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A review a day: The Search for Smilin’ Ed

While I like this book, I have to ask a problematic question about it. Look below to find out what it is! And there’s some NSFW stuff below the jump as well. Just so you know.

Now that is a cool cover!

So Fantagraphics recently released The Search for Smilin’ Ed, which was serialized a while back but also contains a brand-new story as well. Kim Deitch created this bad bear, and it costs a measly $16.99. That’s not bad – it’s 160 pages long and is really packed with content, as Deitch really puts a lot on the page. And, for the most part, it’s pretty fascinating. But I was struck by something in the book, and I must ask:

Is this comic racist? You may find that a ridiculous suggestion – Deitch has been doing comics for 40 years and I very much doubt if Fantagraphics would have published this if they thought so. I don’t know much about Deitch, having only recently discovered his comics, so I don’t have much background with him. And, I should point out, that as a middle-class white man in the United States, I probably have no leg to stand on when it comics to seeing racist stuff. But a few pages in this book bothered me, and I wanted to go over them.

This is very much a white man’s book. In fact, it’s very much a New York-hippie-intellectual-sexually repressed white man’s comic. That doesn’t make it bad, mind you – in fact, it’s quite a neat book … for the most part. But we have to keep in mind that almost everyone in this comic is male and white, and when black people do show up, it’s problematic. First, let’s look at page 22:

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This is obviously a satire, and because the character speaking, Waldo the Cat, seems to be almost pure id in this comic, it’s not too hard to forgive. Waldo is telling the reader about ideas he’s given Deitch over the years that Deitch hasn’t used. On the previous page, Waldo told us his idea about “a faggot cyborg AIDS monster … jerking off in the New York City reservoir,” and “if it comes, every man, woman and child in New York will get AIDS!” So this is, of course, Waldo being as offensive as possible, so his use of stereotypes on this page is part of that. The “faggot cyborg AIDS monster,” of course, exhibits none of the stereotypes of homosexuals, because it’s a robot – we only have Waldo’s use of an offensive word. Here, the clichés are much more visceral, but again, as it’s satirical, I think we can forgive it. Maybe.

There are only a few other black people in the book – one shows up when Smilin’ Ed tells the story of his life. He was tied to a stake in the backyard of a black man living out in the wilds of Georgia. This man fed him constantly in order to fatten him up. The man doesn’t show up often, but here’s the only words he speaks in the book (page 45):

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There are also the “gray men,” who are actually from the South Pacific (page 69):

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And one more very small drawing in the background on page 125:

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There’s one more black person in the book – when Deitch is sitting around early in the book talking about Smilin’ Ed with his friends, one of them is black, and he even has a line of dialogue! He’s not stereotypically portrayed at all, but I wonder if that’s because Deitch is basing him on a real-life person. And that’s the extent of any people of color in the comic. The man who tied Smilin’ Ed to the stake is perhaps the most disturbing, although the last two examples aren’t that great, either. The first instance, from page 22, is an example of Waldo’s feverish imagination, so we can, perhaps, overlook that. But I’d like to point out that while other characters might be gross exaggerations of people, they aren’t examples of “types” – there’s no one that we can look at and say, “They’re an obvious ‘white’ stereotype.” The fact that the only thing a black man says in this comic is in a patois that is stereotypically rural, uneducated, and “black” is troubling, at least to me. Coupled with the way Deitch draws all the black people in this book makes me wonder about it. It’s not like everyone in the comic is an offensive stereotype and therefore this doesn’t stand out. It’s not like there are a wide variety of black characters or even non-white characters. The only saving grace is that every character in the book is a bit ridiculous, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the black characters are ridiculous and portrayed stereotypically, does it?

As I mentioned above, I’m really not the best person to determine this sort of thing. I felt uncomfortable reading this comic mainly because after the first time this happened (in Waldo’s weird brain), I kept expecting it to happen again. But I can’t figure out why Deitch does this. I’ve tried, but I don’t know. So: Is this a racist comic?

But what about the rest of it? Does my discomfort color the rest of the comic? Well, that’s the vexing thing – as Deitch doesn’t load up the book with stereotypes, it’s easy to forget about them for long periods of time and concentrate on the narrative, such as it is. It’s not that the narrative is bad, it’s that Deitch is more interested in experimenting with breaking the fourth wall and layering different levels of reality into the book, so the actual story doesn’t matter too much. Deitch begins by writing about a television show he and his brother used to watch in the 1950s called Smilin’ Ed’s Gang. In 1954 Smilin’ Ed disappeared and was rumored dead, but his body was never found. So Deitch goes searching for him, but finds that a more difficult proposition than you might think. As he begins his search, Waldo the Cat, one of Deitch’s oldest characters, shows up to search for Ed himself, intersecting briefly with Deitch’s search before spiraling into more and more bizarre places, as Waldo meets up with some of his old demon friends. His friends are also part of Ed’s story, as Ed himself has a demon inside him. Waldo eventually starts e-mailing the script of the very comic we’re reading to Deitch so that he can draw it. And the book ends with beavers. Because every comic should end with beavers!

