Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence : Part Five

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So — how cringe-worthy would it be if I started this installment of our ongoing Eightball retrospective by saying something like “Hey, we want some Pussey — Dan Pussey, that is!”?

I admit, I thought about — for all of about a second. Then I decided not to. Then I (sort of) did it anyway. And that, friends, is the evolution of the creative process in microcosm (even if it’s a hell of stretch to call what I’m doing here “creative”).

For a longer-running (and, obviously, better) example, might I direct your attention to Dan Clowes’ five-year stint chronicling the exploits of the aforementioned Mr. Pussey, something of a “stand-in” character for any number of “young hot-shot” comic book artists that his creator had the misfortune of having to rub elbows with at various conventions and signings over the years — and perhaps even for said creator himself,  if he’d chosen to follow only a slightly different career path and hawk his wares in service of “The Big Two” rather than striking out on his own with more personal (as well as infinitely more relevant and, yeah, better) independent efforts.

To be completely fair, I’m not sure how much of a “dear God, this could be me!” viewpoint was running through Clowes’ mind when Pussey made his first appearance in 1989 in the pages of Eightball number one, but something very akin to sympathy does begin to sink in by the time the character “dies,” in 1994, in issue fourteen. Oh, sure, there’s still something of a “shooting fish in a barrel” vibe going on even at the end, but by then Dan C. has put Dan P. through the wringer in his various occasional appearances over the years, and when he exits a future Earth broke, forgotten, and warehoused in a gigantic nursing home, there’s an almost wistful sort of tone to the proceedings, as if the author is telling his creation “sorry I was so rough on you, buddy — maybe you were, sorry to say,  too easy of a target — so let’s just end things now.”

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Lending a bit of credence to my “there but for the grace of whatever higher power you believe in go I” theory is the fact that Clowes introduces us to himself before we meet his (at least possible) warped alter ego at the outset of Pussey’s first appearance, with some windbag asshole (who later wrote a letter to the artist when he recognized himself — a letter that Clowes actually, and memorably, printed) telling a bemused “alternative” cartoonist that he has a million ideas for comic scripts and that he should drawn them for him in exchange for “a percentage of the profits” — but as the douchebag makes his departure, our artist crosses paths with another clueless dolt — and our “camera” follows that dolt to the decidedly dingy offices of the Infinity Comics Group, where he and his fellow conscripts have been recruited from the ranks of low-print-run fanzines to begin a “new era” of super-hero storytelling (with titles like “Marionette Squad” and “The Ten-Year Robot War”) being spearheaded by an octogenerian Stan Lee clone named, you guessed it, Dr. Infinity (who would later “star” in a segment of his own where he was shown to be the living personification of every shitty, despicable move made by management against the comics creators who kept them in business, from DC brass screwing Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster out of the rights to Superman to an admittedly heavily-fictionalized re-telling of William Gaines hanging his EC artists out to dry during the congressional witch-hunt against that publisher, and the industry in general, in the 1950s).

And so begins Dan Pussey’s “alpha,” but there were a number of quite entertaining, incisive, and sometimes even poignant moments to enjoy in the “on-again, off-again” appearances he would make over the years before getting to the “omega” we already mentioned. Like his ultimately-fruitless quest to find an authentic artistic “voice” of his own Eightball number three — his pathetic, superheroine-based masturbation fantasy in number four — his dalliance with the “gallery world” in number nine — the flashbacks to his pathetic childhood in number twelve — so many memorable tales of haplessness to be had.

It may sound — okay, it does sound — corny, but re-reading all of these again in The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 (note that the Dan Pussey stories have also been collected, by themselves, in the Pussey! paperback collection issued by Fantagraphics and pictured at the outset of this write-up) both brought a huge smile to my face and threw into sharp relief the more considered — and less caustic — tone that Clowes took toward his hard-luck “hero” as the stories unfolded.

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Of course, then-current events in the “comic book landscape” made their way into the Pussey narrative, as well, with Dan functioning as a doppleganger of sorts for the Image creators who were at the “top of the heap” at that time, but Clowes had the good sense to foresee the inevitable collapse their glut of garbage would have upon the industry, and that scenario plays a large part in, as the character himself  claims it’s pronounced, “Poo-say”‘s demise, so this series of strips — in addition to being the only holdover between “phase one” and “phase two” of Eightball, as we’ve previously discussed, gets bonus points for being eerily prescient, as well. Clowes not only had his “finger on the pulse,” he knew what would happen once he pressed in.

