Because NO ONE Demanded it! – “Armageddon 2001” and the Adolescence of the DCU

“Don’t be sad, Kal-El. Please. Earth raised you, but you’ve grown too big for it now. It’s time you took your place in a larger universe.” – Maxima

This August the Unspoken Decade is looking back at some of our favorite Alternate Realities. The most enjoyable DC crossover event of that period is probably 1989’s Invasion! by Keith Giffen, Bill Mantlo, and, at least for a little bit (as is his modus operandi) Todd McFarlane, but that is outside the purview of our endeavor so I would like to turn your attention to the much maligned, but equally informative, Armageddon 2001 from 1991.

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A House Ad for the series and the final page of the first issue. Was anyone going to be that upset if Monarch turned out to be “Hawkworld” era Hawkman?

Invasion! is in many ways the ideal crossover. Several different, established extraterrestrial militaries decide that Earth is no good. These obvious aggressors are then repelled by the vastly outnumbered, far more likable heroes of Earth. Panel space is even given to the everyday people of the world who rally behind them. It is cut and dry, a Grade School retelling of World War II and not the nuanced socio-political wartime drama of A Song of Fire and Ice.

Armageddon had narrator Waverider taking readers on a magic journey through a dozen or so “What If?” scenarios featuring the popular heroes of the day. He looked into each of their possible future to see which of them (he was sure that it had to be one of them) would kill all of their friends and conquer the world in the time between 1991 and 2001. Waverider is never revealed to be an unreliable narrator so this really is the story of a superhero who will murder the world.

Scripts are courtesy of Archie Goodwin and Denny O’Neil, the Old Guard. These are the guys the industry knew and who helped shape it during the preceding decades. It is penciller, and possible co-plotter Dan Jurgens (he usually receives credit for co-creating Waverider, golden-hued time travelers being his thing) who deserves special attention.

Not necessarily a newcomer (he had nearly a decade of professional experience at that point) Jurgens would act as one of the architects of the following year’s The Death of Superman story and penciled the comic you just imagined when reading the words “death of Superman.” It was a big deal and Jurgens was never shy about taking the reins of something he was passionate about.

Not saying that any of this was intentional but with phrasing such as that how can Jurgens not have subsequently turned Jimmy’s photographing Superman’s lifeless corpse into a plot point a year later?
Not saying that any of this was intentional but with phrasing such as that how can Jurgens not have subsequently turned Jimmy’s photographing Superman’s lifeless corpse into a plot point a year later?

Armageddon is a strange beast. It shows us sides of established characters that had to be, up until that time, considered out of character. There is a sense of hopelessness permeating our heroes’ potential futures. A mystery story (the identity of arch-MacGuffin villain “Monarch”) frames a series of “Imaginary Stories,” similar to the book-length ones from back in the day. Some are tragedies, some are triumphs, all are never mentioned again.

This series has a special place in my heart, it is the first crossover that I have any memory of. These annuals were the first I saw on the newsstand back when “2001” was closer to the present than it is now. It was a shock to find out, years later, that Waverider was not already an established superhero, peer of Superman and whoever it was they were calling the Titans at the time. I will be focusing on the three Superman annuals. Not to slight the others, but Superman was the only triple-dipper and considering that this was his last hurrah before the rest of the nineties, which were what could charitably be called “unkind” to him, maybe he deserves it.

Superman Annual, Action Comics Annual, and The Adventures of Superman Annual all had tie-ins for their third issues. The fourth “shield” book, Superman: The Man of Steel, (which would effectively make Superman a weekly character) was not yet around. All three stories deal with the inevitable death of Lois Lane, then fiancée to Clark Kent, and/or the Man of Tomorrow ruling the world. Apparently Superman is constantly walking a tightrope of not just doing everything for us regardless of the ethical or moral implications. Injustice was right! Who knew?

