The enigmatic life of a renegade cartoonist is and isn’t revealed by the testimony of those who knew, loved, and hated him: a fascinating, frustrating partial sequel to De Haven’s Funny Papers (1985) and Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies (1996).
Roy Looby learned his trade from newspaper cartoonist Ed “Candy” Biggs, the last of several illustrators who produced the famous “Derby Dugan” strip, featuring an indomitable itinerant orphan (Little Annie’s brother, you might say) who always defeated the bad guys. But Roy’s creation “The Imp Eugene” proved to be Derby’s X-rated evil twin, provoking the question “How did America’s once-beloved and always optimistic little orphan boy turn into this— . . . maniac?” That’s the subject of De Haven’s parallel narratives, both of which offer glimpses of Roy as a sullen teenager; as first among equals in the Lazy Galoot Comix Collective, formed in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1970; and as a homeless recluse who keeps disappearing. Thus, we come to know a great deal about Roy’s younger brother Nick, his embittered “inker” and gofer; his former publisher Joel Clark, arrested-development personified, who ends up lecturing to college students on the art of comics; Roy’s former wife Noreen and somewhat devoted groupie Cora Guirl; and especially the irascible Candy, whose memories of the waning “great days” of newspaper cartoons provide many of the liveliest pages here. Indeed, our attention is drawn much more to them than to the pivotal, yet almost undrawn figure of Roy Looby—a narrative choice De Haven defends in a tongue-in-cheek metafictional epilogue that seems to suggest yet another novel about the cartoonist’s life in the offing. One hopes that’s so, because this one—an antic, distracting Citizen Kane—does finally fail to deliver on its very considerable promise.
A shame, too, since Dugan Under Ground positively rattles with energy, invention, and roughhouse wit. It’s chaotic—and quite wonderful.