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Funny Pages

Tom De Haven knows that not everything's comical about comic books.


DeHaven's Funny Papers, published in 1985, introduced us to the wacky world of comics, hot off the press for the first time in the 1890s. Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies, winner of the 1996 American Book Award, takes us through the golden age of comics in the '30s. Finally, Dugan Underground, published last year, brings us to the sad decline of the comic strip in the turbulent '60s.

By the very nature of their business, De Haven says, cartoonists are loners. They are a small group of people with a big tradition of suicide. In keeping with tradition, De Haven kicks off the action in Dugan Underground with Candy Biggs, a despondent cartoonist, cranking up his Buick and ramming it head-on into a tree. Biggs, by some miracle, survives to tell us: Both my legs were shattered, here and here ... fractured my collar bone, and that fancy exit tore off my left goddam ear! And when they sewed it back on? You can see for yourself, they sewed it on too high ... makes me look like Mister Potato Head!

Anyone see the irony? Maybe not. Not until De Haven tells us he based that scene on the real life that is, the real death of cartoonist Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, who took Blondie cartoonist Stan Drake along on his third suicide attempt and drove smack into a tree. Raymond died; Drake lost his ear.

No one knows it better than De Haven: Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Like the comic strips he emulates, De Haven's novels are rife with colorful characters and bizarre events. Each book stands on its own. Reading the trilogy, however, we discover De Haven's knack for weaving multiple layers of pop culture, heartbreaking relationships and wisecracking dialogue into an epic tale, while never forgetting his comic-strip hero, the little orphan boy Dugan, who threads his way through all three novels. After all, cartoonists may die but their cartoons live on.

Dan Clowes, creator of the film "Ghost World" and whose work appears in The New Yorker, Time and Newsweek, says of De Haven: "How a mere civilian is able to understand the inner workings of the cartoonist's mind is beyond me." No doubt it's from a lifetime of fascination with comics. As a 7-year-old, De Haven plastered his bedroom with "Dick Tracy" funnies and spent hours drawing his own cartoons. Later, when he had the chance to go to art school, he opted instead for a degree in sociology and then a master's degree in creative writing. A popular professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, De Haven teaches creative writing, screenwriting, detective fiction and a novel workshop. Over the course of his career, he has published 14 books including a collection of novellas, young adult and graphic novels, a fantasy series and, of course, the Derby Dugan trilogy — proof he never lost his fascination for comics.

This year, after nearly 20 years spent researching and writing about comics, De Haven has turned to writing a novel set in Richmond in contemporary time.

Relieved to be done with comics, De Haven has no plans to continue his cartoon saga. Well, he thought he had no plans. A publishing company recently approached De Haven about writing "Superman," the novel. De Haven is uncertain if he'll take on the task, but someone ought to tell him to say yes. Because when he talks about the possibility, there's a glimmer in his eye and an unmistakable balloon above his head beckoning up, up and away.

Good news for De Haven fans: the complete Derby Dugan trilogy will fly hot off the Picador USA press and into bookstores in the fall.

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