One of my oldest compatriots is dead? He deserved it! Anyone else getting a Howard Chaykin vibe from this art?
“One of my oldest compatriots is dead? He deserved it!” Also, anyone else getting a Howard Chaykin vibe from this art?

Waverider and Monarch are two bits of the story that were added to the canon of the DCU. You may have heard that Monarch was supposed to be one hero and ended up being another and that a few decades later DC editorial tried to repair that. None of this matters because honestly I would not recommend reading the core narrative. I am sure you can find a version of this story, which amounts to 1984: DCU, done better other places but the tie-ins are not without their charm. For a major crossover the first issue is surprisingly devoid of action or big name supercharacters. The story of a family man dealing with a government he does not care for is not quite the status quo changing shake-up that you would expect from a comic with a cover using that much shiny silver ink.

Matt Ryder (see what they did there?) is a salaryman with two grown daughters, a wife he loves, and the only spine left in his totalitarian, freedomless future. Because this is 2030 and not Apokolips this makes him the only man who can help the ruler of the world and not, for some reason, the first one gunned down in a hail of generic energy blasts. Matt has apparently cracked time travel and regardless of the fact that he is constantly hinted at having “anti-social” tendencies he is assigned the project leader to get Monarch what he wants.

None of this matters because as Waverider all Matt does is watch and wait. He does not interact with the world nor team with the Justice League (such as it was in the days before Grant Morrison) to deal with the threat before it arises. Part of this is because he does not know who to trust. This is an interesting angle as it was expressly within the text that one of our beloved heroes was going to become bad, and stay that way.

Waverider is essentially the main character from the movie
Waverider is essentially the main character from the movie “Brazil” except super-science makes his daydreams real. I think this may mean that Terry Gilliam should be appointed Executive Editor of DC.

This is an odd instance of growing pains that the superhero genre went through back then. Heroes and villains had routinely switched sides but here we have a Possible World where a good person, a hero, will eventually ruin things for everyone because if the world of the future is heroless then the King of High-Collars must have murdered them all. The identity of Monarch is eventually revealed to be Hawk. It was not Captain Atom, the already military themed, wound-too tight super solider who not only had experience time traveling but was constantly shown to be one more bad day away from just wiping out all bureaucracy, beginning with you.

Both Hawk & Dove and Captain Atom were created by Steve Ditko. Even Ryder has a similar name to Ditko character “The Creeper,” Jack Ryder. The villain of Armageddon is called “Monarch,” which is pretty close to “King.” Ditko was one of the founding fathers of Marvel along with Jack Kirby. Kirby adapted the film 2001: A Space Odyssey into a successful comic that spawned Machine Man. The identity of which hero turns out to be Monarch is unimportant because I imagine “Sturdy Steve” wearing him as a fiction-suit just so that he can beat the snot out of all the DC characters he never cared for. Kirby was the basis for most of the characters that have remained fan favorites while most of the time I have trouble separating the Question from his creator.

Monarch’s war, his crusade, to rid the world of other superpowered people is not only wildly successful (I always thought that he contributed more than a little bit to Mark Waid’s Empire especially the look of the primary antagonist) but it takes place during the 1990s. The story may be set in 1991 but by 2001 the world as we know it will be unrecognizable. A major part of the ensuing Superman stories would revolve around the, at the time, fictional 2000 US Presidential election (no, Lex Luthor is not shown to be a candidate, that was probably considered too outlandish).

One of two times Superman is underwater in these issues, but not the one where he uses sunken treasure to support the Gold Standard.
One of two times Superman is underwater in these issues, but not the one where he uses sunken treasure to support the Gold Standard.

The world may have been different if Ditko had donned super-armor and conquered the world but seeing as how the actual Presidential Election turned out in 2000 I am not sure we would have noticed. Armageddon would have little impact on the broader DCU but one thing it did do was introduce us to a major destructive force whose presence is continued to be felt today. Not Monarch, though. That guy does not make it through.

