Tom De Haven's novels resonate in unexpected ways. His 1985 novel "Funny Papers," for instance, described the birth of the comic strip in 1895, a time when America was cockily confident in its destiny. His new novel about comics, set during the Great Depression, is as far from the anything-goes 1890s as the lean, mean 1990s are from Ronald Reagan's grab-it-while-you-can '80s.
De Haven, who also teaches and writes intelligent book reviews for Entertainment Weekly, delights in exploring pop-art conventions. In "Funny Papers" and its independently enjoyable sequel, "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies," he imagines the daily grind of the creative and cranky artists and writers who magically transform lead, ink, and paper into the magical transport that is comics. De Haven dedicates the book to "Maus" creator Art Spiegelman, who provides the novel's cover art, design, and representative Derby Dugan strip.
Al Bready, an astonishingly prolific writer in his 30s, is hired by Walter Geebus to add the dramatic tension of such contemporary strips as "Tarzan" and "Little Orphan Annie" to Geebus' "Derby Dugan," which had been coasting happily since the turn of the century. But now, says Bready, "With a depression on, even the funnies were turning grim. Even Mickey Mouse was tied up and tortured every couple of weeks." Geebus' ever-suffering Dugan, famous for his yellow magic wallet with its "self-replenishing sawbuck," is so conservative that H. L. Mencken dubs him "Kid Mussolini." Bready flourishes as Geebus' underpaid ghost writer, and De Haven writes movingly of the gruff alchemy through which Geebus and Bready's collaboration makes a substantial mark on their culture. His mentor's physical and mental decay, however, pulls the ladder out from under Bready's quiet, regular existence.
Darker and less fancifully detailed than "Funny Papers," De Haven's sequel has a frill-free bittersweet quality equal to the era's best screwball comedies. Full of acid wisecracks and boozy faux pas, "Derby Dugan" deals in the little sins, mainly of omission, that comprise daily life. "I've lived my life strictly work-for-hire," he admits in the novel's haunting coda, having avoided the risks that might have brought him authentic happiness. De Haven sketches an era in which pop art's seeming innocence veiled beauty and tragedy. Or as Bready realizes: "It's a dangerous world, Derby Dugan's."