So there’s not much of a narrative, but that’s okay. Deitch has a grand time twisting the way reality presents itself, bringing together his entire career in cartooning so that it all exists in the same odd universe. Deitch’s intricate artwork completes this surreal adventure – it’s an astonishing piece of detailed work, with monsters lurking in panels and scenes shown from different viewpoints to add interesting nuances. Deitch mixes his own, “real” world skillfully with Waldo’s imaginative one into a haunting phantasmagoria, with strange creatures flitting through our consciousness and then disappearing. It’s a very wild comic that asks the reader to enter this topsy-turvy world and accept what’s going on. For the most part, we do.

That’s why the few instances of Deitch using stereotypical depictions of black people all the more troubling. As I wrote above, I’m really not much of a Deitch expert or even a racism expert. Am I missing something with regard to the way Deitch portrays these characters? Am I overreacting? This work was serialized before in Zero Zero (except for the story about the beavers), so I imagine people have read it and not had a problem with it. Without those few pages (which, honestly, we could easily lose or alter), this is a very keen, weird comic. With them … beats me. I can’t say those few uncomfortable pages ruin it for me, but they do change my perceptions of the book. Dang. What say the congregation?

Tomorrow: This comic stars something called a “super-hero.” I wonder if those will catch on?

22 Comments

I think your discomfort is legitimate. If you’re only going to include those kinds of depictions of black people, every character needs to be similarly archetyped/stereotyped, otherwise you’re just being inconsistent. I’m sure he thought he was falling on the edgy/artistic side of the racism/satire divide, but that kind of choice (especially with the preponderance of non-caracatured characters) slips into the racism side. I’m sure he means well, though, and probably didn’t intend it to be hateful.

Similarly, characters in Judd Apatow films aren’t supposed to be realistic depictions of men and women, but they have still come under fire for minimizing female perspectives with regard to male perspectives and for being more two-dimensional than their male protagonist counterparts. I doubt Apatow is a misogynist, but he obviously wasn’t as sensitive to equally portraying men and women in his films as he could have been.

I see nothing racist in this comic. It seems in tune with the rest of the comic’s weirdness. But I have very little love for PC.

“This is very much a white man’s book. In fact, it’s very much a New York-hippie-intellectual-sexually repressed white man’s comic. That doesn’t make it bad, mind you – in fact, it’s quite a neat book … for the most part. But we have to keep in mind that almost everyone in this comic is male and white, and when black people do show up, it’s problematic.”

This also seems in tune with the way novelists work. I can’t really recall black or minority characters in the works of great modern novelists like Milan Kundera, José Saramago or Philip Roth. Only comics seem obsessed with the topic of diversity. In other media, artists just do what they want and no one bothers them about homosexuals and Asians, etc.

Give Kim Deitch a break! He’s one of comics’ best artists, with a sense of humor and an artistic style that has few equals. I just want him to keep doing whatever he wants to do, unfettered by politically correct self-censorship.

Eumenides: If Deitch had no black people in this comic, I wouldn’t have cared. I don’t have a problem with everyone in a book being white or black and don’t think anyone should include different minorities simply for the sake of diversity. That’s not my point at all. My point is that he chose to put black people in this comic and chose to show them in this way. I simply don’t know why. It is, in fact, very much out of tune with the weirdness of the rest of the comic, and that’s why it stood out to me.

I thought you pointed out the picture of the old man and Waldo having sex with the black woman because they were famed underground R. Crumb characters Angelfood McSpade and Mr. Natural (Mr. Natural is the one with the beard). In fact, most of the racism in this book seems to be in the vein of Crumb. Much of Crumb’s ouevre in the 60′s-80′s is made up of this kind of depiction of black people, and it was meant to confront its audience with the stereotype interacting with the natural world (or so I read into it). Crumb of course famous also made the book of portraits of blues musicians, most of them black, all of them drawn respectfully. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t make a judgement, but this seems to be R. Crumb style depictions of black people, using racist images but not to say racist things. Waldo comes from the world of old timey cartoons and Coney Island ads. Waldo’s marriage to the little person fillipino (who looks about the same as the above pictures) in his last book reflects more of the kind of culture that spawned the image more so than to imply anything by the image. I’d guess this is what’s going on here as well.

