40 Year Cartooning Veteran Wants You to Smile With Ed

Kim Deitch has been blowing readers’ minds for over forty years now, from the time his characters The Sunshine Girl and The India Rubber Man first appeared in the East Village Other in 1967.  Over the years, acclaim for Deitch’s work has only grown, with rave reviews for his most recent books Shadowland, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Alias the Cat, and Deitchs’ Pictorama.

Another of Deitch’s extended storylines from one of his most fertile creative periods will finally be collected in book form next March, when The Search for Smilin’ Ed is published.

The Search for Smilin’ Ed starts with a group of demons searching for one of their cohorts, who’s quickly discovered among the cast of a children’s television show.  The ensuing tale attempts to answer one of the questions that perplexed Deitch during his youth.

Newsarama: Kim, where and when did The Search for Smilin’ Ed first appear?

Kim Deitch: The Search for Smilin’ Ed first appeared serially in a Fantagraphics house comic in the 1990s called Zero Zero.

NRAMA: Will you be retouching or expanding any sequences for the book collection?

Deitch: I am definitely expanding (and redrawing a little here and there).  I am adding 15 new pages at the end and there will be plenty of other new art visuals as well.  The most ambitious new thing will be a double fold out of The Kim Deitch Universe.  This will be a gigantic panoramic picture featuring one hundred of my characters past and present.

NRAMA: This story is similar to much of your past work, yet different as well.  Recurring Deitch characters like Waldo and Doc Ledicker are here, but there’s a stronger-than-usual occult and supernatural tone (which, to be fair, is often hinted at, but usually, I feel, takes a back seat to other elements).  What inspired The Search for Smilin’ Ed?

Deitch: The intitial inspiration for this work, which is as you suggest more experimental than a lot of my work, was an actual kid's show I used to watch called Smilin’ Ed’s Gang.  Smilin’ Ed, who had been doing kiddie shows on radio going all the way back to 1922, died in 1954. When this happened the show got a facelift.  All the Smilin’ Ed footage was cut out and replaced with new footage featuring Andy Devine.  The show was retitled Andy’s Gang and sent once more out into TV syndication.  Years later, in an incident that I recreate in my story, my brother Simon told me of a rumor that when Smilin’ Ed died, on his yacht, his body was never found.  This started wheels turning in my brain and I started doing research on Smilin’ Ed. I did find out that it was indeed true that Ed’s body was never found, but I found out very little else about him except for cut and dried facts about his TV and radio shows.  The Search for Smilin’ Ed attempts to fill in the missing pieces though in no particularly serious way.

As for things occult, I have, over the years, done a lot of research on occult subjects. This happened essentially as research for an old character of mine who briefly reappears in The  Search for Smilin’ Ed.  This character is a psychic detective  known as Miles Microft.  I have no actual hard belief in things occult. I do not presume to know the unknowable.  But one line of thought I do push in the book, is that much of what is cited as supernatural, at any given time, often turns out to be science we have not yet caught up with.

NRAMA: Do you have a strong interest in the occult?

Deitch: I have had interest in the occult, for the most part as potential story fodder.  I am much more interested in my last stated premise the many things that would have seemed occult in earlier times actually turn out to be examples of scientific progress.

NRAMA: What keeps you coming back to these characters?

Deitch: For me it is always the story idea I may happen to have. For instance, sometimes years may go by without my using my cartoon cat character Waldo. If I haven't got a good storyline for him, I have no use for him.  Similarly when I felt I had exhausted good, occult-based storylines for Miles Microft, I gave him the heave ho and never looked back.

NRAMA: Your stories are very intricately plotted; minor incidents from the early pages often come back to have greater importance later on.  How far ahead do you work when you’re creating a serial storyline like The Search for Smilin’ Ed or other books like Shadowland?

Deitch: Well, in both of the cases you mention, I had a pretty good idea where those stories were heading, even if I didn't know every single incident that would eventually occur.  At the very least I like to know what sort of climax I am heading for.

NRAMA: The Search of Smilin’ Ed is an older work; what are you working on now?

Deitch: Right now I am working on a graphic novel which is a spinoff of my longest story in my last book, Deitchs’ Pictorama.  That story, “The Sunshine Girl”, is, I would have to say, my particular favorite of all of my stories to date.  I got to like the lead character in that story, Eleanor Whaley, so much that I really hated to let go of her when I finished that story.  My new book, The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Kathryn Whaley, has to do with Eleanor finding a manuscript written by her Aunt Katherine.  The manuscript is in the form of a long letter to her and is basically the autobiography of her Aunt. The story, like Smilin’ Ed, has elements that could be construed as supernatural or, again, as science our world has not yet caught up with.  I guess the story could be labeled as science fiction although I am not really comfortable calling it that. However, it does fit my personal square one criteria for stories I write which is this: when I am beginning to write a story I always pose this question to myself.  If I was going into a comic shop or bookstore what sort of book that I haven't ever seen before would absolutely knock my socks off?  Needless to say, you don’t get the answer to a question like that bing, bang, boom.  But, once you have asked it, little hints of what such a story might be gradually start to come to you.  That is the Kim Deitch method of how to kick off a new story.

NRAMA: Will this be in the illustrated prose style you experimented with in Deitch’s Pictorama?

Deitch: This story will indeed be in the illustrated format as used in Deitchs’ Pictorama except, as I continue to experiment with that format, more comics elements are beginning to reappear and this book will be more of a hybrid combination of comics and illustrated fiction than my stories in Deitchs’ Pictorama were.  I am not necessarily going to continue with that format forever, but in Deitchs’ Pictorama, especially in The Sunshine Girl, I felt there was a natural progression going on in my work that was heading toward an actual, full blown novel.  I want to create my personal vision of what a true graphic novel could potentially be at least once before moving on to other things, whatever they may happen to be.

The Search for Smilin’ Ed arrives in stores in March from Fantagraphics Books.

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