Funny Papers is a novel of the fast-changing 90s. Inventors are frenetically creative. New media is upending the old rules of business. Sexual promiscuity runs rampant. Immigration is a hot issue. The novel mixes fictional characters with historically real people of the period, like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
You are confused now. “Pulitzer?” you say. “Hearst? In the 90s?”
Oh, wait, did you think I meant the nineteen nineties?
Funny Papers, by Tom De Haven, is the first part of a trilogy, telling the story of the people behind Derby Dugan, a popular comic strip about a lovable orphan and his talking dog. The trilogy is a story of comics, and America too.
The books are not fantastic literature, but they’re about fantastic literature.
I love Funny Papers for its picture of New York from 114 years ago as a vibrant, bustling, booming, brawling city. The main character, the aptly named Georgie Wreckage, doesn’t have much in life, but he’s happy. Well, as happy as a guy like him ever gets. He’s a gloomy bastard by nature.
Georgie works as a sketch artist for Pulitzer’s daily World, a cheap and sleazy rag that leads the yellow journalism of the day. In the era before newspaper photographers, Wreckage is one of a team of artists who goes around the city sketching crime and disasters and anything that will sell newspapers to a sensation-hungry public. He lives in a boarding house and has a trunk full of mementoes from work, a murderer’s gun, a hangman’s rope. He has a fiance that he got involved with because he thought she’d be easily manipulated. Nice guy, Georgie.
Newspaper comic strips are just starting out and becoming popular. Over a meal with a former sketch artist made good as a cartoonist, Georgie gets the warning from his friend that new technology is going to put Georgie out of business. One day soon, someone is going to invent a way to put photos into newspapers, and then where will Georgie and the other sketch artists be? Out of luck and out of work.
A little later, Georgie sketches a murder scene. A dog gets caught in the crossfire, and is tended to by an orphan homeless 10-year-old boy in a nightshirt and yellow derby with a bullet hole in it. The boy’s name is Pinfold, the dog’s name is Fuzzy, and when Georgie’s sketch hits the World, Pinfold and Fuzzy become wildly popular, making Georgie rich, famous—and miserable.
The novel follows Georgie, his ambitious girlfriend Joette, the real-life Pinfold and Fuzzy, and Georgie’s starstruck protege, Walter Geebus.
One of the themes of Funny Papers is that comics and real life aren’t that far apart. Georgie’s friend, the sketch-artist-turned-cartoonist, notes that sketch artists and cartoonists are both drawing pretty much the same things. A hobo dressed in rags falls off a railroad car and onto his head. In the cartoon, the hobo has little birds and stars flying around his head, and everybody laughs. In Georgie’s real-life drawing, the hobo dies of a head injury, and nobody laughs.
Likewise, the cartoon Pinfold is a bald little boy. That’s cute. Real-life Pinfold is a bald little boy too, but he’s bald because older boys set him on fire one day for no other reason than to entertain themselves. That’s not cute at all, it’s horrible.
And, “This is America, ain’t it? Ain’t this America?” is a catchphrase made popular by the Pinfold and Fuzzy comic strip, but the artist borrows it from a real-life scene he witnesses; it was the pathetic, defiant cry of a street woman about to be beaten by police whom she refused to bribe.
The novel isn’t all bleak—far from it. It’s a comic novel. One of my favorite scenes is when Georgie and a friend go visit a new restaurant in New York, one serving a kind of food that’s unheard of in America. It’s called “pizza.”
Funny Papers takes place in the year 1896. The sequel, Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, takes place in 1936, and Dugan Under Ground, the third volume of the trilogy, takes place during the underground comics movement of the 1960s.
Derby Dugan is one of my favorite novels ever, it’s tight and colorful. I wrote about it here: “A talking dog and puckered shoes: Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies.” Funny Papers frankly isn’t as good, the action wanders in the middle, but the good parts are very good indeed and worth the investment to read the book.
Of the trilogy, I read Derby Dugan first. It stands on its own—for years I had no idea that there even was a trilogy. The series actually works well that way. Derby Dugan finds Georgie Wreckage’s former protege, Walter Geebus, drawing the comic strip. If you read that first, it creates a mystery that runs through the earlier novel—how did Walter get to be the mind behind Derby Dugan? And how did the strip get that name anyway; in the first novel, it's called “Pinfold and Fuzzy.”
In Derby Dugan, we learn that Walter Geebus was a famous figure in society, throwing lavish parties attended by millionaires, movie stars, and politicians. But we never see him during that period in the trilogy. In Funny Papers, he’s a kid starting out, and in Derby Dugan, he’s a 57-year-old man, burned out and old before his time.
Tom De Haven, who wrote the Derby Dugan trilogy, is probably best-known as the author of It’s Superman, a very good novel that re-tells the origin story of the famous superhero. It’s pretty faithful to the comic book canon, except for two significant differences: The action moves from the fictional Metropolis to New York. And Superman’s costume has a different origin story, one which is, frankly, more satisfying than the canon. Like Derby Dugan, It’s Superman is an affectionate look at 1930s America.
Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.