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And so it is that the wonderfully sporadic misadventures of Dan Pussey probably have the greatest amount of sheer nostalgia value of anything in the pages of Eightball. Everything Clowes depicted either had happened, was happening, or would happen soon enough (in relative terms, of course — by now, it’s all happened), and while it would be a definte reach to say that the real Dan ever lost his contempt for the fake Dan entirely, by the time it was all said and done you could definitely sense that he viewed him as something of a tragic, rather than a purely sickening, figure.

Such a process of “warming up” to his characters would play an ever-greater role in Eightball as a whole, and we’ll delve into that more deeply next time when we take a look at the modern masterpiece that is “Ghost World.” Looking forward to seeing you then!

 

 

 

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The Original Man in Black – James Robinson’s reinvention of “The Shade”

“A villain? Oh yes, it’s a badge I wear with some degree of pride. But not this hour. I must say it’s nice to play Errol Flynn for a change, instead of Basil Rathbone.” – The Shade

In honor of the MLB All-Star Game the Unspoken Decade has decided to take a look at a few of our favorite “All-Star” characters from our favorite decade. Being the contrarian that I am I have chosen to examine the Shade, reintroduced by James Robinson and Tony Harris during their historic run on Starman.

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I am not sure if this image is canon after the events of “Flashpoint” but really that is their loss.

Starman is one of the great success stories of comics during the nineties. Not only did it reinvigorate a property that had grown stale, it properly introduced the world to its creators, and, most importantly, did so from one month to the next.

Unlike many well remembered comics from that time Starman was not a limited series or a one-shot event. It was a “Top of the Pile” book that came out month after month and it got people to go to comic stores. It built community and told a long form story in a way few other titles have done up until, or since, then.

I am a fan of Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman. I would, at times, place this similar work of nineties’ long form storytelling ahead of Starman but I believe that I may be in the minority. Starman is a beloved series and if you have never had the chance to read it, or if you began but never finished, do yourself a favor and see it through. It is not the most readily available series but it is worth tracking down.

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Now that is an origin story. All silhouettes and reserved acceptance.

I enjoy, and appreciate Starman but rarely because of Jack Knight, the star and heir apparent to the legacy of Starman. He was never why I choose to reread the series long after it had concluded. For me it was all about the Shade.

Originally introduced by writer Gardner Fox, during the forties, to bedevil the Jay Garrick version of the Flash, the Shade (or Richard “Dickie” Swift as he was eventually revealed to be named) is an unlikely cult favorite. He is a British dandy from the 1830s with roots in the work of Charles Dickens as opposed to the pulp adventure or sci-fi stories of most supercharacters.

His abilities range from the generic “darkness manipulation” to the disturbing implication that he accesses a realm at the root of all evil, somewhere the Old Gods or Many-Angled Ones call home. When he is conjuring shadow-demons and blades I prefer to believe that he is accessing the same Darkforce Dimension that others have been accessing since before there was a name for it. From the Shroud and Darkstar, to Obsidian and Nightshade, and even Jackie Estacado.

If that is the case then why is Shade immortal? Why does he no longer age? Why does he appear to be haunting the background of the shared DCU as if he were no more than one of his own, ever present shadows? If you know anything about Fox, a devout fan of HP Lovecraft, the answer may be lurking somewhere deep beneath the surface.

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Her own shadow, above his bowed head, as she is committed to the pit by her own hand.

Before Shade, Fox introduced the very concept of the superteam with the Justice Society and was asked to revive the concept years later as the League. Have you ever wondered why the Justice League fought weird, mystical characters at the time that they were introduced? Tell me that Starro does not appear as if it should come from the same place as Cthulhu.

As a fan of “weird fiction” I assume that it informed most of Fox’s work, not just where the influences are explicit. You may not find much stygian darkness in the Golden Age stories as Shade is mostly a Green Lantern knockoff at that time. When fans were reintroduced to the character after the events of Zero Hour the disturbing implications seem to surface.