Dan Jurgens’ Zero Hour was DC’s defining, continuity rewriting event of the nineties. It had major implications up and down various timelines and features Hank “Hawk” Hall as the world’s most generic looking, nineties’ supervillain (Google “Extant” and tell me that he should not be fighting Ultraforce or Bloodstrike). He then wipes the Legion of Superheroes and the surviving members of the Justice Society of America from continuity. He takes the parts that do not belong and removes them from existence by absorbing Waverider into himself and acting as the Editor of the DCU publishing line.

When you consider this in the context of what was going on in the titles themselves (Reign of the Supermen, Knightfall, and the arrival of Ed Benes to name a few) it becomes apparent that whatever direction the people in charge at DC wanted for their comics was not what had come before. Much of this awkward, teenager-acting-out transition can be seen in Armageddon.

Superman needs a Hairy Chested Love-God phase. Blowing up entire starships with ease, closer to Sterling Archer than James Bond.
Superman needs a Hairy Chested Love-God phase. Blowing up entire starships with ease, closer to Sterling Archer than James Bond.

Goodwin and O’Neill’s names appear on many well-regarded classics and I cannot think of any horror stories I have read about them. They are not Frank Miller or John Byrne, they do not make you ashamed to enjoy and appreciate superhero comics. Even Waverider has an old school, ironic name. He has a family, he has built something that that has the trappings of a true tragedy waiting to happen. The fall of Captain Atom, or whoever it is that is “destined” to become Monarch, was never supposed to be about how it “cool” it would look if one superhero killed all the others. It is about the pressure put on each of our lives and how change is not only possible but inevitable.

Some of this is left is left unsaid as Hawk is revealed to be the Big Bad (a story I urge you to look up, imagine how impressive it was that such a colossal plot point was leaked in the days before the internet). Back to Superman, his three annuals, read in the order listed above, form a kind of single story, united by themes more than plot. Waverider continuously informs the reader (he is just thinking to himself but I prefer to imagine him more akin to Ambush Bug or Deadpool: He knows he is “fictional,” he just does not always know what that means) that no one should be able to remember the events he helps them see. Superman does. Twice.

Superman may not turn out to be Monarch (that name, really? I keep imagining pre-Hook Hand Aquaman going up against the Queen of England) but he proves that the rules do not define him, he defines them. Why is it so important that Superman be viewed three times as opposed to everyone else’s once? Because he is the greatest, most powerful, or overall best? Sure, but more than likely it was because he had three ongoing titles.

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Ad from an issue of “Armageddon.” Someone up the food chain knew the target demographic were old enough to be chain smokers.

Roger Stern writes the middle issue and it is the one I would recommend to you over the others. A former editor of mine, at a different site, steered me towards it many years ago and I never regretted picking it up. What would happen if Superman were elected President of the United States? Many weird things, apparently, including the world’s most tedious two page discussion of trade deficits. Reading these I had a better appreciation for why I would grow up believing this character to be so eminently uninteresting: He is constantly being portrayed as the only adult in the room.

In 1980 Stern scripted Captain America #250 where the character considers a run for office. It tells you as much about the modern national political system as it does Steve Rogers. This Superman issue could be considered its thematic successor except for the fact that here you see that maybe things actually would be better if an all-powerful alien being ruled over us. It goes to some strange places (Stern’s an Old Leftie and while Oliver Queen does not make an appearance there is a focus on international nuclear disarmament that swaps ICBMs for the Justice League of the World) but it helps me understand why Superman works, if and when he does.

Two other two? In one Superman bangs Maxima and in the other Batman murders him.

At one point this is referred to as ‘battle armor.’ Almerac really is a strange, alien world.
At one point this is referred to as ‘battle armor.’ Almerac really is a strange, alien world.

Louise Simonson wrote the former, Jurgens the latter. The industry was only a few years out from The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Marvelman, and anything else you can name that “forever changed everything.” These stories are about raised stakes and the dark paths that have apparently always been open but never walked by our heroes. The first inkling that the mainstream companies paid attention to what the new kids were doing but maybe did not understand it.

