All posts by Ryan C. (fourcolorapocalypse)

Exploitation, horror, and comics fanatic/self-appointed critic from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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

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So — how cringe-worthy would it be if I started this installment of our ongoing Eightball retrospective by saying something like “Hey, we want some Pussey — Dan Pussey, that is!”?

I admit, I thought about — for all of about a second. Then I decided not to. Then I (sort of) did it anyway. And that, friends, is the evolution of the creative process in microcosm (even if it’s a hell of stretch to call what I’m doing here “creative”).

For a longer-running (and, obviously, better) example, might I direct your attention to Dan Clowes’ five-year stint chronicling the exploits of the aforementioned Mr. Pussey, something of a “stand-in” character for any number of “young hot-shot” comic book artists that his creator had the misfortune of having to rub elbows with at various conventions and signings over the years — and perhaps even for said creator himself,  if he’d chosen to follow only a slightly different career path and hawk his wares in service of “The Big Two” rather than striking out on his own with more personal (as well as infinitely more relevant and, yeah, better) independent efforts.

To be completely fair, I’m not sure how much of a “dear God, this could be me!” viewpoint was running through Clowes’ mind when Pussey made his first appearance in 1989 in the pages of Eightball number one, but something very akin to sympathy does begin to sink in by the time the character “dies,” in 1994, in issue fourteen. Oh, sure, there’s still something of a “shooting fish in a barrel” vibe going on even at the end, but by then Dan C. has put Dan P. through the wringer in his various occasional appearances over the years, and when he exits a future Earth broke, forgotten, and warehoused in a gigantic nursing home, there’s an almost wistful sort of tone to the proceedings, as if the author is telling his creation “sorry I was so rough on you, buddy — maybe you were, sorry to say,  too easy of a target — so let’s just end things now.”

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Lending a bit of credence to my “there but for the grace of whatever higher power you believe in go I” theory is the fact that Clowes introduces us to himself before we meet his (at least possible) warped alter ego at the outset of Pussey’s first appearance, with some windbag asshole (who later wrote a letter to the artist when he recognized himself — a letter that Clowes actually, and memorably, printed) telling a bemused “alternative” cartoonist that he has a million ideas for comic scripts and that he should drawn them for him in exchange for “a percentage of the profits” — but as the douchebag makes his departure, our artist crosses paths with another clueless dolt — and our “camera” follows that dolt to the decidedly dingy offices of the Infinity Comics Group, where he and his fellow conscripts have been recruited from the ranks of low-print-run fanzines to begin a “new era” of super-hero storytelling (with titles like “Marionette Squad” and “The Ten-Year Robot War”) being spearheaded by an octogenerian Stan Lee clone named, you guessed it, Dr. Infinity (who would later “star” in a segment of his own where he was shown to be the living personification of every shitty, despicable move made by management against the comics creators who kept them in business, from DC brass screwing Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster out of the rights to Superman to an admittedly heavily-fictionalized re-telling of William Gaines hanging his EC artists out to dry during the congressional witch-hunt against that publisher, and the industry in general, in the 1950s).

And so begins Dan Pussey’s “alpha,” but there were a number of quite entertaining, incisive, and sometimes even poignant moments to enjoy in the “on-again, off-again” appearances he would make over the years before getting to the “omega” we already mentioned. Like his ultimately-fruitless quest to find an authentic artistic “voice” of his own Eightball number three — his pathetic, superheroine-based masturbation fantasy in number four — his dalliance with the “gallery world” in number nine — the flashbacks to his pathetic childhood in number twelve — so many memorable tales of haplessness to be had.

It may sound — okay, it does sound — corny, but re-reading all of these again in The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 (note that the Dan Pussey stories have also been collected, by themselves, in the Pussey! paperback collection issued by Fantagraphics and pictured at the outset of this write-up) both brought a huge smile to my face and threw into sharp relief the more considered — and less caustic — tone that Clowes took toward his hard-luck “hero” as the stories unfolded.

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Of course, then-current events in the “comic book landscape” made their way into the Pussey narrative, as well, with Dan functioning as a doppleganger of sorts for the Image creators who were at the “top of the heap” at that time, but Clowes had the good sense to foresee the inevitable collapse their glut of garbage would have upon the industry, and that scenario plays a large part in, as the character himself  claims it’s pronounced, “Poo-say”‘s demise, so this series of strips — in addition to being the only holdover between “phase one” and “phase two” of Eightball, as we’ve previously discussed, gets bonus points for being eerily prescient, as well. Clowes not only had his “finger on the pulse,” he knew what would happen once he pressed in.

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And so it is that the wonderfully sporadic misadventures of Dan Pussey probably have the greatest amount of sheer nostalgia value of anything in the pages of Eightball. Everything Clowes depicted either had happened, was happening, or would happen soon enough (in relative terms, of course — by now, it’s all happened), and while it would be a definte reach to say that the real Dan ever lost his contempt for the fake Dan entirely, by the time it was all said and done you could definitely sense that he viewed him as something of a tragic, rather than a purely sickening, figure.

Such a process of “warming up” to his characters would play an ever-greater role in Eightball as a whole, and we’ll delve into that more deeply next time when we take a look at the modern masterpiece that is “Ghost World.” Looking forward to seeing you then!

 

 

 

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!

 

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

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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 —

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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.

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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.