Darkness comes from him though he never seems to be distressed. He is not dark or mopey but always looking for the next adventure even if one is as mundane and revealing as a long walk on an autumn night. His powers take the form of living, murderous shadows or even cephalopod tentacles but this never means that he is a dreary man.

Shade could be keeping the darkness at bay with all of the blood he has shed, feeding it if you will, but I choose to believe that he simply accepts what he is and that having darkness powers does not mean that you need to be dark.

Shade haunts the stories of Starman. He provides context for the events going on in the Knight family’s beloved Opal City (a character as much as a setting) and introduces Jack to the unending weirdness of the DCU. Shade is a man of style who makes a point of commenting on how people dress and he aids in grounding the story to its time, including when he narrates a story set in the far past.

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Just think of how many Dibneys could have been saved if Brad Meltzer had read this before writing “Identity Crisis.”

Sometimes a criminal or a murderer, sure, but “Dickie” is never boring or without comment. He is unflappable and refers to “The Shade” as his stage name. You almost feel as if the going-ons of superherodom are just the distraction he needs from being something he fears.

He mentions having honed his abilities over his century and a half with them and acknowledges the readiness at which he disconnects from people. This last bit is a favorite of mine because when Shade does connect with someone it is not easily won by either party.

His friendship with former DC mainstay, the Scalphunter, is often referred to and at least once I found myself wondering if a simple hero had swayed Shade from being a greater menace to the world just by happening upon a situation where he could be nice to him.

In 1997 Robinson wrote a four issue Shade miniseries. Each issue featured a different artist though I am partial to the first issue’s work by Gene Ha. Issue two has JH Williams III but I am afraid that I am not familiar with the final two artists enough to speak to their work. It certainly seems as if Robinson also favored the earlier issues as there is noticeably fewer run-on captions featuring narration by the Shade though that could be because of the nature of the tale.

The Shade keeps journals. This is a fact crucial to his role in Starman and it is explored here as he tells the readers about the Ludlow Family, who has a longstanding, one-sided blood feud with him that he dearly wishes they did not.

Minor point, but if James Robinson happens to read this (Hi, Jimmy! I loved League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the movie.) please rerelease these issues without the fancy script font for the Shade’s scribblings. That gets tiring quickly.

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Not from the original series but literally the only full body shot I could find “in costume.”

We are presented with bits of Dickie’s origin though for more on that I highly recommend the 2011 Shade series, written by Robinson and featuring a variety of exceptionally talented artists during the course of its 12 issue run, including Cully Hammer, Darwyn Cooke, Frazer Irving, and a final issue by Ha.

For the most part we are shown how much of a contradiction the Shade is. This is, I would wager, much the same as with any real person. We do things we want and cannot always explain why. We may be afforded the time, and incentive, to attempt to understand them later on but often we fail to recognize that. Dickie is comfortable with his murders (which are primarily in self-defense or of bad men) but there is no finer connoisseur of food in wine in superhero fiction than he.

Few panels are wasted on explaining what Shade can do. He is the narrator and main character but the plot is put into motion by others. Shade is the threat, the boogeyman, and the excuse for superpower to enter into stories of familial betrayal and corruption.

For all of his stygian prowess Dickie is a surprisingly upbeat man with a desire to enjoy the life he leads at a pace of his choosing. His interactions with the Flash and Starman (of both eras) are presented as what he does because he chooses to do so. He is above the desires of petty villainy and is actually shown to be doing quite well for himself.

Could he be an arch-mage, foe of luminaries such as the Sentinels of Magic (another nineties’ concept no one ever did anything with), commanding an army of shadow demons in an attempt to revert the world to darkness for the glory of his own personhood? Sure, but you can only tell that story once and other have done a better job at it.

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This line needs to be uttered by Jon Pryce in a movie version before it is too late.

Shade prides himself on the quality of his coffee and technically had Oscar Wilde as a sidekick. He is the immortal who keeps the DCU in perspective, both for himself and others (hence all of the journaling) as opposed to measuring his worth by the influence he can have in directing the course of events throughout the world.

He is not Ra’s al Ghul, Vandal Savage, or any of the other long-lived, crazy people superheroes usually fight. Maybe this is because he was a content person before gaining great, poorly defined, superpowers and that did little to change what he wanted out of life. Maybe the trick to avoiding superpeople battles in the future is to only give powers and abilities to those who are already not hurting for their place in the world.

