Dugan Under Ground
By Tom De Haven
Published by Metropolitan Books, $14.00 USD

First of all, I should warn you, this is not a comic book. Aside from the gorgeous Kim Deitch cover and a couple spot illustrations, this is your standard novel. If that’s not your thing, then you can probably skip ahead to the next review, but if you’re the type who enjoyed Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, then this will definitely be of interest.

Released in 2001, Dugan Under Ground, which is actually the third book in a trilogy, (I’ve never read the first two and found this thoroughly accessible as a standalone) focuses on the fictional property “Derby Dugan,” a misanthropic, bald-headed drifter not dissimilar to Outcault’s Yellow Kid, though with much longer longevity, albeit fictional.

While presumably the first two novels (Funny Papers and Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies) chronicle the history of the Derby Dugan during the early part of the twentieth century, this third novel chronicles the character’s decline and re-invention during the underground comix revolution of the fifties and sixties. The main characters are Derby’s creators during this period, Ed “Candy” Biggs and Roy Looby. While Biggs is more of a conservative straight shooter, longing to return Derby to the heights of his earlier successes, Looby is the more forward thinking artist, re-imagining the character as “The Imp Eugene,” who’s drug-influenced misadventures are strongly (and intentionally) reminiscent of Crumb’s signature character, Mr. Natural.

But the book is about far more than Derby and his two creators. Through a series of shifting narrative voices, De Haven seamlessly jumps from one head to another, describing the increased pressures of editorial meddling, declining sales, eroding syndication and shifting social values, contrasted with the crumbling marriages, ruptured families, substance abuse and other personal idiosyncrasies of the two creators. The end result paints a compelling portrait of each artist, both professionally and personally.

De Haven also has an incredible knack for capturing the neurotic narrative voice of the socially awkward, and his most effective chapters are those narrated by Nick Looby, the insecure younger brother of Roy, who’s obsessive jealousy at being relegated to Roy’s inker is one of the main theme’s of the novel. Nick, in fact, in many ways, is the central character of the novel, as it is his telling of his brother’s tale that reveals his own depth of character, and through his embittered, lonely voice that we learn about the fascinating relationships between Roy, Candy and himself.

Overall, there is much that is familiar within these characters, traits extrapolated from existing creators from American comic’s rich history and skillfully applied to create portraits of two troubled geniuses. While Candy Biggs occasionally resembles Eisner in his passion for the artform and nurturing of younger cartoonists, Roy Looby’s later work on The Imp Eugene mirrors some of Crumb’s late sixties psychedelic genius. And anyone who has seen Terry Zwigoff’s classic documentary, Crumb will undoubtedly see similarities between Nick Looby and Crumb’s two brothers, talented artists in their own rights, but both unable to channel their abilities into commercial success.

Dugan Under Ground is the kind of novel that should have much wider respect and recognition within the comics world than it does. It’s conversational use of language and keen understanding of the cartoonist’s struggles is remarkable. Though the pull quotes on the back feature glowing endorsements from some of comics’ most distinguished creators, including Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman, perhaps Dan Clowes summed up the book best: “Absolutely terrific – probably the best book I’ve read about the sad life of the cartoonist. I loved all of the characters (in fact, I am all of the characters!). How a mere civilian is able to understand the inner workings of the cartoonist’s mind is beyond me.” Grade: 5/5

-- Marc Sobel

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