Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies
By Tom De Haven
Metropolitan Books; 290 pages; $23

Readers of today's newspapers might never guess that, in their heyday, comic strips rivalled movies for their hold on the imagination of the American public. In "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies," Tom DeHaven grandly captures the excitement of the era when such comics as "Little Orphan Annie," "Dick Tracy" and "Flash Gordon" captivated millions of fans across the country.

Set in 1936, the novel is narrated by Al Bready, scriptwriter for Walter Geebus's "Derby Dugan," the serialized story of a boy, a talking dog and a magic wallet that always contains a crisp ten-dollar bill. Prolific to an almost insane degree, Bready will write for almost any publisher or artist who pays him. He says, "What, you thought all these birds dreamed up their own stuff? Think again. I wrote six comic strips all together, as well as four 75,000-word novels a month in Thrilling Marriage magazine. That's right, Thrilling Marriage. I specialized in that junk."

Bready has a special affection for Geebus, despite the older man's misanthropy, paranoia and political conservatism. When Geebus falls mysteriously ill, Bready finds himself at loose ends, unsure of how to keep the strip going if his boss doesn't recover. He also wonders whether there might be foul play involved. After all, one of Geebus's assistants once went to jail for dosing him with arsenic.

Bready's major confidante during this crisis is Jewel Rodgers, a school teacher and the pretty wife of a brain-damaged lunch counter owner. Both Bready and Jewel claim to be only platonic friends, but her husband, despite his mental handicap, readily picks up on the erotic tension between them. Bready tries to re-direct his libido by visiting local brothels, but his attraction to Jewel won't go away. Neither will the memories of his father's murder and the effect it had on the rest of his family.

As he demonstrated in "Funny Papers," De Haven, author of "Freaks' Amour" and the three-volume fantasy epic "Chronicle of the King's Tramp," has a deep love of comics. That enthusiasm wells up through every page of "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies," in the sharp dialogue of the major characters, in the colorful cast of supporting players. You don't need to be well-versed in the lore of the Thirties pop culture to appreciate the care with which De Haven brings it to life.

But De Haven's affection for comic strips doesn't prevent him from presenting their absurdity and the frequent meanness of the industry. Bready's wisecracks about himself and his colleagues mask a deep melancholy, just as the four-color Sunday adventures of plucky orphans and square-jawed detectives glossed over the fears of a nation beset by economic disaster.

If the book has a major fault, it's one of omission. Bready's story is so involving that the reader expects some kind of resounding resolution at its climax. It never comes. With one notable exception, the lives of the characters go on much as they had before. De Haven's narrative choice may be realistic, but it leaves the reader vaguely dissatisfied.

De Haven ends the action of "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies" right on the cusp of the next revolution in graphic storytelling. Bready's friend, ex-bootlegger Clark Kamen, has a scheme to print comic books with all-new material. Any comics aficionado can tell you that 1938 is the year in which Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created possibly the greatest comic book character of all time, Superman. Here's hoping that De Haven will soon turn his talents to chronicling the Golden Age of Superhero Comics, a milieu ripe with possibility for a novelist of his sensibility and skill.

(c) 1996 by Michael Berry

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