Crossover events, such as Armageddon, are unique to the genre of superheroes. Until maybe Marvel’s the Avengers they were unique to the medium of comics as well. What are they really? An excuse to shake things up, plug some holes in a month with an extra Wednesday, and hopefully raise the profiles of a few intellectual properties. A crossover event is a cross section of a given publishing line at a specific time. It is not a capstone, most if not all of what we are shown will continue. Reading 2001 in 2015 I can see where the other titles were at the time.

Imagine a tree, a big redwood, lying on its side with its stump cut off. Each ring tells a story. Imagine a core sample pulled from deep within the Earth. Geology and archaeology and the way it all fits together. Crossovers offer that to us. My favorite is probably Civil War. That has reality television and too much Government oversight as major plot points. You can easily see what was affecting the writers who pulled it together. The original Secret Wars? Someone needs more action figures and we want to sell them to you! What does Armageddon tell us about DC at that time?

I will never tire of seeing Guy Gardner as the Right Wing’s version of Green Arrow.
I will never tire of seeing Guy Gardner as the Right Wing’s version of Green Arrow.

A version of Superman that is not as well-oiled and put together as we would have believed a decade before. He has let Lois in on the secret and they want to be together. Except now they worry about the logistics of having kids, growing old together, and Ma Kent’s potential Alzheimer’s. This is a 2000 AD version of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes except without the extra level of satire. Creators making heroes less iconic and more as what we have in our world.

Waverider only wants to save his family and free the world. He is granted, as people in comics often are, unfathomable power to do just that. In his case, he is destined to fail. Even if Monarch does not come to power in 2001 he will become Extant and cause the Legion to still have continuity problems two and a half decades later. Extant was the Superboy-Prime of his day except he took responsibility for his actions and did not allow for the writer to just blame the people on message boards. Much of what would come later, both culturally and technically, begins with Armageddon.

We see assumptions made about what the Man of Tomorrow actually wants (a world that runs with the efficiency of a watch) and we see fan reaction drive the people behind the stories to make a rash decision that ultimately shoots backfires (changing the identity of the main villain halfway through). We see Jurgens emerge as a creative force. Stories and characters were sometimes billed as “not your parents X, anymore.” Those stories are not directed at children, who have no problem with escape or adults themselves who have realized that they will never escape the crushing monotony of their lives, but teenagers. People young enough to not have the responsibility to do anything more than reject what they perceive as beneath them. Stories that are dark for the sake of it display powerlessness.

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This is literally the fight from “The Dark Knight Return” that someone is having a dream about (notice the scale).

I am not against any particular type of storytelling but when a character goes the bulk of his career being successful by being a good person (even with occasional instances of Super-Dickery) it is disappointing to watch him be slowly forced into a mold where he is actually one bad day from taking over. Superman perished less than a year after this story wrapped. That story provided the type of high that certain parties would be chasing, to the industry’s detriment, for longer than they should have.

I am not saying that Armageddon caused any of the dark tragedies that came after but it is the first time we see a major story change the nature of a headline character in such a way. It would not be the last. Except instead of the fundamentally disposable Captain Atom they will use someone more well-known, and instead of avoiding the spoiler they will just bake it into the advertising. The rules changed, bit by bit, so that no one noticed until it was too late.

Crossovers are a great way to check in with the way things were at a particular time. This one shows us the effect of numerous, smaller, much darker stories coalescing into one large continuity jump. What opens with a quest to save the world ends, in a roundabout way, with someone in charge thinking that it was within the bounds of the character to turn Green Lantern into Parallax.

