The PopCult Bookshelf
Billed as a new entry in Kim Deitch’s series of graphic novel alternate histories of early twentieth century showbiz, “The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley” is a tour de force of completely believable, yet outrageous, fiction.
Deitch weaves a story of a woman who associates herself with a mysterious eccentric and lives an extraordinary long life. As with much of his recent work, Deitch creates a completely believable universe that seamlessly weaves the threads of real life, early twentieth century showbiz with his own fictional creations. The end result is a rich tapestry which sucks you in and almost totally convinces you that these are true stories.
Our protagonist, Katherine Whaley, is a young lady born into dire circumstances in a northern lumber town. Her association with the mysterious Charles Varnay and his ultra-intelligent dog Rousseau,
leads her into the world of risque’ silent movies, the international art scene and ultimately back to the small lumber town where she was born where she tries to revive the town as a farming commune. Along the way, she has to deal with the unconsummated affections of Mr. Varnay and his mysterious winter-long absences which are linked to his odd quirk of not aging.
Varnay preaches a philosophy based on the premise that women have evolved at a faster pace than men. He also has the odd habit of dressing in eighteenth century clothing. The kicker is, he claims to be the guardian of actual recordings of the voice of Christ.
Deitch takes these incredible characters throughout the twentieth century. Katherine Whaley is tied in to the very real, but short-lived fad of silent movies featuring nudity. Many of the fantastic elements of these two special lives are rooted in a reality that simply can’t exist, yet seems entirely believeable.
This is what makes Deitch’s work so special. His stories are presented in such a compelling manner that even though your mind is telling you that these stories can’t possibly be true, you’re drawn in as though they were anyway.
The story structure Deitch uses for “The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley” is that he’s simply illustrating a letter sent to him by Eleanor Whaley, the subject of one of his earlier works. This is supposedly based on a manuscript Katherine Whaley left behind upon her death when she was nearly 100 years old.
This is such an incredible work. It’s the first time Deitch has presented his work in the long form, without it being serialized first and the story holds up remarkably well. It’s damned hard to put this book down and not rip through it in one sitting.
Kim Deitch of course has been a master of underground comics for nearly fifty years, a peer of Crumb, Spiegelman and Lynch. The amazing thing is that his talents have not diminished with age; if anything, his storytelling is more focused than ever.
One more point on this book and one that I’m sure Deitch would agree with, is that it benefitted greatly from the editorial guidance of Kim Thompson, the legendary editor at Fantagraphics who passed away shortly before this book was published. Dietch dedicates the book to Thompson and says, “It has been a real privilege to work with him over the years. The contribution he has made to this exciting, popular art form has been extraordinary.” As an admirer of both men, I couldn’t agree more.
“The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley” is one of the most impressive graphic novels I’ve read in years and I cannot recommend it highly enough.