Dickie does not seem to concern himself with the future. When asked if the feud with the Ludlows is at an end he all but shrugs. He is not a detective, he is the mischief maker. He writes down his observations, his travels, and his adventures as he attempts to reconcile them. He takes thing slow and he enjoys all that he can.

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Lines such as this make me appreciate this character more than whoever it was that starred in “Man of Steel.”

He does not dwell because he does not have to. As far as he can tell he will be around forever. His immortality, more than any other attribute (including his penchant for dark clothes and smoked sunglasses), is what he relies on. What other character can boast an arch-rival as interesting and complex as the seemingly never-ending string of descendants from a perverted British family that predates the American Civil War?

Not only do the Ludlows lend themselves to the telling of a variety of different types of stories (most of which are at least hinted at during this series) but they prove to be the one aspect of the Shade’s life that he cannot take in stride.

They reappear from beneath the veneer of supposed friends and lovers, more often than not harming the Shade’s few friends instead of himself. For the man who only wants to enjoy life, seek thrills, and not be bothered with the moroseness that he should, by all rights, be enveloped by, it is something incredibly mundane (at least by comparison) that often hurts him the most: People raised to hate something they know nothing about.

Dickie outlasts Robinson within the DCU and has continued to appear. Maybe not having created him in the first place meant that he could not be put into the same “do not touch” box as Jack Knight and the other extended family cast members. Or maybe it is that no one has tried.

Either way, the Shade continues to haunt the periphery of the world that the superheroes operate in. He has yet to suffer a direct setback because of his powers. By that I mean that unlike other heroes, it has yet to be proven that his powers are killing him or the world he lives him. In all likelihood he will outlive the current crop of heroes and be around to remind the next exactly which struggles they should learn from and which they should put behind them.

What story is there for a man who takes almost no active part in the world? The beauty of the Shade is that the world he finds himself in becomes the story. Timelines, and bloodlines, can be played with and Dickie himself is quick to hint at untold tales and adventures that he played a part in but can only barely recall now. Or so he claims.

The Shade does not want your crossovers or your ridiculossness but business is business when it must be done.
The Shade does not want your crossovers or your ridiculossness but business is business when it must be done.

The Shade allows for worlds to be built and his callous nature means that more often than not he is at the center of attention of someone looking for retribution. He is not against involving himself and does so sometimes only to his own detriment. He also has a friend named Bobo.

I have no idea what the current state of the DCU is. Continuity, for whatever that word is worth, is apparently different after Convergence but I remember a time when a monthly book was allowed to shape an ongoing story more than what was happening in the books published alongside it. Starman was a semi-obscure character, out-of-publication for decades, who became one of the most well-regarded superhero comics of all time.

The Shade should never have been anything other than a rogue, trotted out to fight the Justice Society occasionally, but instead I rank him as one of my favorite characters. His name alone is one of the few that will get me to pick up a title, though hopefully that means Robinson is along for the ride because they certainly seem to bring out the best in each other.

Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence : Part Four

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Perhaps the weirdest thing about devouring the contents of The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 in the way that I’ve chosen to do so — one issue at a time, cover-to-cover, in the order originally published (and presented) — has been my discovery that the short-form humor strips that used to make me laugh my ass off (from the quick-fire half-pagers and full-pagers like “Fuckface” and “Needledick, The Bug-Fucker” to the longer three-and four-pagers like “I Hate You Deeply” and “I Love You Tenderly,” both of which employ Lloyd Llewellyn as an obvious stand-in for the author himself) don’t quite “do it” for me in the same way that they once did, while some of the strips that I thought to be “lesser” efforts at the time (issue three’s “The Stroll,” issue six’s “Marooned On A Desert Island With The People On The Subway,” to cite just a couple of examples), are ones that  I now find quite a bit of merit in.

Part of that is probably just down to the fact that I know all the jokes in the humor strips more or less by heart, and so they’ve lost their “punch,” but I think a big part of it is me just finding the whole shtick of taking aim at painfully obvious targets to be a lot less amusing in my forties than I did in my teens and twenties. To be sure, those strips that I’m less “wowed” by today are still pretty goddamn funny, and if I were reading them for the first time I’d probably still chuckle — but I doubt I’d loudly guffaw at them for months on end as I did when they were first published. My head’s just not in the same place anymore.