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Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence, Part Seven

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The short-form — or, heck, “one-off,” if you prefer — works that ran in issues 11-18 of Daniel Clowes’ Eightball (remember, we’re calling this “phase two” of the series) are something of a mixed bag, to be sure, but echo the title’s overall shift from a more overt, or “in your face” attitude (as exemplified in earlier, purely humor-based strips such as the Lloyd Llewellyn stories “I Hate You Deeply” and “I love You Tenderly”),  to a more considered, character-driven approach rooted in a deep and overwhelming sense of usually (though not always) vague existential dread. Which is kinda weird, because it sure wasn’t looking like that was the route Clowes was gonna go for a minute there.

When Eightball #11 hit in June of 1993, it was almost entirely dominated by short pieces. Oh, sure, the first installment of Ghost World was in there, but there was nothing to differentiate it from the numerous other three-and four-pagers contained within if one didn’t already know that it was intended to be the book’s next “anchor” series. And truth be told, a lot of those other stories were a bit weak. “The Party” was a decent enough full-color yarn poking fun at then-nascent “hipster” culture, but the likes of “Ectomorph,” “The Fairy Frog,” and “The Happy Fisherman” — -extrapolated from a poster for a fake movie that appeared in the background of a panel in Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron — were, I’m sorry, to say, some pretty weak tea. “Why I Hate Christians” comes off somewhat better, but shows the artist taking aim at a target that’s just a bit too easy, and you have to wonder if Clowes wasn’t starting to tire of these sorts of overt sociological commentaries/rants himself, given that he’d only indulge in them one more time, with the admittedly uproarious “On Sports” in  issue number 14.

Clowes himself states that his head was in a bit of a fog around the time he produced much of the material in issue 11, given that he was just getting accustomed to his new California surroundings, but this “iffy” creative period wouldn’t last long, fortunately for us all, and while issue 12’s “Glue Destiny” was another misfire, it at least pointed the way forward in that it showed a desire to tackle material of greater thematic scope and ambition that would yield some superb results in the not-too-distant (at the time, mind you) future.

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That future began in earnest in the pages of Eightball #13, with the amazingly frank autobiographical strip “Blue Italian Shit.” True, unlike other autobio cartoonists of the period like Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown, and of course Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, Clowes opts to “shine” his harshest light of judgment on the people around him rather than on himself, but this remarkable accounting of his art school (and immediate post-art school) years doesn’t completely exonerate him, either. It’s an impressively nuanced piece that captures the sense of loneliness and alienation he was obviously feeling with disconcerting authenticity and power.

For my money, though, the real “home run” came in Eightball #15, with “Caricature” (which is the featured strip in a  reprint collection of Clowes’ short stories, published by Fantagraphics, that bears the same name). This thing is so fucking spot-on that every time I read it I’m transported exactly back to the time and place I was at the first time I sat down and took it all in  — which was at my apartment, around 10:00 or 11:00 on a Friday night, having just got home from work and finding all my friends had been too impatient to get to some party or other for even one of them to wait around for me, if you must know (this is what passes for “infuriating” when you’re 23 years old). I was already in something of a “what the hell’s the point of it all?” mood, anyway, and reading the agonizingly bleak tale of traveling caricaturist Mal and his mentally unbalanced “biggest fan for two days,” Theda, really hit the right note at the right time. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone prone to suicidal impulses reads it even on their best day, mind you, but as far as pure distillations of the “Clowes Universe”  — a world of hopeless loners, unfocused melancholy, bleak late-night diners, and even bleaker non-endings — go, they don’t come much better than this. Devastatingly good, as well as just plain devastating, and probably one of my “top five” comics stories of all time.

Issue 16 continues this (dare I say “positive”?) trend by giving us a pair of stories — “Like A Weed, Joe” and “Immortal, Invisible” — featuring Rodger Young, an obvious stand-in for Clowes himself in his pre-teen years — that capture the (here it is again, are you picking up on a theme?) alienation and low-key confusion of youth with staggering subtlety and detail, while issue 17’s (long, but still a one-off) story “Gynecology” adds an element of mystery to the overall formula of slightly-surreal angst that would be followed up on in a big way in Eightball‘s next multi-parter, the ground-and-heart-breaking David Boring. Rounding out the short stories of this period — which, if you can’t tell by now,  took off in a big way after that shaky start I droned on about earlier — is issue 18’s dense, multi-layered Black Nylon, a thematic predecessor to Eightball number 23’s The Death-Ray,  that sees Clowes utilizing  the super-hero genre to ask fundamental questions about memory, identity, and even the nature of reality itself. You can read this strip a dozen times and come to a dozen different conclusions, with all — and none — of them being “right.”

