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!

 

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