Posted by: Graeme McMillan on April 1, 2010
There were times, while reading the Derby Dugan trilogy of novels, when I wondered if author Tom DeHaven really, really hated Michael Chabon. Or, at least, was jealous of the success and praise he’d received for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Chabon’s 2000 novel that in many ways does the same trick of mixing comic industry and social history as the Dugan books, but to much louder acclaim. Maybe DeHaven felt like he should’ve written about superheroes instead, which’d explain why he went on to write the wonderful It’s Superman!, who knows?
The trilogy – FUNNY PAPERS, DERBY DUGAN’S DEPRESSION FUNNIES and DERBY UNDER GROUND – span more than a century, beginning with the dawn of newspaper cartoons, then jumping to the creation of comic books, before an ambitious final book about Underground Comix and the beginning of the 21st century. The ambition of the final book is actually its undoing: It bites off more than it can chew, and comes off as scattered, obvious (There’s a chapter that feels too much like a character is possessed by an apologetic DeHaven, explaining himself and his choices, and the book ends with a fictional letters column deflecting imaginary criticism) and, ironically considering it features a comic called Misanthrope, bitter and hateful towards its characters. It’s a sad, frustrating ending for what, until that point, had been an enjoyable series, one that feels like DeHaven lost his balance in an attempt to make a Grand Statement about creativity and creators.
The best of the books is Depression Funnies; self-assured, tight and given swagger through the narration of well-meaning heel Al Bready, ghost-writer for the Derby Dugan newspaper strip who’s fallen in love with the character (A running theme throughout all three books: Protagonists who feel protective about Dugan even though they have no control over him – Funny Papers‘ Walt Geebus steals the character from his true creator, and Under Ground‘s Roy Looby is an underground comix creator who makes his name ripping off the character decades after Dugan has disappeared from newspapers), and there’s a knowing pulpyness to the book that keeps it from the sprawl of the other two, with an ending that feels both anti-climactic and perfectly fitting everything that’d come before.
Funny Papers, the first of the books – and one written a decade and a half earlier than the others – is rough and, at times, self-indulgent, but more rewardingly so than Under Ground; it’s a novel that I always found entertaining, but not really compelling, if that makes sense – I would manage to be easily distracted into reading other books in between bouts of it, even though everytime I picked it up, I felt hooked. I’m not sure how to describe that feeling, properly: Good, but not great, maybe…?
Comparing this trilogy to Kavalier and Clay may be unfair – Both share an interest in legitimizing comic culture, yes, as well as providing an overview of American history, but the Dugan books are less grandiose and mainstream than Chabon’s book, and ultimately more self-destructively true to their subject matter. Even with the mess that Under Ground becomes, there’s something honest about the journey of the fictional-even-within-the-fiction character of Derby Dugan that keeps you reading all the way through to the end, hoping despite everything that there’s a happy ending for everyone.