I leave it to you to decide whether or not that means I’m “maturing” or just becoming a stereotypical “stick in the mud,” but on the other side of the coin, the fact that a good number of strips that I once considered “one-and-done” reads I’m now able to enjoy on a level I didn’t previously speaks to the fact that Dan Clowes was , in fact, constructing with this series something that would stand the test of time and offer readers of just about any age bracket something worth sinking their metaphorical teeth into.

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A definite tonal shift occurred in the short-form works as the series progressed, as well , with the overtly sarcastic comedy of first few issues giving way to the more bleak and hopeless “gallows humor” found in issue eight’s “My Suicide” and issue ten’s “A Message To The People Of The Future.” At the time of these strips’ initial publication I was a relatively care-free, hard-partying college kid, and so the rapid-fire transition into more overtly morose subject matter sort of “lost me,” but now that I’m older and have both “been through some shit” and come out the other side of it, I’m able to appreciate the sort of resigned-to-one’s-fate nature of the aforementioned “downer” stories simply because, hey, there were points in my life where I was there, too, and I’m able to relate to where the artist himself was so obviously coming from when he sat down to make them.

In addition, the fact that “the bad times are behind me”(knock wood) gives me a sort of “been there, done that” disposition in terms of evaluating them, whereas if I were still in the depths of some depression-induced downward spiral, they might actually hit a bit too close to home and make for an uncomfortable reading experience. In short, I think I’m catching these particular strips again at precisely the right time to take them for what they were,  whereas earlier on I had a bit more difficulty because I was having to accept them for what they are — and, unlike the the serialized “major” works that ran in Eightball‘s pages, which always seemed to mesh smoothly with where my own interests and obsessions were at the time, I was mentally and emotionally “out of synch” with where a number of these more admittedly “minor” efforts were coming from.

I just hadn’t lived enough yet, I guess. But now that I have, I find at least something of interest and/or merit in, to be honest, all of them — and very frequently there’s even a kernel of out-and-out brilliance to latch onto.

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As “phase one” of Eightball, anchored as it was by “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron,” gave way to the more pre-planned, formalized (damn, I’m making that sound like a bad thing, but it wasn’t) structure of “phase two,” which was tethered to the ongoing exploits of Enid and Rebecca in “Ghost World,” (which we’ll be coming to in, I would imagine, the not-too-distant future here) the short-form stories also “grew up” a bit, incorporating elements of the decidedly bleak nature of the aforementioned “My Suicide” and “A Message To The People Of The Future,” but transposing them into actual stories about actual characters rather than coming at us directly from the mouth of the artist himself in “graphic rant” form. It made for a welcome switch, and led to some genuine classics, but we’re probably getting just a bit ahead of ourselves at this point if we delve into them too deeply.

It’s worth noting, however, that Clowes and his editors at Fantagraphics were able, with the benefit of hindsight,  to pretty clearly delineate this tonal and structural shift when re-evaluating them for reprint collections,  and packaged them accordingly when,   some years ago,  the (arguably, I suppose) less substantial efforts of the earlier issues were collected in Twentieth Century Eightball, and the (again, arguably) more mature shorter works of later issues were bound together in Caricature. Some things, it would seem, are obvious to everyone.

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I should take at least a moment here, however,  to iterate that there are plenty of these shorter works that hit that “sweet spot” for me both then and now — “Devil Doll?” from issue one, “Ugly Girls” and “Grist For The Mill” from issue eight, and, of course, the legendary “Art School Confidential” from issue seven seemed like works of absolute genius to me at age 17, or 20, or 22 (or whatever), and haven’t lost an ounce of their impact in my estimation as an (early, I assure you) 40-something.

And then there’s Dan Pussey. The one character who “bridged the gap” between “phase one” and “phase two” of Eightball, and who started as an object of scorn and derision on the part of his creator before slowly-but-surely morphing into a figure of, believe it or not, sympathy. But Dan probably deserves an entire segment of his own in this retrospective, and ya know what? Enid and Rebecca might just have to wait their turn under our microscope, because Dan’s “tragicomedy” would probably make for the perfect subject for our next installment — see you here in about a week for that one!