In our previous segment here, I referred to Daniel Clowes’ first creative “phase” on Eightball as the “Velvet Glove Phase” — so named for the principal story running from issues one through ten, Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron — and while such an ad hoc descriptive probably does a disservice by giving short shrift to the numerous, and often quite good, short-form stories, and even gag strips, that ran alongside the “main” work, I’ll try to make up for it by addressing some of those in a future (hell, probably the next) installment. A guy can only do so much at one time, ya know?
So — Velvet Glove, then. This has been re-printed and collected God-knows-how-many-times now, but it’s nice to see it back in its original format in The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18, with all of the color front pages for the installments in numbers 5-10 left intact. It’s fair to say that a straight-up rush of memories hit me as I re-read this for the first time in probably five or six years, and truth be told, because of the somewhat disjointed nature of the narrative here, it probably does read better in quickly-digested individual chapters than it does collected in graphic novel form.Taken one at a time, this material is given more “breathing space” and takes on greater import, whereas read in one go it almost feels — dare I say it — a bit lightweight.
Not that it actually is, mind you, but — hard as this may be to fathom for modern comics readers — there was one a time where stories were written specifically to be serialized rather than specifically to be collected in later in trade, and this is one of those stories. In fact, there’s a definite sense that, in may key respects, Clowes is just plain improvising here, with only the most minimal overall plot structure in mind. As a matter of fact, when I caught him with Peter Bagge on their “HateBall” signing tour, I asked him about this and, if memory serves me correctly, he pretty much said that was exactly what he was doing.
In other words, there’s a lot of throwaway stuff that’s added into the mix here. A man who walks on all fours. A dude with an impossibly long, vaguely insectoid nose browsing through an outdoor(?) bookstore. Little things like that. Interesting touches, to be sure, but not ones that serve any sort of relevant plot function. Like the guy with the sea crustaceans in his eyes, who made his way onto the first official Eightball t-shirt, as pictured below —
All of which suited me at the time just fine, truth be told. I was completely immersing myself in the works of David Lynch in my late teens and early twenties, and the “Lynch vibe” here is absolutely unmistakable. There’s a definite sense that this story is coming from somewhere else entirely, and while that can be frustrating for folks seeking a tight, cohesive narrative, it’s exciting for the simple reason that you well and truly never know what’s going to happen next. Quite possibly because the artist himself didn’t know when he sat down to write and draw it.
For those unfamiliar with the basics of the plot, our story centers around a guy named Clay — something of a no-account drifter by all appearances — who wanders into an adult theater (remember those?) one day and finds his ex-wife starring in a film called Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron that’s quite unlike anything else he’s ever seen. In the words of his own internal monologue “these people are real sickos — there’s no sex — not even any nudity,” and indeed that’s true — instead the film appears to be nothing so much as a disjointed series of surreal images tied together loosely by some BDSM undercurrents (it’s probably a bit much to even call it a “theme”). He’s immediately intrigued at how the one-time love of his life —although wordless flashbacks popping up here and there don’t show their marriage to have been a particularly happy one — could have ended up in such a bizarre production, and his quest for answers takes him first into the men’s room of the porno shack itself, where an all-knowing Indian swami dispenses the answers to all of life’s questions, and then on the road to the dystopian ‘burg of Goosneck Hollow — where, said swami informs him, the flick was made.
Along the way he gets the shit beaten out of him by a couple of cops, ends up an unwilling conscript of a Manson-esque cult preparing for “Harum Scarum,” spends the night at the home a half-human/half-fish girl named Tina where he beds her (don’t worry, entirely human) mother, and picks up a “roommate” on the run from the law with the foulest mouth of anyone in comics not created by Garth Ennis. Among other things.
He ends up with only a few answers, and even fewer limbs — as a matter of fact, he’s a quadriplegic by the time the curtain falls. It’s a challenging work to say the least, not the least bit due to the fact that Clowes never gives the reader much reason to become emotionally invested in his central because he’s never very emotionally invested in him as a creator. Clay undertakes precisely one action on his own initiative here —getting the whole ball rolling in the first place — but from that point on, he’s almost pathologically passive. He doesn’t make things happen, they just happen to him.
That can be interesting — and it is — but only for awhile. There’s a palpable sense that Clowes was beginning to realize he had taken the entire conceit as far as he could towards the end, and he wraps things up pretty quickly indeed in the final segment. Mind you, I only say quickly, and not conveniently, because there’s really nothing too terribly “convenient” about how things wind up for anyone here. Except maybe Tina.
Reading it as originally presented again, I got the same sense I did the first time around, only magnified — did I like it? Yes. And I most likely wouldn’t have been actively bothered if it had gone on a bit longer, but — I was also, I dunno, not so much bored with it by any stretch of the imagination, but ready for it to end when it did. Clowes’ frequent obsession with longing for days gone by (that, ironically, weren’t all that great when they were going on) while at the same time having contempt for such syrupy nostalgia is writ large here and leads to complete fucking disaster, and alienation from the rest of humanity, another staple of his ouevre, is also present and accounted for, so if you’re as intrigued by those themes as I am (and as the artist himself is), then rest assured that you’re going to find a lot to like here (assuming you haven’t read it yet). They’d all crop up again in future, and be dealt with in more frankly human — yet, perhaps paradoxically, more subtle — fashion, but there’s something uniquely provocative about seeing them addressed withing the bounds (loose as they are) of a free-form, almost stream-of-consciousness story.
Is it a comics masterpiece? Nah, but it’s definitely intriguing in the truest sense of the word and certainly offers many tantalizing hints that the guy who made it may just have a masterpiece waiting for us right around the corner.
Which, of course, he did. But we’ll get to that in due course, have no fear.