Reincarnation Stories: A Very Biased Review

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Yesterday I kicked off my thoughts about Reincarnation Stories by taking my readers down the road of my bird’s eye view of how Kim makes his comics. Today I get onto the all important discussion of the new book at hand tackling it both as an uber Deitch fan and, well, a wife.

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Kim did a preview gig for Reincarnation Stories with Bob Sikoryak’s Comics Carousel a few weeks ago and I was surprised to have a good look at some of those pages again and on a screen for the first time. I was also surprised at how visceral my reaction was to remembering the opening scenes where Kim is recovering from his eye surgery. I literally could smell the dreadful hospital smell again and how afraid I was that the surgery wouldn’t work – and how awful it was to watch Kim in the chair, head down for more than a week.

I knew he wasn’t sleeping which also seemed like torture and I felt bad that there were few if any ways I could make him more comfortable. Having said that I pretty much had to help him with everything (a service he repaid more than in full when I had foot surgery a year or so later and was confined to bed for weeks) and our best discovery was that he could watch movies on tv if he was in a certain position and used a small mirror. Reading, surprisingly, was somewhat possible for him but in general it was hard to concentrate. Frankly, it was a miserable time – so odd to have it all rush back. However, as always, it seems he used the time wisely and it was the genesis for this book.

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The chair, which you rent after this eye surgery which, of course, requires assembly upon delivery, is sort of an instrument of torture although a definite necessity. It stank of disinfectant and hospital plastic.

 

Having said that, the glory of the pages was totally fresh to me seeing them on the screen. So many eyeball kicks! So much to look at! The introduction seemed new to me again (despite having lived some of it) and my fan self was immediately sucked in. When I then sat down and opened the book to start reading it again and I am struck by the density. It is satisfyingly thick – a really big dollop of Kim Deitch, unlike any serving of his work I remember receiving in one sitting before. Although I was there for every step of its creation I am struck by this and the fan side of my brain whirs with excitement. The drawings are reproduced at pretty much an ideal scale and this is delightful as well.

I am realizing now that sitting down to write this is in its own way a pretty Herculean task, there is so much and the themes (mortality, the meaning of life and creativity for starters) are so huge. How not to stroll endlessly through – the color section of my toy museum alone could be the subject of a blog post and perhaps will be in the future. (The Felix the Cat potty chair is real folks although I do not own it – and for that a shout out to our friend Mel!) It is the strange actualization of Kim mining my obsessions and personal mythology which is of course pretty amazing for me to see.

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Photo of Felix potty chair as supplied by Mel Birnkrant

 

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This is a delightfully Deitchian color page!

 

The beginning of the book spends a lot of time with a young Kim and while it is obviously a somewhat faux Kim it is sort of wonderful for me to contemplate a kid Kim visiting the monkey diorama (The Shrine of the Monkey Gods being one of my favorite Kim Deitch story titles of all time), discovering the Plot Robot, meeting Jack Hoxie on a family vacation with younger brother Simon and baby Seth. Family lore, real memories (for we all know the general litany of our spouse’s stories and I know where Kim’s fit) and Kim’s persistent personal mythology and vocabulary (silent and early sound cowboy films, traveling carnival shows, biblical apocrypha) mix and meld in these stories.

Meanwhile, almost unconsciously, the book has an undercurrent that persistently carries us gently, but decidedly, along on a tide of certain themes and to an ultimate conclusion. The most prevalent theme is about the place of art and creativity in the universe and the value of putting something good out in the world. The other is about somehow relating to and considering a universe that cares (at least a little) and what our place in that universe is. The Hidden Range story, Jack Hoxie’s own biography and what he took from his somewhat tragic childhood, Young Avatar (Kim striking it rich by putting Jesus his own comic as a super hero in an alternate universe), a young Kim and Spain taking a creative page or two from the Plot Robot in a pinch – these all boil down to a lesson about making a positive contribution in the world. Live right, entertain, contribute – simple but all important goals.

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Detail of a still from The Back Trail which Kim uses in the Appendix. (He adds that this film is available on DVD – in case you are wondering!)

