The Search for Smilin' Ed
written by Kim Deitch
Eisner Award winner Kim Deitch has been weaving a complex universe of ghosts, aliens, demons, puppets, spiritual leaders, and complicated animal characters for over 40 years, and in the tradition of Vonnegut, Deitch occasionally places himself in the middle of his own madness. If that sounds a bit meta, that’s only the barest tip of the squirmy, lascivious iceberg that Deitch has planned for you.
Deitch, who has a love of all things obscure, set out on a real-life mission to find out more about a barely remembered TV show that he’d seen as a kid, starring one Smilin’ Ed. Not long into this autobiographical exploration, demons start hanging around outside of bookshops and getting sucked into TV studios that don’t exist anymore. While all of this ties into the mystery of discovering the history of Smilin’ Ed, it makes the curious presupposition that the truth about Ed’s obscurity is entirely due to supernatural means, rather than a more practical alternative. It also supposes that Deitch himself is not writing the story, but illustrating mysterious pages that come to him over the internet, and if that’s not confusing enough, I’m sure there are other little intellectual knives in there that will be thrown dangerously close to your head as you read through.
The story about Ed is so complex and convincing that I was actually unconvinced that Smilin’ Ed was ever a real TV personality. The lines between fiction and fact are so effectively blurred and made bizarre that I still retain a bit of paranoia and doubt about the veracity of any evidence that Smilin’ Ed was ever on TV, even after watching a grainy YouTube clip or two. The ideas that Deitch describes about the genesis of Ed’s show are alarming and hilarious, and no matter how surreal, still infectious.
All of Deitch’s drawings are thick with regimented lines of ink, spreading and hatching in every direction. The images are so dense that it’s amazing they retain the clarity that they do, but it’s an amazing and unexpected study in the principles of positive and negative space. His artwork conjures up impressions of early animated cartoons, which is where Deitch draws a lot of his inspiration, much like the other heralds from the early underground comics scene.
The Search for Smilin’ Ed is a book for an adult collection, as it contains some well-placed profanity and a protagonist demon-cat who is completely nude at all times. Since a good portion of the story involves a very Bosch-like interpretation of Hell, occasionally graphic debauchery is to be expected.
If you’ve read the original appearances of these strips in Zero Zero, note that this compilation also includes an extra series of epilogue strips, essays, and a full color fold-out of the world of Deitch, making it a worthwhile purchase. And ultimately, it’s a really smart comic, too.