RE: “And one more very small drawing in the background on page 125″

This picture may be the key to interpreting the entire thing. The character’s involved in this bizarre spit-roast (as well as Deitch’s Waldo the Cat) are two Robert Crumb Characters. The bearded white man Mr. Natural, Crumb’s insane prophet/conman/sexual-deviant, is a satire of the crazy aspects of hippy philosophies. The caricature of an African lady is called Angelfood McSpade. Crumb created her as an amalgam of all racist and sexist stereotypes, in order to mock prejudice and emphasize how unrealistic it was. Crumb also said that he did not create these stereotypes or endorse them, and that his intended audience was not racists but liberals and intellectuals. Crumb was also notable for his negative depictions of white stereotypes especially Whiteman and Mr. Snoid.

I believe the inclusion of these Crumb characters as an ‘easter-egg’ could be the Rosetta stone to unlocking this comic. Deitch is saying “my intended audience is not racists, but people who will think strongly about these images, and confront negative stereotypes when they see them”.

Or it could just be that this is a comic and nothing looks or sounds real; everything is a bizarre mix of stereotype, fantasy and caricature. The naked white woman on the cover looks pretty unrealistic too, and last time I checked cats couldn’t talk!

To quote great comedian Richard Herring: “It is an age-old comedic device to say the opposite of what you believe in order to demonstrate the ultimate stupidity of the stated position, following it through to its illogical conclusion.”

I think, and I’m guessing here, that Kim is including these images because they appeared in abundance in the old comics he satarises with his style of drawing. I recently did a blog post on Rupert Bear, a character that appeared daily in the UK in the mass circulation Daily Mail, I focused on the magic in the story, but I could have drawn the reader’s attention to Rupert the Bear on Coon Island, which is exactly what it sounds like, and it was aimed at kids. Like Herge’s Tintin and other comics from a certain age, (Ebony White from The Spirit, and Little Nemo’s Flip, for instance) these things contained casual, thoughtless racism, and that sort of streotyping continued through to the underground scene until relatively recently, and it may be that Kim has included these images as a satire on that aspect of the history of comics. As I say, I’m guessing, but it’s a possible reading I think.

My read is that all of those depictions are presented ironically.

Yeah, I got the Crumb reference, or at least I thought that guy looked awfully Crumb-like. I would assume that Deitch is highlighting the craziness of stereotypes to ridicule them, but why I don’t simply leap in and assume it’s ironic is because it’s done so oddly, and while I suppose using Crumb characters signifies a whole host of “Crumbian” ideas about piercing stereotypes and holding them up to ridicule, it’s a strange way for Deitch to do it, as there’s just not a lot of context within the text itself. I guess because of the metafictional aspects of the book, we should look beyond it for cues, which is fine, but as I pointed out, for someone who is unfamiliar with a lot of Deitch’s work (as I am), it’s very strange. And I’m still not entirely sure if that’s what Deitch is going for. I certainly think that’s a good reading of it, but I’m not sure.

“I see nothing racist in this comic. It seems in tune with the rest of the comic’s weirdness. But I have very little love for PC.”

It’s not political correctness to say that the above drawings are racist caricatures. They share features with a classic derogatory style of art. And I’m not proposing that’s what Deitch did, but that’s the thing you’re referring to. Political correctness is the act of re-labeling something that already exists, to avoid offending someone. These are images he created for the comic. No one’s retroactively re-assigning them as something else. To call their designation as racist “PC” is to imply that they’re valid representations of black people. He’s obviously mimicking an exaggerated, racist style. The question is about his intent in doing that.

You’re welcome to live as offensively as you like, but it really bothers me when people excuse bigotry by saying they’re not PC. As if you’re just too cool to be respectful.

A lot of interesting and valuable points have been made here; I wonder if this is the reaction Deitch was hoping for.

I’d just like to say that I agree somewhat with Apodaca’s comments on Political Correctness. PC is about politeness, not about censorship, and it’s aim is social cohesion not policing thoughts. But I do not think that because something is un-PC that it is necessarily racist (or homophobic, or disable-ist, etc). Sarcasm, irony and stereotyping are comedic tools that can be used for powerful and positive effect.

It is possible for PC to go too far, as in the 1980′s British alternative-comedy scene where comedian’s would routinely be boo-ed for using the phrase “my girlfriend” (“she is not ‘yours’, and the word is ‘partner’). However saying “I’m not PC” can often be akin to saying “I don’t care about how my words can affect other people” and this is just ignorant and selfish.

I have no understanding or appreciation for this style of storytelling. Regardless of the racism issues, the art is not attractive to my eyes.