 

Even I was fascinated by the extravagant Appendix as it grew like topsy. That there would be an Appendix was clear early on – that there needed to be an opportunity to provide some real life background on Jack Hoxie and Buck Jones. Their personal histories and mythologies are now faded over time and Kim knew he wanted a place to bring them back to life. However, that it would burgeon into more than forty pages was not immediately evident. (It was even a bit alarming – how long would it stretch on? Um, honey, is this maybe another whole book?) In retrospect, it is not only some of the most entertaining stories in the book (Kitten on the Keys, Who Was Spain?), but it serves to tie it all together.

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Buck Jones and his horse, Silver

 

In looking it over I am undeniably pleased to find my own small contribution at the back – longer than I remember it being, illustrated at the start by Kim. It is my personal reincarnation story – one that has taken frequent turns at dinner parties and other occasions when I am called on randomly to sing for my supper – or when the subject of past lives comes up for some reason. I published that story in this blog while the book was being prepared for publication. You can find that post here if you missed it.

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I will say that I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Waldo which in some ways resolves to a degree in this book, with his granting that my toy museum has its points – perhaps I am not all just a piece of cheese! While I started life as a Waldo fan, I will say living with him is a bit different than just seeing him on the page and as with all having to do with him, perhaps the less said the better. But Kim’s relationship to his maniacal muse balances out the end of the book and in a sense, Waldo’s cynical world view almost gets the last word – without being a spoiler, I will just say Kim snatches it back at the very end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Is Pam Butler

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today’s post is from the appendix of Kim’s upcoming book, Reincarnation Stories, and is a rare Pictorama husband and wife co-production. I wrote it, several months back, although some of you have heard the story before. Enjoy!

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It begins one day, simply enough, riding on the subway. Kim forgot to bring something to read and he picked up a free newsletter for the Learning Annex – cheesy adult “courses” taught by reality tv show stars and people promising you that you too can make a killing in NY real estate. (Yep, I think Donald Trump was advertised in one of those – who could have guessed?) I read over his shoulder. Semi-seriously he announced that there was a course in past life regression that he thought he would take – he’d always had a story in mind around reincarnation and maybe it would be a good jumping off point. So I flippantly said I’d do it too. And just like that, we decided to phone and make a reservation.

What I didn’t tell Kim was that I had been approached about past life regression before and the thought had sort of terrified me. I suffer from a potentially debilitating form of arthritis and more than once it had been suggested to me that I might try to go into my past lives to see what might have caused it. Well, I figured if I had either done something so awful in my past life, or even worse, had some dreadful injury that shook my joints to this day, that I sure as heck didn’t want to know about it and relive it. Still, this was the Learning Annex – no need to take it seriously. It would be fun to do with Kim and if he was going to a past-life regression course I sure wasn’t going to miss it.

As it happened, the day we were scheduled to attend in the early evening turned out to be a complicated one for me. It was a sunny and beautiful day as I remember, I want to say spring rather than full on summer. I was working for the Central Park Conservancy at the time, but had taken part of the day off to attend the funeral of Lydia Mananara, a woman I had worked with at the Metropolitan Museum for many years. She wasn’t much older than me and had died of breast cancer. I had cared for her cat, a lovely plushy long haired tabby-stripe, while she was in Italy seeking alternative treatment or perhaps just spending time with family there, over the course of many weeks. After the funeral there was a reception at the Met where I saw former colleagues and met family and friends of hers I had not known. It was a strange moment of displacement having worked there for so long and being back for what may have been the first time since leaving.

That evening after work, Kim and I went down to Union Square and to the address of what appeared to be some sort of elementary school. I remember thinking that this was turning into one very long day, and we trudged into a classroom with table desks pushed together to form a large U. There were about ten people in the room and they were as varied as the human content of any subway car on a given morning commute, a few young, some older, generally nondescript. The course instructor entered and he too was pretty generic, middle aged and pale. He started out by telling his story.

Seems that when he was a kid somewhere in the Midwest, a visiting hypnotist had come to town and he had gone to see him perform. In what he’d later realize was an unusual vulnerability to hypnosis, he slipped easily into that state and, jarringly into a past life. Frankly I can’t remember if he was actually the subject of the hypnotist or if he fell into the influence from the audience – the latter seems unlikely. Anyway, he went on to describe, in fairly horrific detail, being a small child running for safety to a root cellar from where he spied his family of prairie settlers terribly murdered by Indians. Of course he had no idea why he experienced it, but a number of years later he took the opportunity to be hypnotized again and this time in his past life he was an adult, hidden away on a mountainside witnessing the slaughter of other settlers by Indians once again. This time he understood it to be a past life and devoted future time and energy to developing the skill to hypnotize himself and travel back to past incarnations.

