Dugan Under Ground is the final novel in a trilogy that I worked on, on and off, for 21 years and that arced the troubled careers (“Comics will break your heart,” said Jack Kirby, who knew what he was talking about) of the several cartoonists who wrote and drew a long-lived newspaper comic strip about a boy-hobo and his talking dog.
The first book in the series, Funny Papers (edited by Chuck Verrill and published by Viking), came out in 1985. (I always have to go and check that date, since I could swear it came out in 1984. But no.) It was also the first book of mine to get any critical traction; my previous two novels (Freaks’ Amour and Jersey Luck) had been reviewed but not widely. Funny Papers received significant attention, including a positive half-page review in the New York Times Book Review and a glowing front page review by novelist Carolyn See in the San Francisco Chronicle books supplement. There were around 40 reviews, some long, some just squibs, but all of them complimentary, and what a sweet thing that was! At the time it was published and throughout the period when the reviews appeared, I was 35, living with my wife and 5- and 3-year-old daughters in Jersey City, adjunct-teaching at Hofstra University, and doing quite a bit of freelance writing.
The second book in the series was published 11 years later, in 1996, and of all my work to date that one delivered the headiest professional experience. By then I was 46, living in Midlothian, Virginia with my wife of 25 years and my16- and 14-year-old daughters, teaching as a full professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and writing film and comics scripts, magazine articles and book reviews (mainly for “Entertainment Weekly”) as well as novels. For Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies (edited, very lightly, by Sarah Bershtel, and published by Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt), I was sent on a national book tour to about a dozen cities, signing at bookstores and being interviewed on local radio and TV stations and NPR affiliates—and the novel was reviewed just about everywhere: I still have clippings of over a 100 separate newspaper and magazine reviews, many of them subsequently syndicated and almost all of them extremely positive, with just a few mixed ones and no outright pans. From 40 reviews for Funny Papers to 100-plus reviews for Depression Funnies! Whew, I could just imagine how many there’d be when I finally completed the trilogy with Dugan Under Ground.
No, as it turned out, I couldn’t.
There were maybe—ten? Just a handful. (Not long ago I retrieved the original book manuscript and galleys from storage, but so far I still can’t find any reviews I clipped for Dugan Under Ground. It’s possible I didn’t bother clipping any.) When I’d started writing the final Derby Dugan novel, I’d determined to make it the most ambitious of the lot, in story, characterization, time span, and structure, and I believe I did; I’m proud of that book, although for a long time I couldn’t stand even to think about it; that just brought on feelings of dread.
You’ll understand why, and also why the novel scarcely was reviewed, when I tell you when it was published: the week of September 11, 2001. Previously assigned reviews, like the one I got in the Times Book Review, eventually ran, but you’d have been hard-pressed during that terrible month and then well into October to find much coverage of the arts, especially fiction, in daily newspapers or on broadcast media. (This was pre-Internet days, remember.)
By the time things returned, somewhat, to “normal” (and I use the term advisedly; has anything since then ever, really, been normal?) the novels of September and October had been supplanted by the novels of November and December. Dugan Under Ground (edited even more lightly by Sarah Bershtel and published by Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt) simply had fallen off the radar. And who cared? I didn’t. Who gave a fuck about novels, any novels, including my own novel, in the midst of such chaos, such confusion, such anxiety, such heartsickness? When the Twin Towers, a wing of the Pentagon, and Flight 93 all went down on that crystalline September morning, I was 52, still living in Midlothian with my wife and my 22- and 20-year old daughters (although one of them was away at college and one already had graduated from college and was staying with us just temporarily before moving to California); I was still teaching at VCU, still writing some book reviews (but no longer for “Entertainment Weekly”) and finessing a long outline for the next novel I intended to write, It’s Superman!
For years afterward, just thinking about Dugan Under Ground would trigger some of the worst memories and feelings of my life, in the same way that Bob Dylan’s album “Love and Theft” (released on 9/11) and Bruce Springsteen’s post-9/11 album The Rising would do whenever I played them. I didn’t even keep a copy of the novel in my writing office. All my others were there, nicely lined up, but not that one. And when Dugan Under Ground won the 2002 Library of Virginia fiction prize, I put on a happy face and rented a tux, invited my mom down to Richmond for the award ceremony, stood at a podium and read a paragraph from the book, then graciously accepted the inscribed heavy block of Lucite—and subsequently was depressed for a month. I didn’t want to hear about that stupid novel, or talk about it. It stank of jet fuel.
But then—I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime in the late 2000s, a friend told me that Kim Deitch’s original art for the cover and the frontispiece of Dugan Under Ground was for sale online. When I checked it out, I realized that somehow the dark cloud had lifted from the novel, that its psychic associations with 9/11 had disappeared. I badly wanted to own both pieces of Kim’s art—own them and frame them and hang them. Someone beat me to the full-color cover art, but I did purchase the pen-and-ink frontispiece drawing of Derby Dugan hunkered on a closet shelf. And I framed it and hung it in my living room, where it still hangs today, in our new/old house in Richmond.
Shortly after getting Kim’s drawing, I took out a hardcover cover of the Dugan Under Ground (which ever since I’ve kept on a bookshelf with my other books) and read it, the first time I’d done that since correcting the proofs. Man, it’s good, said the immodest author. And smart. Funny. Sad, too. Ambitious. And a satisfying, entertaining finale to a long, long project.