Beyond that, I have no patience for spewing borderliine hate speech – the cyborg comment actually is most offensive to me – under the guise of satire. The problem is, when the subject of the satire is not current, ie, stereotypical depictions of the past 20-40 yrs, the reference is lost on a great many readers . So with no reference point for satire, these scenes come off at face value as disgusting diatribes hiding behind attempted humor.

“It’s not political correctness to say that the above drawings are racist caricatures. They share features with a classic derogatory style of art. And I’m not proposing that’s what Deitch did, but that’s the thing you’re referring to. Political correctness is the act of re-labeling something that already exists, to avoid offending someone.”

That’s your definition.

My definition is people who are so brainwashed by annoying people with good intentions that don’t want anyone ever to be offended, that they start seeing racism, sexism, etc., in everything. This is a simple case of someone seeing something offensive in something that is merely farcical and grotesque. I say let artists have the freedom to write and draw what they feel like.

I say let artists have the freedom to write and draw what they feel like.

This is probably straying from the point, but who has endorsed otherwise?

I haven’t read Smilin Ed yet, I have parts of it in Zero Zero but my collection is incomplete so I haven’t read it. I’ve read a lot of Deitch’s work though and race is a pretty central theme for everything he has done. A few important points: Deitch comes from a family of cartoonists. His father was one of the men responsible for the Krazy Kat cartoon in the 60′s. Krazy Kat originally lead to the development of Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. All of these characters are racist caricatures. Waldo’s story is an analog for this history. He’s created by Ted Mishkin in the early days of animation and becomes a cartoon star, but Mishkin eventually goes insane and Waldo ends up haunting both Mishkin and eventually his son (who is an analog for Deitch). In stories where Dietch writes himself in rather than using an analog it usually has something to do with him finding some bit of ephemera from the early days of Hollywood and ending up falling down a rabbit hole into Waldo’s world.

Deitch is very knowledgeable of comics and cartoon history, it’s in his blood, and it haunts him. It is a history of racism and appropriation that has been whitewashed to the point where most people today have no clue that Micky Mouse came out of the tradition of black face. Deitch’s comics are, I believe, an attempt to come to terms with that history and his place in it. Sometimes this can be very disturbing. I was unnerved by his story in Kramer’s Ergot 7, which has elements of the magical negro jazz connection; and the I’ve definitely had to put down Stuff of Dreams over a panel that caught me off guard. However, I think that Deitch’s work is ultimately some of the best literature that comics have produced and his willingness to deal with the ugliness of race relations in America, cartoons, and himself is one of the reasons for this. So, again, not having read the story yet I can’t really speak specifically but I don’t think its entirely unfair to call Deitch’s work racist. However, I don’t think that this racism is unexamined or without context, and ultimately I think an honest confrontation with racism does far more to combat it than ignoring it.

Julian pretty much summed the whole thing up perfectly.

I understand the context of the stereotypical images as outlined in earlier comments, and agree that they are not used with racist intent but rather as satire, but that certainly didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable while reading this book in a laundromat in the middle of Bedford-Stuyvesant. My own white guilt aside, the experience really drove home the confrontational nature of using such imagery. I’m sure the whole idea is to make the reader feel uncomfortable- and the illustrations were pitch-perfect stereotypes similar to racist literature and comics I have seen in the past- so much so that I am sure that if a black person had been reading over my shoulder, they would have been outraged, as the satirical subtext is difficult to pick up when taken separately from the rest of the book.

I’m not so sure satire is the best description of what Deitch is doing.

I have to agree with Julian. Satire is there but it is only superficial. And what’s with the white guilt Rob. Just what is it that has you feeling so guilty?

I wasn’t being serious about white guilt (Trust me, I’m the last one to take moral responsibility for the actions of others), but living in my neighborhood and walking down the street I overhear plenty of reasons why I’m -supposed- to feel guilty. The point was, regardless of the intent or how that imagery was used, I understand how the author of the review felt uncomfortable seeing it in the middle of such a great book. The environment in which I read it (in the middle of a laundromat full of black people in the middle of a black neighborhood) only amplified that feeling.

Rob. My honest opinion is that that was great material. It worked great in the context that I used it in. There is no way I would have left it out. I honestly feel that I would have to have my head examined to do such a thing. It certainly wasn’t my intention to offend anyone. Indeed it was my intention to entertain people and I stand by it.

And entertaining it was… If you’re making people feel uncomfortable it’s probably a good thing. The best art isnt made to make one feel comfortable etc etc. I wasn’t offended… Just wasn’t surprised when I saw the angle of this review after my experience reading. Keep it up!

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