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

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Hey, friends, concurrent with the long-awaited release of Fantagraphics Books’ astonishing The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 super-deluxe hardcover slipcase boxed set — which you really need to go out and buy as soon as your budget can possibly accommodate its admittedly heavy $119.99 cover price (thank God for online discount retailers, am I right?)—Dean graciously invited me to take a breather from my usual hangouts (trashfilmguru.wordpress.com , unobtainium13.com , sequart.org , and dailygrindhouse.com is where most of my shit can be found if you’re interested) to stop by here and share my thoughts on this, my all-time favorite comics series.

Does that mean it’s the “best” comic ever? Hell no — although a strong case could probably be made in its favor — it simply means that Eightball was my “go-to book,” for all intents and purposes, for its entire 15-year, 23-issue run, and that in a very real sense I grew up right along with it, and matured at a rate vaguely approximate to that of series creator’s Dan Clowes’ evolution as an artist.

Yeah, sure, he’s a good number of years older than I am — and he’s certainly done a heck of a lot more with his life — but it’s truly uncanny how the trajectory of his his “career arc” seemed to hit just the right notes, at just the right times, in relation to “where my head was at” whenever any given new issue would hit the stands (which was usually a bit of mystery in these pre-Diamond Previews days — the book started out, in theory at any rate, on a thrice-yearly scedule, but delays weren’t just common, they became flat-out expected in fairly short order). The series debuted in August of 1989, when I was still in high school, and breathed its last in June of 2004, when I had just returned from spending nearly two years bumming around various parts of the world. Needless to say, a lot happened — both with the comic and myself — in the years in between, and as I sat down to start writing about it, I realized that my own personal memories were so inextricably linked to the material itself that there was pretty much no point trying to separate one from the other and fake some kind of “objective, dispassionate distance.” If that’s the sort of criticism you’re into, more power to ya, but you just ain’t gonna find it here. Eightball is too fucking personal to me. It means too much.

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And so, what started out as a simple run-down /recap/appraisal of the series has morphed into a multi-part semi-monstrosity that I hope at least some of you good readers out there will find worth your time. Shit, maybe you’ll even be able to relate to parts of it. I realize that the subject matter is pretty far removed from this site’s unofficial remit of finding something at least semi-worthwhile in the Image, Marvel, etc. steroid-pumped superhero fare that was utterly ubiquitous in the 1990s (and that remains nearly as ubiquitous in the bargain boxes of comics shops today  — those that survived the implosion the onslaught of those titles brought on, that is), but what the hell. Eightball was — and still is — proof that there were, in fact, good comics coming out during that decade,  as well.

What do I mean, exactly, by “good”? Now there’s a question that you probably only need to consider on a site devoted to ’90s comics! As a semi-useful (I hope, at any rate) shorthand definition let’s just say that I mean books that possessed actual artistic merit that was obvious at the time, as opposed to, let’s face it, the absolute glut of material whose sole worth lies in its nostalgic value (although Clowes’ series certainly has plenty of that going for it when viewed from our present 2015 vantage point). Books that were more concerned with growing up than offering ever-flashier, but ever-more-creatively-stagnant, versions of the same sort of post-modern hyper-mythology that, let’s face it, has been getting bigger,louder, and more brash ever since Jack Kirby invented it, but with increasingly diminishing returns as the years go by absent the heart, humanity, and soul that The King imbued all of his works with. Books that were about real people dealing with real situations in real ways.tumblr_inline_nk2y3zR42O1s2tgut

Not that Clowes’ subject matter was primarily autobiographical in the same way that Harvey Pekar’s, Chester Brown’s, Joe Matt’s, and Seth’s (to name just a few) was. Granted, there’s a superb autobio piece called “Blue Italian Shit” in Eightball #13, but there’s also a wickedly precise deconstruction of the genre (“Just Another Day”) in issue five.  If that seems a bit scattershot or incongruous, rest assured that it is — and that’s one of the very best things about this series. Eightball, you see, is that now-rarest of beasts — the single-creator anthology comic. Adrian Tomine’s still got Optic Nerve going (occasionally) for D+Q, sure, but on the whole, let’s be honest — this is pretty much a dead format. And the  comics medium in general is desperately more impoverished for its passing from the scene.

Heck, kids today might be flat-out flabbergasted to discover that once there was a time when all of the creators just mentioned a moment ago, as well as the likes of Julie Doucet, Peter Bagge, Dennis Eichhorn, and the guy who started it all, Robert Crumb, had the freedom to just sit down at their drawing board (or typewriter) and crank out whatever kind of stories they wanted and that, miracle of all miracles, somebody would even publish them ! But those of us who are getting a bit longer in the tooth remember those times well indeed, and while none of these admitted labors of love moved  anywhere near the number of copies of Spawn Vs. Youngblood or whatever, they still sold at a clip that most “Big Two” books today would kill for.

Such are the vagaries of time, I guess. There’s no doubt that if Clowes was just getting started today and wanted to attempt something of this sort in the modern marketplace that he’d be confined to the so-called “digital realm,” but goddamnit, I still miss the days when indie creators who were living on the genuine margins still managed to find a way to get this stuff printed.

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And has it ever been printed in this new collection! Fantagraphics has gone well and truly “above and beyond” with the physical product here, making exact facsimilie reproductions of each and every issue (no easy task considering that Eightball went through a fair number of format changes during its lifespan) and binding them inside two standard-comic-sized hardcovers that can be fully opened without cracking or damaging the binding in any way. Throw in some new front and back cover on each of the volumes as well as on the slipcase itself, and you’ve got yourself a package that can be looked at and drooled over for hours on end before you even start reading the thing.

It’s all here, folks — not just each and every story and strip, but the letter columns, the product-order pages drawn by Clowes, the whole nine yards. We go from cheap black-and-white newsprint for the first four issues to glossy covers and paper with increased color content in the interior pages to heavy-duty cardstock covers with even better, shinier paper inside. Hell, even the original mistakes are left intact — the most noticeable being when the printer accidentally ran the Ghost World segment in issue 16 in a risible sort of “split pea soup” yellow rather than the “cool blue” of all the other chapters. I hate to name-drop Kirby again in relation to a series that belies almost no influence from him whatsoever, but, as he once famously stated in 1970s DC “house ad” — “Everything is ‘as it was!'”  Yes, right down to the “Modern Cartoonist” pamphlet insert included with issue number 18.

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You’re alive? On this planet? And you still haven’t bought this thing yet? What — do your kids need to eat or something? And to think — I’m brow-beating you this mercilessly before I’ve even really started in on examining the actual merits of the comics themselves. Shame on me! Have I no class? No empathy? No basic salesmanship skills?

I’m going to plead the fifth on all of the above, but I’ll tell you what — that’s not a bad spot at all to leave things at for this introductory go-’round, but as for what’s still to come — Eightball went through four distinct creative  phases, each “anchored” by a central work, and when we dive in with part two of our analysis here we’ll break those down and then get into the nitty-gritty of critical dissection. We’re going to pay a little less attention to “phase three” and “phase four” because they’re not included in this collection (and, in fairness, while “phase three” started in 1998,  it concluded in 2000,  and “phase four” — apologies to Saul Bass — was entirely post-millenial, so they sort of fall outside of the loose parameters of this site), but for the sake of completeness even they will be addressed in due course. So buckle up! This is gonna be fun, I promise! As Clowes himself would say — welcome to my house of dreams!

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