If any book of mine is still read 50 years from now, I hope it’ll be this one—my personal favorite of all of the novels I’ve written and published. And it’s a novel that certainly—not almost certainly; certainly—would never have been written or published without the friendship, encouragement, and astonishing generosity of Art Spiegelman. That I would dedicate the book to him was a no-brainer, there was never any doubt—how could I not? That he was so obviously and openly surprised when I did mystified, amused, and charmed me at the time, and it still does.
Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, originally published by Metropolitan Books in late spring 1996, is the second book in a trilogy that I used to call The Cartoonists Trilogy, but which has come to be known either as the Derby Dugan or the Funny Papers trilogy (if I had to choose between those two umbrella titles, I’d go with the Derby Dugan Trilogy). The first novel, Funny Papers, published by Viking in 1985, was set in the late 1890s, the era of the great New York City press rivalry between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, a rivalry that gave birth to the modern newspaper (now pretty much defunct) with its preposterously gaudy and abundant Sunday edition, the centerpiece of which was the color comics supplement (also now pretty much defunct). The novel, as I’d imagined it, was supposed to follow the lives and careers of several cartoonists who serially wrote and drew a particular (made-up-by-me) comic strip (“Derby Dugan and his Dog That Talks”) during and across most of the twentieth century. But since the first part of the story turned out to be nearly 500 pages long in manuscript, it had been decided, by my editor Chuck Verrill with my acquiescence and blessing, that Funny Papers would conclude in 1906, and that I’d continue the story in a later installment, or two.
The novel was widely reviewed and praised; I nearly wrote “universally praised,” but decided I couldn’t be certain, although if there was a bad review, I can’t find it among the dozens of clippings I’ve kept. But good reviews don’t always, or even often, translate into good sales, and the original fate of the novel (my third) was a gross disappointment. So, following a miserably frank Come-to-Jesus conversation between Chuck and me, I abandoned plans to continue the series, even though I was already at work on the second novel, with the working title of “The Pinfold Murder Case.” (It was to be about cartoonists in New York and actors in Hollywood, particularly child actors in the “Little Rascals/Our Gang” comedies, and set during the late 1920s and early 1930s.) Instead of another Derby Dugan book, I wrote Sunburn Lake, a book of three novellas, the first of which, “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” was a cannibalization of “The Pinfold Murder Case”; the narrator of “Clap Hands,” Charlie Kackle, at first had been named Al Bready, a name I would later resurrect and use for a different, though not entirely different, character in Depression Funnies.
Sunburn Lake was also well-reviewed but also sold poorly, and in the aftermath of two nonsuccesses in a row, I pretty much lost heart, and over the next several years did a lot of work-for-hire stuff—movie and TV scripts, comics, YA’s, magazine articles, columns, and a fantasy series for Bantam Books. During those Years in the Wilderness, so to speak, I met and became friendly with Art Spiegelman, who at that time was working on the first part of Maus while also editing RAW magazine with his wife Francoise Mouly. The reason I’d met Art in the first place was because he’d read and liked Funny Papers, and had asked our mutual friend Gary Panter to introduce us.
At some point in the late 80s, early 90s, I mentioned to Art that I’d meant to do a trilogy about the Derby Dugan cartoonists, and from that point on, whenever we’d get together, he’d ask if I’d started writing the second one yet. I’d say no, and he’d say, well, you should, and I’d say yeah, you’re right, and so it went.
Then, I guess around 1993 or so, I actually did start a second book in the series, which I called “Walter’s Ghost” (referring to Al Bready, the ghostwriter for cartoonist Walter Geebus), and wrote about 30, 40 pages. By then I no longer had a book editor or a literary agent, but I did have a lot of bills every month, so I kept abandoning the manuscript to take on whatever writing work was offered to me, some of it fun—like writing a film script for Alex Proyas—and some of it not so much fun—like writing book reviews for Entertainment Weekly. Eventually, I threw “Walter’s Ghost” in a drawer and shut the drawer.
I’d moved to Virginia, and was teaching creative writing at a university in Richmond, and no longer saw Art as frequently as I had when I was in New Jersey. We’d talk on the phone several times a year, though, and this one evening, early in 1995, when he called, or when I called him, he brought up the Funny Papers sequel again, but that time in a very chiding manner. (Art, bless his heart, could be that way, sometimes; a wee bit…hectoring.) He said I was wasting my talent by taking on so much money-work, and I said yeah, yeah, till finally he must’ve realized I was getting annoyed, and he said, well, talk to you soon, and hung up. But two minutes later he called back and said, look, man, if you write the damn novel, I’ll do the cover. Now, Art had recently won a special Pulitzer Prize for Maus (in 1992), and by this time anything, practically anything at all, that he wanted to do, would happen. So what else could I say except, Deal. And: Thanks!
