revealed, including the truth behind Ed’s fame and disappearance and the existence of a vast underground repository collecting the history of popular culture which honeycombs the earth’s interior. The story zig zags throughout history as Deitch interacts with his creations and both he and the reader get far more than they bargained for in this bizarre tale.
To say that this story goes off in a few different directions would be putting it mildly. To say that it more closely resembles a bad acid trip I had several years back while watching Howdy Doody, old Fleischer cartoons and listening to Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM might be a bit more fitting, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. But it comes together in a grand and epic fashion, telling a tale that showcases a vintage psychedelic style in terms of both narrative and art. Not being particularly familiar with Kim Deitch prior to reading this book (hey, I’ve never claimed that my knowledge of comics history was all-encompassing) I found myself quickly falling in love with his elegant crosshatching technique and delightfully deviant yet adorably iconic characters. It’s the type of art that is synonymous with 1960’s underground press. The kind of stuff you look at and immediately think “Comix with an X”, which is undoubtedly due to the man’s legendary status.
The story is alternately hilarious and mildly disturbing in a Philip K. Dick sort of way. The characters find themselves trapped within a hallucinatory alternate reality that is quite literally of their own making, as Deitch’s creations communicate with him via dreams to inspire the very story you are reading. Imagine my own surprise when I did a bit of research on Smilin’ Ed to find that he was, in fact, a very real children’s host and that many of the facts included in this book are quite credible.
The Search for Smilin’ Ed also includes an informative essay by Bill Kartalopoulos which gives a history of Kim Deitch’s career and the universe he created, as well as a full-color fold-out spotlighting over 100 denizens of said world. It’s a hilariously disturbed delight for the eyes and an enjoyable piece of work from a legend in the field.