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Authorial perspective in these stories definitely shifts all over the place in accordance with the material, but it’s interesting to note that the “icy distance” Clowes chides himself for adopting and/or hiding behind in most of his work is present, to one degree or another, in all of them — even the Rodger Young tales — while it’s notably absent in the concurrently-running Ghost World. I suppose I could engage in some speculation here about how these works may have served as a “safety blanket” for the artist to “protect” himself from getting to close to his readers, or even functioned  as something of an “antidote” to him doing just that via the exploits of Enid and Becky, but I’m no psychiatrist — just an unqualified (though hopefully not uninformed) observer/armchair theorist. All I know for certain is that he was definitely firing on all cylinders, creatively speaking, from issue 15 onward, and the result is one of the most impressive runs of issues in the history of this beleaguered medium we all love. Cap it off with the “Modern Cartoonist” pamphlet insert in issue 18 (also reproduced as an exact facsimilie replica in the The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 hardcover), which serves as both an admonishment of comics’ current state and a road-map for its future disguised as an old-school “career introduction” booklet — and you’ve got yourself a string of comics that I, for one, am more than willing to call “legendary.”

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All of which brings us up to 1997 in terms of Eightball history, and very close to the “cut-off point” of this website. But fear not, friends, we’re not quite finished here yet — the first two of David Boring‘s three installments appeared in the ’90s, so we’ll be getting into that next, as well as taking a cursory look (for completeness’ sake alone, if nothing else) at the early-2000s with brief analyses of both Ice Haven and The Death-Ray. All of which is my way of saying that even though we’ve exhausted the contents of The Complete Eightball in our extended post-mortem here, you’re still not quite free of my interference around these parts, because I’ve got one more post coming up for you. Whether you take that to be a threat or a promise is, of course, a matter to be resolved entirely according to the dictates of your own no-doubt-flawless discretion.

 

Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence, Part Six

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Do you have a best friend?

If pressed to name one,  I’d have to say that it’s my wife, and hopefully you readers out there who are married feel the same about your spouse. But chances are that if you’re either a) still single; b) younger than I am; or c)both, somebody else is your best friend.

Assuming, of course, that you have one. Which I sincerely hope you do, because best friends are generally a pretty cool thing to have — in fact, in our increasingly isolated, atomized world, where the vast majority of “social” interactions are merely a pale electronic approximation of what that word used to mean, I would even go so far as to argue that they’re absolutely necessary.

I’m pretty lucky —I  had a hell of a great best friend for about a decade or so. Man, the times we had. The trouble we got into — and out of. The crazy fucking nights that we didn’t deserve to survive but somehow did. I could tell you stories for hours — but don’t worry, friends,  I wont.

Instead, let’s talk about Enid Coleslaw (an easily-deciphered anagram of — well, I’m assuming you’ve got that figured out already) and Rebecca “Becky” Doppelmeyer, the two recent high school grads, who have apparently been best friends since childhood. that are at the center of Ghost World, the four-year-long narrative that runs in issues 11-18 of Daniel Clowes’ Eightball and serves as the “anchor” for what I’ve been referring to as “phase two” of this series I can’t seem to shut up about.

