The library is a great place for readers to discover comics, and it’s a great place for comics readers to check out things that they want to try without spending their hard-earned cash. I’m looking at comics that I find in the New York Public Library system.
Kim Deitch is one of my favorite cartoonists, authoring strips that harken back to my childhood perspectives on the world (if my childhood outlook had more drugs and sex, that is). So much of his work explores the strange underside of pop culture, surprising familial connections, the borderlands of reality and the delight of sideshow freakdom, so of course when I learned that his father, a renowned animator, had created his own short-lived comic strip in the 50s and that Fantagraphics had collected the strip into one handy volume, I had to track it down.
The Real-Great Adventures of Terr’ble Thompson is really the precursor to much of the “kids and their imaginations” entertainment that cropped up, typified during my childhood by Muppet Babies. Thaddeus “Terr’ble” Thompson is the hero of history, called on by George Washington, Cleopatra and Christopher Columbus to right their problems when nasty old Mean Morgan tries to deter their historically documented triumphs. Through Terr’ble’s youthful perspective, Deitch plays with upbeat, surprising twists, such as Cleopatra’s father, the Pharaoh, turning into a tree because Mean Morgan put tree seeds in his food. The strips may not be Earth-shaking, but the playful fun is hard to deny, as Deitch’s upbeat mangling of the English language and silly twists will keep readers of many ages entertained.
But like his son Kim’s work, Gene’s comic has a strange, and darker, undercurrent. You see, Terr’ble runs off repeatedly to save history, but his parents never meet his legendary friends and the kids in school just laugh when he tells his stories. Deitch never really answers the question, are all of Terr’ble’s real-great adventures only in his mind? It’s really up to the whimsy and imagination of the reader, but Deitch plays effectively with the balance between Terr’ble Thompson, hero of history, versus Thaddeus Thompson, eight-year-old neighborhood kid with too few friends.
Even if the story weren’t engaging and whimsical, Deitch’s surrender of the strip for a more lucrative and high profile animation job was a loss for cartooning. His lines are crisp and lively, open and warm. Very spare in detail, Deitch’s panels focus on the characters and their slightly skewed, one might say “childish”, anatomy that fits perfectly with Terr’ble’s view of the universe. During the course of the strip’s six-month run, Deitch seemed to grow more confident in the layout and pacing of the daily strip format, and it would’ve been a treat to see what more he could’ve done as a cartoonist.
If you come across any work by the Deitch family, Gene, Kim, Simon or Seth, in your local library, you really should make it a point to explore the worlds they’ve created. Apparently, it all starts with good genes, and Gene Deitch’s The Real-Great Adventures of Terr’ble Thompson is the proof in the pudding.