Alias the Cat! (2007)
Writer/Artist: Kim Deitch
Writing metafiction is a messy enough business as it is: holding the strings of several tangled-up puppets, hoping they won’t tear each other to little bitty pieces. But what happens when the puppeteer is himself a character, inviting the audience to see how he was drawn by the puppets in the first place? This is a terribly risk-fraught endeavour at the best of times and there are 18 different ways it can go pear-shaped. Kim Deitch’s Waldo the Cat books, however, are above the law of averages, it seems: again and again, Deitch uses himself and his wife as characters in the misadventures of the malevolent cat, and it never gets old.
Waldo has been a recurring presence in Deitch’s work, most notably in The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. He has a superficial similarity to Felix the Cat, appearance-wise, but the similarities end there. Waldo is a hell-cat, a feline form of the devil. Generally, he can only be seen by people who are either insane or struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. This is related to another aspect of Waldo: he is, quite simply, a muse, an enabler of actions that are neither altruistic nor evil.
Alias the Cat! is really a triptych of interconnected stories, first published as The Stuff of Dreams (#1-3) from 2002-2005. The way the first story begins, you might think that this is an autobiographical narrative: Deitch’s wife Pam is a collector of Halloween stuffed toys of a certain vintage who trolls eBay in search for these curios. One day, they meet a flea market vendor called Keller who seems to have a Waldo doll. Even more interestingly, Keller claims that he has met Waldo: as he narrates his story to Deitch, we realise that the author has left the autobiography mode quietly. And yet, the dovetailing of fact and fiction in the pages that follow keeps you on your toes.
In Keller’s story, Waldo is an extremely crude personification of the Walt Disney effect: what happens when cartoon figures become ubiquitous, all-consuming and, of course, big business. The resourceful and manipulative Waldo convinces the resident tribe of a small island to make hundreds of figurines in his own image. The idea is to sell them for a nifty profit and ensure that the tribe never has to worry about food again: this soon snowballs into a full-blown Waldo cult where idols are worshipped, offerings made and Mardi Gras-like festivals are celebrated. Waldo’s rise — and subsequent fall — is Deitch’s grim prognosis for the commodification of comics and animation, an industry that has earned more from merchandise than books for a long time now.
Deitch’s art, as always, is a treat as well as an education in how comics ought to be structured and presented. In a monster panel where a volcano full of Waldo-toys erupts, Deitch’s detailing, his OCD cross-hatching (Sacco fans, you ain’t seen nothing yet) and the apocalyptic scale of his vision shine through. In the book, the fictionalised Deitch has a keen interest in the early part of the 20th century: its films, its comic strips and the remarkable people behind the advent of both. And this is where the second story in Alias The Cat! comes in: it imagines an elaborate back story where the titular superhero starred in a serialised film (and accompanying serial comic strip) during World War I-era America. To complicate matters, the film seems to be inspired from an actual vigilante: Deitch-the-character investigates both these claims in his usual feverish manner.
Deitch’s art, as always, is a treat as well as an education in how comics ought to be structured and presented. In a monster panel where a volcano full of Waldo-toys erupts, Deitch’s detailing, his OCD cross-hatching (Sacco fans, you ain’t seen nothing yet) and the apocalyptic scale of his vision shine through
The way Deitch has drawn both the fictional strip and his own fictionalised self is a remarkable achievement. At one point, the top half of the pages are taken over by the wide-eyed Deitch, who’s piecing together the Alias story using the antique comic strips drawn in a faded green tint in the bottom half of the page, signed “Moll Barkely”. In its usage of this particular “split-screen” formal device, this stands at par with some of the greatest metafictional prose novels of recent times: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (and let’s not forget that this book predates both Coetzee’s and Diaz’s efforts).
The most enjoyable part of reading a Kim Deitch book is being challenged constantly: each of these three stories changes the basic plot elements of the preceding one and leaves it to the reader to decide which version seems more believable. At the centre of this trickery, of course, lies Waldo the hell-cat. He moves in and out of these stories like a feline version of the Wandering Jew, destined to move through history like, well, a cat, unseen and unheard (except when he wants to make his presence felt, of course).
His fans will be happy to note that Deitch is enjoying a late-career surge. All his recent works have been ambitious and immaculate. Alias The Cat! is one of the very best from an underground comix master.