Enid and Rebecca are obvious outcasts who have chosen to embrace, to one degree or another,  the fact that they don’t “fit in” and run with it. Truth be told, both of them seem to have a bit of a “too cool for school” attitude that can sometimes get in the way of their growing up (a vastly over-rated enterprise, anyway), with Enid being the self-appointed pace-setter in this regard and Rebecca, to put it bluntly, always living in her shadow. Sure, there’s a justifiable level of resentment on Rebecca’s part that goes along with that, but on the whole, the two of them are so joined-at-the-hip that within a few pages of the opening installment, it’s impossible to imagine one getting through life without the other — and yet the main “through-line” of this story is about how that seemingly impossible situation comes to pass.

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I’ll be honest — I don’t know how much of a detailed analysis of Ghost World is really necessary here (and no, I’m not just saying that because I’m in a lazy mood). Chances are you’ve read it in either single-issue form, one of its many collected editions, or seen the 2001 film based (a bit too loosely for my tastes, although I know that’s not a terribly popular opinion) on it. I’ve absorbed it in all of these formats on countless occasions myself, and while the comic book story certainly never fails to impress regardless of how you take it in, I have to admit that reading it again in serialized fashion as I recently have by means of The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 is probably my preferred method of “experiencing” this genuine classic. There’s nothing wrong with sitting down and reading it all in one go, mind you, but I think it works better in smaller chunks spread out over time, with other stories interspersed between segments, simply because it’s an incredibly episodic narrative that can feel a bit disjointed when consumed in a single intake. Plus, the even aqua-hued color palette of the trade and hardback collections gives it a more uniform feel that, in some ways, does the material a (slight, at any rate) disservice.

Allow me to explain : Ghost World starts with a “cool blue” tone for its first five chapters, then assumes a truly bizarre chicken-shit-yellow tone for its sixth (a printer’s accident maintained for the sake of historical authenticity in the aforementioned Eightball omnibus double-hardcover), and finally settles into an aqua-blue tone similar — but not quite  the same as — the one adopted for the “graphic novel” collection for the last two segments, which see a remarkable, but completely relatable, shift occur in the Enid/Becky relationship.

To make a long story short (and if you want a longer analysis, I highly recommend Fantagraphics’ 2013 release The Daniel Clowes Reader, which contains a number of absolutely absorbing academic essays about the cartoonist’s work, the majority of which are, in fact, dedicated to Ghost World), this is a slow-burn chronicling of the dissolution of a friendship — and since our theme here is that of a “personal reminiscence,” allow me to take a moment to relate to you, dear reader, about how the inevitable drifting apart of Enid and Rebecca eerily mirrored my own “split” with my one-time best friend. Even though I said just a few paragraphs back that, ya know, I wasn’t going to bore you with stories about my own life.

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Okay, fair enough, Enid and Rebecca had a lot more drama involved when they parted company — even if a lot of it was gloriously subtle drama that eventually came to a head in a number of different ways — while my own situation was, frankly, more dull, but the coincidental timing of both was, at least from where I’m sitting, flat-out uncanny.

Consider : my former best friend and I were riding pretty high when Ghost World made its debut in Eightball #11. We were nearing the end of our collegiate years, as opposed to our high school years, but there was a very real sense that, even though neither of us had much of a clue what we were going to do with our lives, the world was our oyster. We’d take our time getting there (wherever “there” was), sure, but we were both bound and determined to have a damn good time along the way. We had the same interests, the same ideals, and conveniently enough for both of us, we never seemed to have crushes on the same girls (as opposed to the low-level competition that Enid and Rebecca have going on over their slightly-older friend Josh). Times were very good indeed.

By the time Ghost World settled into its multi-issue “groove” that showed the depths of our protagonists’ co-dependency, it’s fair to say that the same thing was happening with my friend and I. We shared a nice-and-affordable two-bedroom apartment, ran in the same extended social circle, and were generally thick as thieves. Times were good, bordering on great.

