by Jeet Heer
Friday, November 27, 2009
Comic fans who pick up E.L. Doctorow’s new novel Homer & Langley will be interested in a character named Connor who is described by the sight-impaired narrator Homer Collyer in these terms:
Connor, or Con, was monosyllabic and from what I could infer a cadaverous figure with a long neck and thick eyeglasses. He wore no shirt but a denim jacket open over his hairless torso. He spent his time drawing comic strips in which men’s feet and women’s breast and behinds were greatly exaggerated. Langley told me the strips were quite good in their appalling way. A touch surreal, he said. They seemed to celebrate life as a lascivious dream.
Con is clearly a stand in for Robert Crumb. There are thematic reasons for this Crumb cameo. Doctorow’s novel is much concerned with the psychopathology of collecting and the generation of trash by mass culture, both long time Crumb concerns (as in his great Weirdo story on “Trash”). It makes perfect sense that a cartoonist like Crumb, with his fascination for the grungy past, would fall into the orbit of the Collyer Brothers, those arch-gleaners of the ephemeral.
A whole essay could be written on Doctorow’s engagement with comics. As editor of The Dial Press, he shepherded into print Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic-Book Heroes (and indeed the title and original idea for the book came from Doctorow). Doctorow’s 1985 novel World’s Fair has some interesting evocations of the comic strips of the 1930s like Flash Gordon. And more deeply and perhaps more importantly, the staccato rhythm of Doctorow’s fiction, notably Ragtime, where everything is action and surface and color and noise, owes something to snappiness of early 20th-century comic strips.