Over the next few days, I reread what I already had written of “Walter’s Ghost,” and had to admit it was pretty good stuff, pretty damn good stuff—why hadn’t I realized that before? So I went back to work on it, and then maybe a week, maybe two weeks later, Art called again and said he’d talked about me and my novel-in-progress—he’d just assumed it was a novel-in-progress by then; that’s Art—he’d talked about me and the new Derby Dugan story to Michael Naumann, the publisher of Metropolitan Books (an imprint of Henry Holt), and Michael and his editor-in-chief Sara Breshtel, no doubt intrigued by Art’s potential involvement in the project, were interested in seeing the manuscript. Really? Yeah, really, but the only problem was, the manuscript was no more than 50 pages. No matter, said Art, send it to them anyway. So I did, and they offered me a contract, on the basis of those few pages and a brief outline, and Art’s committment. Freed from having to do any more (or at least too much more) of that “money work,” I sat down in earnest to write “Walter’s Ghost.”
The story just…flowed. Flowed as my fiction never had before, or has since. Al Bready’s cranky, wisecracking voice (inspired by Archie Goodwin’s narrating voice in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective novels) just took up residence in my head, and all I’d have to do every day was to sit down at my desk, and Al would…talk. He’d talk and I’d transcribe. It was pretty much like that. It was amazing, it was heaven, and it was so much fun. I’ve never enjoyed writing a novel the way I enjoyed writing that one, and even, near the end, when I had to kill off a character I’d come to love, something that broke my heart, I knew I was doing good work, very good work.
And Art, meanwhile, was true to his word, faxing me rough cover sketches during the final months of composition. True story: on the morning I actually finished the book, when I came to the end, the very end, and suddenly realized what the last line would be—just about two minutes after I’d typed it on my computer and was still sitting there staring fixedly at the screen and thrumming with excitement, Art phoned and said he was sending me another fax, and this one, he said, was it, this was what the book jacket would look like. I told him, wow, that’s fantastic because I just now finished the novel. He said, Yeah? What’s the last line? I told him; I said: It’s night. That’s the last line, It’s night. He didn’t have much to say about that. I figured he wasn’t impressed, but let me tell you: it’s the perfect last line to that novel! Art just said, Well, stand by, I’m sending this fax. And he did. And I saw the cover sketch he’d made, and it, too, was perfect.
Whenever Art Spiegelman is enthusiastic about a project, he gives it everything he’s got; I like to think I’m the same way, and sometimes I’ve wondered if maybe that’s the reason we became friends. But for sure, Art was enthusiastic about my novel, which he hadn’t even read all the way through by then, and even before his jacket was finished, he’d decided the book needed a frontispiece as well—and proceeded to write and draw a full-color “Derby Dugan” Sunday comic strip, circa 1936, in the style of Walter Geebus! (Which is to say, in the style of Harold Gray, whom I’d loosely based my Geebus character upon; Gray, of course, was the curmudgeonly creator of “Little Orphan Annie.)
Art drew the cover, he drew the frontispiece, he designed the book—he even went ahead and created a series of Geebus-style character heads from the “Derby Dugan” strip, which were used as design elements running across the top of every page of the published book.
And then he did one more thing: found me a title.
Sara Bershtel, Art, and practically everyone else involved at Metropolitan absolutely loathed “Walter’s Ghost” as the title of the novel, and it’s true that it wouldn’t tell browsers much about the story, and it’s also true there were a lot of other novels, especially around that same time, with “ghost” in the title; Norman Mailer even had published a recent novel with “ghost” in the title. So I made a list of possible other titles, but nobody liked any of those, either. The situation started to get desperate; proofs and galleys needed to be made, soon, but still we didn’t know what to call the novel.
Once again, Art Spiegelman to the rescue: he was visiting his friend Paul Auster in Brooklyn during this time, and happened to tell Paul about the problem I was having. Paul asked for a description of the story, which Art provided. Then, after a few seconds of mulling things over, as Art later told me the story, Paul said, Tell Tom he should call it Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies.
I wasn’t sure about it, at first. But the more I thought it over—it was fizzy, a fizzy title, and it was attention-grabbing, didn’t sound like other titles, and, after all, the story was set during the Great Depression, and it was about the Funnies, and, on top of all that, both Walter Geebus and Al Bready were depressives, so…yeah! Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies.
Cover, frontispiece, book design, page headers, and title.
And Art was surprised when I dedicated the novel to him? Yes, he truly was. But I know he was also pleased, and that was the best part. No, I guess the absolute best part was that when he finally read the novel he’d been responsible for bringing into the world, he liked it. He liked it a lot.
And so did I. So do I. It’s the novel I’m proudest of, the one that actually does what I’d wanted it to do every step of the way, and whose characters I’m most fond of, of all my characters. And it’s the novel, when I look back on its creation, and all that went along with its creation, that just makes me feel…good. Just really, really good.