Yes, there are monkeys. There are Hollywood cowboys and antique toys in Kim Deitch's graphic novel Reincarnation Stories, as well as cartoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle, a storytelling robot and a crystal ball. Frank Sinatra, D.W. Griffith, Bozo the Clown and even Jesus make appearances. These pages overflow. Even the cover pushes at boundaries, with the iconic Waldo the cat zooming out at the reader in a fiery flying car. All this might make Reincarnation Stories seem like a release, a purging, a great unmediated yowl or yawp from the depths of the artistic soul. But that's far from the whole story — both when it comes to this book, and when it comes to the great Deitch himself.
That's not something Deitch is letting on, though. Here as in all his work, he cultivates the image of the dexterous rulebreaker. Ever since he helped pioneer the field of underground comics in the '60s, writing for the East Village Other while rooming with Spain Rodriguez, he's channeled that movement's ethos of compulsive subversion. (In this book he calls back explicitly to the naughty old days, recalling a time when he and Rodriguez teamed up to write a gonzo strip together, missing their deadline and angering their boss. He even reprints the actual strip here.) His books tend to go flamboyantly off the rails, making a hash of narrative throughlines and pulverizing the divide between truth and fiction.
Deitch kicks off Reincarnation Stories with an account of the eye surgery that necessitated him spending a week sleeping on his stomach on a contraption that kept him from rolling over. He didn't get much actual sleep this way, so "just to pass the time, I started creating little mental exercises. I started reaching back in my mind to see how far back my memory really went." The rest of the book, Deitch implies, documents what he came up with. While it starts with some fairly straightforward childhood stories, it quickly becomes just as weird as you'd expect from Deitch. There's an epic history of the monkeys at New York's Museum of Natural History and an alternate-reality comic book, Young Avatar!, starring Jesus as an intergalactic superhero. The different stories seem even less connected than in Deitch's other books. Chaos reigns. And yet there's a pervasive theme here that, while hard to see, is arguably just as Deitchean as all the clamoring misrule.
That theme is order, control, even inevitability. Reincarnation, after all, is fundamentally the idea that you're living out a destiny established long before you were born. Deitch introjects this concept into the book in ways that express his own sense of helplessness, at one point having Waldo lecture him about his unimpressive past lives. Strikingly, one of the very last sections is an essay by his wife Pam Butler — who serves as a voice of authority elsewhere in the book — about her experience with past-life regression. Even though Butler is somewhat equivocal, the pages of unadorned text are a powerful visual antidote to the rest of the book. They seem to throw the cold water of objectivity over Deitch's rollicking art.
But then, how rollicking is Deitch's art, really? Arguably, a powerful strain of orderliness, even monasticism, runs through all his work. He may use broad imagery, but his lines are measured and deliberate. He draws multiple versions of every page, and it's evident in the cleanliness of the final lines. You can tell that he moves his pen in long, slow strokes, not agitated, brisk ones. That's particularly evident in his shading. He doesn't use crosshatching — nothing so muddled and messy as that. Instead, he draws smooth parallel lines like those in woodcuts. Then there are the wildly complex, overflowing compositions for which he's renowned. These may be dizzying for the reader, but they reveal the creator's agonizing process of calculation and adjustment.
They're a good encapsulation of the irony running through Deitch's work: Underneath the appearance of lawlessness, there's a huge amount of craft and care. Deitch's subversion is itself a cover story. It distracts attention from his preoccupation with such austere, alienating priorities as balance, precision and harmony. Similarly, the wackiness of superhero Jesus and Waldo the cat distract from Reincarnation Stories' bleak refrain that there's nothing we can do to alter our fates. Here as in other books, Deitch manipulates and confounds the reader. What's underneath it all? Only Waldo knows.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.