But damn — you know how it goes. Human beings are, I think, restless by nature — at least humans in their early-to-mid-20s — and at more or less exactly the same time the wheels came off the whole Enid-and-Rebecca pairing in unforgettable fashion, my friend and I started moving in distinctly different directions in life. I settled into a “career”-type gig while he and his girlfriend-at-the-time headed west. We let our lease on our place go  just a few short months after Eightball#18, containing the final (extended) segment of Ghost World, hit the shelves. But the writing had been on the wall for some time, and the last two chapters  of Clowes’ soon-to-be-most-celebrated work in particular really hammered home some of the stuff I was going through, to the point where I could certainly see my own life being reflected back at me in the exploits of two fictional late-teens women.

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What happened next? Well, Enid and Becky went on to conquer all media for a time, didn’t they? The first collection of Ghost World in hardcover and trade paperback was a huge hit, not only in the “comic book world,” but the larger sphere of pop culture in general. There were even Enid Coleslaw dolls at one point. And in 2001, a very well-received movie directed by Terry (Crumb, Bad Santa) Zwigoff became something of an indie-film sensation, and helped launch the career of somebody you may have heard of named Scarlett Johansson (who starred as Becky, with Thora Birch assuming the role of Enid and Steve Buscemi appearing as a new character named Seymour, whose storyline didn’t really do much for me). How well-received was it? Well, Zwigoff and Clowes got themselves an honest-to-goodness Academy Award nomination for the screenplay they co-authored, so I’d say it went over very well on the whole. So well, in fact, that they got back together in 2006 to make a second (and, in my own humble view, superior) flick extrapolated from an Eightball story, Art School Confidential.

As for yours truly, what can I say? Life goes on. My friend had some rough patches for a few years, but ended up coming out the other side pretty well, getting married in 2001 (a fair number of years before I finally tied the knot) and having a heck of a remarkable son. But our inexorable drift continued apace, especially when I split the country for about a year and half and did an admittedly lousy job of keeping in touch with just about everyone, and we both changed so much over time that we’re well and truly barely recognizable to each other anymore. The advent of social media made it easier to keep in touch — not that there’s any valid excuse for us to fall as out of touch as we did given that we live in the same fucking city — but that turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing given that we both seem to have, shall we say, remarkably different communication styles these days, and eventually an insipid argument that began on facebook led to a blow-up that resulted in the two of us not talking to each other for a couple of years.

We got together for a dinner — minus the drinks that used to be de riguer for both of us — about a year ago and everything was pleasant enough, but in all honesty that wasn’t anything so much as a hatchet-burying exercise, and it’s not like we ever really followed through on any of our “let’s get together sometime, man” half-assed promises. I’m grateful for the past we had together and the good times, absolutely, but there’s no future there. The harsh truth of the matter is that I think the guy is, sorry to say it, pretty much just a prick, and I’m not even terribly concerned that he’ll take exception to me saying so because I doubt he can be bothered to read any of the shit I write. Also, who knows? Chances are pretty good that his opinion of me is more or less the same.

And so, assuming I haven’t lost any of you fine folks over the course of my little “WTMI” info-dump there, I hope it’s abundantly clear why Ghost World is such a remarkable (not to mention remarkably poignant) work in my estimation. It’s supremely gifted storytelling, expertly written and  drawn, with genuinely memorable characters (especially some of the side characters! Who can forget “the Satanist couple”? Or professional dickhead John Ellis? Or “Weird Al” the waiter?), at-times-painfully perfect dialogue, and, unlike Clowes’ earlier long-form narrative Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, showcases the heights of emotional resonance an artist can achieve when he’s willing to allow himself to become fully  invested in his characters as people. It’s a masterpiece of the medium, truly one of the very finest stories ever committed to the comic book page, cleverly disguised as a love-letter to teenage girl “outsiders.”

Reading it again in an exact facsimilie of its original publication format brought a tidal wave of memories flooding back, it’s true, but ya know what? I think I’d be perfectly comfortable labeling Ghost World a masterpiece even if I didn’t have such a personal connection to it, so obvious and undeniable is its quiet, unassuming , and above all heartfelt magnificence.