I don’t know if I could say with any authority that Kim Deitch’s Reincarnation Stories is a perfect entry point for new readers, but it certainly does seem to be the most representative book of his to date -- filled to the brim with all the motifs and obsessions that have dotted his comics for decades now. To wit: references to ancient history; offbeat spiritualism; bizarre coincidences; odes to silent-era Hollywood and early American animation; supernatural/alien forces that are revealed to actually be running the show; cute, anthropomorphic animals; and Waldo the Cat.
Consider it the ur-Deitch if you will.
The book starts with Deitch recovering from eye surgery and thus forced to lay face down, his head prevented from suffocation by resting on a u-shaped pillow. Unable to sleep in this uncomfortable state and reminiscing, he somehow retrieves a buried memory of his childhood involving a chance meeting famed director D.W. Griffith, who insists upon calling the young Dietch “Sid Pincus”. What does this mean the older cartoonist wonders? Is this a real memory? And if so, is it somehow indicative of a past life?
As the book progresses, more buried memories, strange encounters and hints of past lives come to the fore. There’s an odd, hyper-intelligent monkey tribe, a robot that dispenses helpful story ideas, an unproduced western that has overtones of hinduism, a giant toy museum, an apocryphal story of young Jesus playing tricks on other kids, and a piano-playing cat, to name just a few of the odd situations and characters that pop up.
At first these stories all seem unrelated to each other, except thematically. What exactly does the monkey tribe have to do with the retired cowboy actor who runs a tent show in the middle of nowhere? This is par for the course for Dietch. His stories are often full of tangents, digressions and sharp left turns that can leave the reader wondering at times if they’ve crawled into some comics-shaped labyrinth. Leave it to Waldo, Deitch’s demonic antagonist, to stitch everything together.
Deitch’s art style -- he’s probably one of the most distinctive and recognizable artists working in comics today -- helps to serve this otherworldly maze of a story. The tightly rendered, highly detailed panels (Deitch’s skills as an inker are vastly underrated) that leave no corner of the page blank, combined with his penchant for square-faced, jowled characters (even the animals) gives the book a “realism but not quite” quality.
Also, and mainly as an aside, I don’t think enough is said about Deitch’s page compositions. While the psychedelic/underground era might be far behind, it clearly served Deitch well as Reincarnation Stories displays an abundance of stunning layouts and splash pages, each designed to knock you back, just as Deitch and the rest of the cast are set on their heels with various revelations.
One of the most interesting things about Deitch’s work is the way he blends fact and fiction. As with Gabrielle Bell, he starts from a recognizable reality, and makes sharp left turns into bizarre, elaborate fantasy, until you start questioning what is and isn’t actually “true”. It is true, for example, that Deitch had eye surgery. And real-life characters like fellow cartoonists Spain and Jay Lynch, as well as cowboy actors like Buck Jones and Jack Hoxie. There is even, apparently, a plot “genie” that was designed to help writers come up with story ideas.
So if that part is true then what about the rest? Ok, the stuff about past lives might be bunk, but did Deitch and Spain ever actually use a plot “genie” to collaborate? Did Deitch and his family actually ever meet Hoxie? Are some of the less supernatural elements true? Ponder this stuff long enough and you’ll start wondering if Waldo is real after all, perhaps slowly turning into one of Deitch’s half-mad characters.
Of course, having the metaphysical curtain peeled back for you can lead to madness, but comfort can be found as well. Reincarnation Stories, like many of Deitch’s tales, is suffused with the idea of destiny, that we are small players in a much larger -- if occasionally kawaii -- struggle that affects our choices and lives in ways we can’t fully comprehend. Some people understandably chafe at the notion that we are anything less than fully in control of our lives. But I think while he isn't one to sugarcoat things, he takes a somewhat benign view. Given that we live in a time suffused with despair and anxiety (certainly more so now than when the book first came out), Deitch suggests that there are grander forces at work, which -- while they might not necessarily have your own personal best interests at heart -- can at least provide a sense of solace in that the world is not as finite or small as you senses might suggest. Yes, there is evil, but benevolence and even progress is possible, and death is not necessarily the end.
And indeed there at the very end of Reincarnation Stories we find not just Deitch and his wife enjoying a semi-utopian future but also Spain living well in the far-flung future, making art and enjoying what life has to offer. Even Jay Lynch returns (albeit in astral form) to offer a denouement on those who would poo-poo any of the weirdness this book, or perhaps life in general, would have to offer. Everything is Ok in the end. At least on the printed page.