Thursday, January 27, 2022

Alias the Cat! by Kim Deitch

I don't know if all of the Waldo stories are consistent. I don't know if they can be consistent, or if Deitch would want them to be.

I kind of hope they aren't, actually. Memory is flawed, history is misunderstood, the past is a mystery. And demon-creatures shouldn't be completely knowable, able to be nailed down to a specific timeline.

Alias the Cat! is a Waldo story: it's almost twenty years old now, but close to the last major Waldo story to date. It followed A Shroud for Waldo and The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (probably the centerpiece of the Waldo universe) and was in turn added onto by The Search for Smilin' Ed. Deitch's most recent book, Reincarnation Stories, is a similar style but doesn't include Waldo as far as I remember.

What does any of that mean?

Well, Deitch presents himself as an autobiographical cartoonist, one fascinated by popular entertainments of the early 20th century: cartoons, circuses, movie serials, comic strips, carnivals, and so on. Ephemeral stuff, things that are largely forgotten or lost. His big stories, for the last thirty years or so, tend to combine his discovery of some old piece of entertainment with a retelling of that old story - or the circumstances surrounding those people, or a complicated combination of the two. We get comics pages of Deitch talking to the reader directly, about the things he's discovered, and pages of him doing things in his life, and we also get stretches retelling the history he's discovered, or - as in this book - supposedly reprinting old comics by someone else from a hundred years before. It all combines together into fictions that mimic non-fiction, as surreal and supernatural elements are first hinted at and then leap into the center of the story.

They're impossible, and Deitch presents them all as if they're true. I'd say he presents them "straightforwardly," but he doesn't - Deitch portrays himself as excitable, eager to chase down these crazy ideas, as maybe more than a little bit naïve or gullible, someone always ready to believe in a great story.

Alias the Cat! is a three-part story: it appeared originally as three separate comics, in 2002, 2004, and 2005, and each volume has that Deitch energy and enthusiasm - each one has that air of "hey, look at what I just discovered!" They each end inconclusively, with mysteries left unsolved: even the third, even the end of this book and story.

Again, that's the nature of history, of the kind of stories Deitch tells. There's only so much Deitch-in-the-story can find out, only so much that has survived a hundred years. Only so much Waldo will tell, or allow to be told.

Waldo is a anthropomorphic character, like a black cat - call him Felix's evil twin, or dark doppelganger. He was a character in forgotten '20s cartoons, or a real creature impossibly in the real world, or a supernatural entity centuries old, or a hallucination only seen by the insane: he's all of those things in turn, or at the same time. He's a trickster at heart, a hedonist who has been everywhere and done everything and is ready to tell entertaining and possibly even true stories about those places and things.

As Alias the Cat! opens, Deitch-the-character insists he's never met Waldo, and that he's not saying that Waldo is a real person in the actual world. He likes Waldo stuff, and likes digging into these old stories, but he's not some kind of nut, he's not crazy - he can't see Waldo. All that will change by the end: meeting Waldo, being crazy, all of it.

Each of the three issues has its own arc and obsessions, from "furries" to Waldo's time as the charismatic leader of a tropical island, to a forgotten movie serial from the 1910s that strangely paralleled the actual events surrounding its release, to a forgotten New Jersey town populated entirely by midgets. Deitch-the-character keeps getting in deeper and deeper, more excitable and surprised by each new revelation.

This is all fiction, as far as I know. Waldo is not real, Deitch did not meet him, and meeting Waldo didn't send Deitch into a sanitarium for observation. As far as I know. But how far do any of us know?

Alias the Cat! doesn't end as well, as definitively as Boulevard or Smilin' Ed - it's an uneasy, uncertain ending, an ending about things that didn't happen rather than about the things that did. Maybe a disappointing ending rather than a triumphant one, but a true ending, an ending based on those bits of history and forgotten popular entertainments, and what's left of any of them in the modern day.

I don't know if I'd recommend starting reading Deitch here: I'd recommend running more or less in publication order, or starting with Boulevard if you want to jump forward to the big book. But this is a big middle piece of the Waldo saga; you'll get here eventually.

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