Tom De Haven’s Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies is a beautiful, sad, and comic novel about the time when the people who created newspaper comics were rock stars.
It’s the story of the writer and artist behind Derby Dugan, the fantastically popular newspaper comic strip about a boy in a bright yellow derby who travels around the country getting into adventures, accompanied by his talking dog, Fuzzy, and a magic wallet that always has a ten-dollar bill in it.
Derby Dugan isn’t fantastic literature, but it’s about fantastic literature. The character names sound like characters in comic strips, starting with the first-person narrator, Alfred Bready, the scriptwriter behind Derby Dugan.
Al is a wisecracking street-smart New Yorker in 1936. He works as a scriptwriter for newspaper comics, as well as author of stories for pulp magazines. Read on to hear Al tell how he started his writing career:
I found an Underwood machine with a carriage return at a hock shop and bought a ream of sleazy yellow paper at Woolworth’s, then, in one marathon session, sixteen hours, I wrote a lost-city novelette, “Adventures in the Ruins of Gold!” by Alfred O. Brady. Except, when it got published in Smashing Danger two months later, the byline—thanks to a typographer’s error—read: Bready. Alfred O. Bready.
I kept the name, though, adopted it, mainly because I didn’t think there was anybody else in the world named Bready; still don’t—I’m unique. Overnight, I was a new person, alone in the world. Something I’d desperately wanted to be since I was a boy of fifteen.
So that was a dozen years earlier, and a dozen years later I was still living in the same old dump, still writing the same old bunkum. All I ever had to do was sit down and something always came, and I never got stuck or needed a stiff drink, or ten. If I woke up lazy, I’d just start chipping away at the machine before I even brushed my teeth. Or say it was a glorious sunny day and I felt tempted to run outside and wander the city—what would I do? Pull the tin bathtub from under the sink and partly fill it, then take my shoes and drop them in, so’s I couldn’t. My shoes kept shrinking, they looked like puckered hell, but at least I ate regular, always made the rent, and could afford to buy new shoes.”
Bready’s style is one of the great treats of Derby Dugan, the novel captures the voice of a man who’s a self-taught writer, very prolific for many years, who doesn’t have much schooling and hasn’t read much great literature, just a lot of pulp and comic strips. He uses words like “so’s” and phrases like “ate regular,” but he also knows how to use a semicolon.
Another name out of the funny papers: One of Bready’s bosses is Walter Geebus, the artist behind Derby Dugan. Derby Dugan has made Walter Geebus a millionaire, hobnobbing with high society and movie stars. Bready, meanwhile, lives in a cheap hotel and makes $30 a week to script the comic. And yet Walter and Al are friends. Or, at least, they appear to be; Al denies it.
The other big relationship in Bready’s life is with Jewel Rodgers. At the beginning of the novel, Jewel is a secretary at Top-Drawer Periodical Publications, one of the pulp publishers Bready writes for. Al falls in love with her immediately, and she with him, but they don’t do anything about it, because she’s married to Jimmie, who owns a lunch counter.
Jimmie is like a funny-papers character himself. He’s horny for Jewel all the time, and he’s slow-witted. Jewel says he’s slow because he was hit in the head in a fight. But you get the idea he wasn’t very bright before the head injury. Jimmie, like many comic characters, has his own signature characteristic: He always says everything twice. He says everything twice, always.
Bready has written Jimmie into the comic strip, as the slow-witted prizefighter Twicey Roundabloch.
Al, Walter, Jewel and the rest inhabit a New York City that seems fantastical. A man named Mysterious Jones wanders around the city dressed in ordinary street clothes and a celluloid mask at all times. The whorehouse Bready visits every Tuesday is as friendly and threadbare as a neighborhood barber shop, the girls play board games with the patrons in between tricks. Al encounters Mysterious Jones at the whorehouse too; no mention whether Jones takes off his mask when doing the deed.
And that pretty much sets the story in motion. Anything else I tell you will be a spoiler. I’m going to go there now, so stop reading here if you’re inclined to pick up the book and let the story unfold.
The story of Derby Dugan is about two crises in Bready’s life that happen at about the same time: Walter Geebus has a serious stroke and eventually dies, and Jewel, tired of waiting for something to happen between her and Bready, decides to leave New York with her husband. The ending of the novel is at best bittersweet, Bready does what he considers to be the honorable thing in both cases. He lets Jewel go, rather than breaking up her marriage. And he resists the opportunity to take over the comic strip himself, or to help run a fledgling company that’s going to do a new kind of funny papers, called “comic books.” Passed over by romance, fame, and fortune, Bready moves out of his beloved New York, to the house he grew up in in Bayonne, New Jersey, where he lives with his sister.
Bready writes the novel in the first person, as an older man in 1971, with emphysema and memories. He looks back on Walter’s death, and Jewel leaving New York, and says, “[W]hen our time was up, when it blew away, when it floated off, when it died, it didn’t destroy me; it didn’t even hurt very long. I continued on doing pretty much the same things I’d always done. But none of them meant a damn thing.”
The edition of Derby Dugan that I have includes a color Derby Dugan comic, drawn Art Spiegelman, who wrote the classic graphic novel Maus. Fuzzy, the talking dog, cracks wise about the New Deal.
I read Derby Dugan soon after it first came out, in the mid-90s, and loved it immediately and read it several times. A few years later, I was gobsmacked with delight to find it was actually the second of two novels; the first, Funny Papers, is set in the 1890s, at the dawn of newspaper comics, and it tells the origin of the Derby Dugan strip.
Then, a few years after that, I was gobsmacked yet again to find there was a Derby Dugan trilogy. The third book, Dugan Underground, takes Derby to the 60s and into the underground comics of that period.
As far as I know, there were no more Derby Dugan novels after that.
Derby Dugan is a wonderful novel. I like to re-read it every few years to revisit a time and place where a kid in a yellow derby with a talking dog can make a writer a star of an enchanted New York.