Underground comics legend Kim Deitch still going strong with acclaimed “Reincarnation Stories”

The cover of "Reincarnation Stories," and a photo of Kim Deitch. (Museum of the City of New York/Kim Deitch)

Kim Deitch’s career goes back to the 1960s, but the underground comics legend continues publishing work — and his latest book has gotten critical acclaim.

“Reincarnation Stories,” released in fall 2019, combines stories that range from the surreal to autobiographical, and with musings on reincarnation. It has received good reviews, including being named one of the best comics of 2019 by The New York Times.

“I’m thrilled,” Deitch said of the good reviews, days before he would be appearing at a Jan. 15 event at the Museum of the City of New York on the Upper East Side, at 1220 Fifth Ave., where he will talk with jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins about his book.

Deitch noted that reviews for “Reincarnation Stories” seemed to be unusually good. “I felt inspired,” he said of creating the work. “I felt like something was leading me along by the nose from story to story.” The comics in the book even continue after the appendix. “I was having too good a time,” he said. “I didn’t want to stop.”

Deitch got his start in New York City in the underground newspaper the East Village Other. He started making comic strips for the paper in 1967, and two years later became the editor of its underground comics section. He has won several awards over the years for his work, and his 2002 book “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was named one of the 100 best graphic novels ever by Time.

Deitch, now 75, says he was lucky to get his chance in the East Village as a young man. “It was great, that was a wonderful break for me,” he said. He added that he was wild back then, and “Used to be the biggest bum in town.”  

But over the years, Deitch developed discipline and now commits himself to working 40 hours every week. If he misses some work time in a day, such as having to be interviewed by a journalist, he’s always sure to make up the time. And he understands that interviews and giving talks are part of the job. “I want people to pay attention, so you gotta get the word out,” he said. “And I generally enjoy myself once it starts.”

A poster for the Jan. 15 talk. (Museum of the City of New York)

 

Up until the 1990s, Deitch was still living out of a suitcase, but he’s since married and settled down, and has now lived on East 86th Street for over 20 years. His wife Pam is included in “Reincarnation Stories”, as they go on a trip to the Museum of Natural History and Deitch ponders how the exhibit of stuffed monkeys hasn’t changed over time, and brings him back to a field trip there as a child. “There’s something timeless about those stuffed animal dioramas,” Deitch said, explaining how it inspired the story in his book.

Reincarnation is a concept that Deitch has thought about a lot ever since questions of the afterlife were introduced to him at age four, he said, and he isn’t really a believer or nonbeliever.

“I can only know what I know, and some things in this world are unknowable,” he said. “But bottom line, its good story fodder.” In writing fiction, “that’s my chance to fool around and do things with it,” he added.

Deitch’s trick to keep creating is always start a new project before finishing the last one. “Keep that head of steam going,” he said, “which is a pretty good trick.”

He’s now working on a book called “How I made comics,” Deitch said, which isn’t quite a how-to but will include stories and him pitching them to his wife in the book.

Deitch said he’s grateful that he’s still creative and working after so many years. “I’m kind of in shock about it. Supposedly I should be slowing down, but I’m not slowing down at all. It was as much fun as it ever was.”

And he intends to keep going. “I still feel like I have things to say,” Deitch said, “And thank heavens for that.”

Gabe Herman