What a joy it was to reclaim my own book! I know it sounds pretty strange, and it was, but that’s what it felt like, a reclamation.
It’s the only novel in the series that takes place during my lifetime; I was born in 1949, and Dugan Under Ground begins in the mid-1950s and ends in the year 2000. The “under ground” of the title (which, I readily admit, I swiped from one of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, Ripley Under Ground) refers to the demise of the original “Derby Dugan” newspaper strip under the stewardship of Connecticut cartoonist Ed “Candy” Biggs, as well as to the “underground comix” scene of the late 1960s when the character is reborn as the Imp Eugene, the creation of a New Jersey (later California) hippie-genius named Roy Looby and his long-suffering “straight” brother Nick.
Each of the Derby Dugan novels has its own distinct sound, rhythm and narrative strategy. From the beginning of the project, my idea always had been to make each installment reflect, even reiterate, with a wink, a kind of storytelling and a style of prose that was popular during the time period when it takes place. So I tried to make Funny Papers, set in the late 1890s, reminiscent of writers like Twain and Dreiser and Howells, even Richard Harding Davis. (I read all of those guys when I was writing; Dickens and H. G. Wells, too.) For Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, set in 1936, I used a pulpy, slangy, rat-tat-tat Depression-era detective-story voice—adapted from Dashiell Hammett, of course, but also from dozens of other penny-a-word Black Mask writers, but especially from Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. Al Bready, the narrator, is a more rumpled, grumpy, damaged Archie Goodwin; Al’s boss, his Nero Wolfe, is the great comics artist Walter Geebus.
But since Dugan Under Ground covered a lot more time than the other two books, and because its time period was one especially characterized by change and flux, the novel is a deliberate hodgepodge of voices, styles, and modes of exposition.
The first part (“Biggs the Cartoonist”) is set during the Eisenhower Years, and Candy Biggs’ mad-going-ever-madder voice was partly inspired by the balmy narrators in Jim Thompson’s hectic 1950s’ paperback originals—The Killer Inside Me, Pop.1280, Savage Night, among many others.
For the second part (“The Brothers Looby”), which alternates between first-person/direct address chapters in the year 2000 and third-person/present tense chapters set in 1970, I paid homage to/borrowed from first-wave American post-modernists like Susan Sontag, John Hawkes, Leonard Michaels, Robert Coover, and Grace Paley, as well as from that same era’s smoother subversive-traditionalists, and poets of neuroses, like Thomas Berger, Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth.
For the last part (“The Imp Eugene”), comprised of a few dozen jumpy vignettes that span 30 years, I appropriated what I could use from the non-linear and collage techniques of 1960s experimental writers like Burroughs and Barth and Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Steve Katz and Ronald Sukenick, fiction that dipped, without apology, into the surreal and the fantastic and that I’d first encountered, and been mesmerized by, while in college. “The Imp Eugene” was supposed to be fractured and druggy, all a mishmash.
But beyond those conscious (self-conscious? too self-conscious?) literary tips o’ the hat, Dugan Under Ground has an overarching structure that is entirely, and appropriately, comics-based; it’s the organizing principle of the novel, but nobody seemed ever to have noticed. So with a black scribble of chagrin hovering above my head, let me tell you about it.
In America, narrative comic strips, comics that tell stories, have been transmitted primarily in three ways/modes: first, beginning in the 1890s, as newspaper Sunday-supplement color pages; then, beginning shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, as black-and-white daily newspaper strips; and then, around the mid-1930s, as stories of various lengths, and in various genres, in comic books. Soooo…each of Dugan Under Ground‘s three parts has a secondary title as well as a primary one: “The Sunday Page”/ “Biggs the Cartoonist; “The Dailies” /”The Brothers Looby”‘ and “Comics & Stories” /”The Imp Eugene.”
In Part One, all of the major/colorful events happen on a Sunday; in Part Two, each chapter covers one day, and one day only; and in Part Three (named after Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, one of the earliest and also one of the longest-running comic books), which is made up of many short stories, each story comes tagged with its particular hero’s or heroine’s name and a separate title. (“Young Glen Tiner in ‘Misanthropy 101,’” “Our Noreen in ‘Shelf Life,’” etc.) Finally, in keeping with Part Three’s comic-book analog, the novel concludes with a burlesque coda written like a Letters to the Editor page (“Let’s Talk It Over”), a staple of American comic books up through the 1980s.
While all three books in the trilogy are stylistically different from one another, they nevertheless share identical concerns, ideas, and themes, calibrated to each story’s time period and the characters’ personalities and situations. What the novels are about, fundamentally, is partnership, different kinds of partnerships, professional ones and personal ones—about a partnership’s capacity to liberate individuals to create with others something of real and lasting beauty (a comic strip, a friendship, a marriage), but also about a partnership’s immense capacity to exploit, to beget and nourish jealousy, and to destroy, especially in that most essential, but ever-so-fragile, partnership between a master and an apprentice. That’s what the Derby Dugan novels are about. Whenever reviewers and readers have expressed opinions on the trilogy as a whole, nearly always they’ve described it as being about “the history of American comics.” That makes me wince—was I not clear enough?—because no matter how interesting that history is, or has been for me, or how I used it in the individual novels, it was/it is just the background, the backdrop, for telling stories about many different partnerships, without which, and despite its dangers, life would be a miserable and lonely proposition, indeed.