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.

 

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