He ended his presentation and offered that he would now help us all slip back into our own past. He turned the lights down, but traffic thrummed out the window and florescent lights hummed in the hall. At first quieting my mind and focusing seemed unlikely. Still, I had developed some meditation chops and it didn’t take very much for me to still my mind into the desired quiet before going to a “safe place” and then rolling back into something else.

He “woke” us up to wherever we had landed in our minds and asked us to look around. I was in the desert, a barefoot and nearly naked young man in my teens. The soil beneath my feet was sandy but hard and a reddish color. The teacher’s voice instructed us to take note of the year (I want to say it was the 1880’s, but I have trouble remembering that more precisely now) and things like who was President, to take note of our surroundings. I don’t know who was President and at first I thought I was in Tibet – a place I had been twice and had a great affinity for – but I gradually became aware that I was in the American West instead – and that I was a young Native American male. I was aware of being absolutely dirt poor, hungry, and not educated. I was essentially a dumb young kid.

His voice now guided me to go to the day I died and to take note of how I died. Seems like I was killed in a stupid fight with another kid – I don’t know over what. He told us to take care now to apologize to anyone we had hurt. I found myself apologizing to the guy who killed me (maybe I killed him as well?), and then I apologized to my mother and my grandmother. I had left them alone when I died and it had been my responsibility to take care of them. I felt bad about it all, but in a dispassionate sort of way. The instructor now guided us out of the past and into the current moment. He turned the lights on and suggested a break before we spoke about our experiences. Kim and I found a water fountain.

Kim, “Man, that was a waste. Nothing!” I looked at him surprised, “Really?” and quickly told him about my experience. We both wondered if somehow the teacher’s own experiences related with Indians had influenced my subconscious. I didn’t know about that, but I did know I wasn’t looking forward to telling him that I had been an Indian!

After the break we sat back down in our seats. Kim and I were seated about halfway around. Like Kim, not everyone had experienced anything and only two other stories stood out for me that day which I remember. One was a not especially cogent tale of another planet and this stayed with me because the instructor didn’t seem to find that unusual and said it happens – other planets. The other was quite moving. There was a young, attractive woman in her twenties who had found herself a bench at a bus stop near Union Square, but in the 1940’s. It was July and very hot and she was 9 months pregnant. She died in childbirth later, I think the same day. I wonder to this day what brought her to the Learning Annex that evening to have that experience.

As for me, I reported in the most straightforward way possible what I had seen and experienced. It certainly isn’t the past I would have imagined for myself and yet that is what makes it compelling. As someone who has long been interested in Buddhism I can easily accept the concept of a past life, one in an ongoing parade – hopefully ultimately toward enlightenment. The idea of even a brief window onto a self that was so different – impoverished Native American teenager who gets himself killed in a fight over something so stupid that it, unlike these other simple facts, was not indelible through time. Only that I had been young and stupid and gotten myself killed when I should have been taking care of my mother and grandmother remained. I guess the good news is that I got a bit smarter over subsequent lives. The instructor did give me a bit of a fish eye – or maybe I imagined it. But I don’t think my former self was doing any of the killing he had witnessed.

I am not sure Kim believes that my experience wasn’t entirely one of suggestion placed in my mind by the instructor’s own stories. It was a day when I had already had my share of contemplating mortality and it is more than possible that the experience was a combination of what I brought to the table so to speak. All I can say is that bit of time in another body seemed real and different, and the poignant moment of apology one that had been a long time coming.

On that day I certainly didn’t get any insights into the arthritis that troubles me, and it didn’t lead to a desire to do it again and learn about other lives, if that is indeed possible. Instead it left me with a strange sort of shiny spot in my memory. As if out of the dim past one small bit has been brought into high relief. Real or not, I keep it there like a talisman, a lucky penny, dropped from the past into my lap here in the future.

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