Category Archives: 90s Indy Stuff

Image @ 25 : The Savage Dragon

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In late 1991 a group of Marvel Comics’ hottest artists gave Marvel (and later DC Comics) the collective middle finger and struck out on their own to form Image Comics.  The following summer, Image took the comic book world by storm. I’m looking back at some of the books that changed the industry forever, starting with Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon.

In the summer of 1992, I was a couple years into collecting comics.  I started with the usual: Spider-Man, The Avengers, occasionally some DC stuff.  The comics industry was growing and publishers were bringing out countless new characters and concepts, throwing the proverbial crap at the wall to see what would stick.

Boy, was there a lot of crap.

But, hey, I’m not here to throw stones.  I’m here to throw some praise on what I love.  And I loved some of those new guys on the block.  I’m looking at you, Darkhawk!  This guy still loves ya, Sleepwalker!

Y’see, the great thing about the new guys was they were all mine.  I got in on the ground floor and was able to watch them grow from the beginning.  Spidey had been around for near 30 years at that point.  Batman was over 50!  Beat it, gramps, there’s some young blood here to take us into the next Millennium!

Speaking of Youngblood…

The feeling of “All New Heroes Just For Me” took a big leap in 1992 with the launch of Image Comics.  At the time, I was wholly unaware of the inner workings at any comics publisher and had only just begun to appreciate different writers and artists.  So when the much-ballyhooed Image split took place, I didn’t even know about it until I realized that the Youngblood comic was drawn by the guy who used to do X-Force, Rob Liefeld.

While I can’t remember specifically, I suspect it was Wizard Magazine that eventually gave me the scoop on Image and all the badass comics that would soon be coming my way with a bevy of all new characters from artists I loved.  Spawn, Shadowhawk, Cyber Force – they were all in my wheelhouse, and while Youngblood was initially my favorite Image book, it would be a green-skinned strong man with a badge that stood the test of time.

Erik Larsen had followed Todd MacFarlane on both Amazing Spider-Man and then Spider-Man before again following MacFarlane (along with Liefeld and several others) out the Marvel door and into forming Image Comics, the biggest game changer the industry had seen since the release of Watchmen in 1986.

Larsen separated himself from the Image pack right away with The Savage Dragon.  While many of the Image founders relied on what worked for them at Marvel and cribbed heavily from those characters and concepts, Larsen went waaay back to his roots and brought a boyhood creation into the spotlight.

At first glance, it was easy to dismiss Dragon as an obvious Hulk clone.  Upon further inspection, however, the similarities are almost entirely cosmetic.  Aside from the green skin and super strength, there wasn’t much to compare.  The Hulk has gone through countless changes in his decades of existence, but the core concept remains a Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, the brute having little interest in the world around him.

Dragon was always Dragon. He took great interest in his world, which had a large supporting cast, including many he called friend.  Dragon was a Chicago cop committed to the job.  He was a thinker with a strong sense of right and wrong.  He had no patience for ignorance or cruelty.  He was a fully developed character from nearly the beginning, despite having no knowledge of his own origins.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before diving into the early Dragon years, I want to take a quick look at the first issue of The Savage Dragon mini-series.  Most of the Image guys launched their new books as a mini-series, before starting again with a new #1 (Savage Dragon, Cyber Force) or just continuing on with the numbering once the series was proven to be sustainable (WildC.A.T.s).

Savage Dragon #1 was released in the summer of 1992 (July is the listed month, so it likely was released in May), and I had already been enthralled by Image thanks to Youngblood and Spawn’s debut issues.  I had pretty much decided to get every Image title I could afford, and thankfully my older brother was buying up Image books in speculator fashion, so what I couldn’t get for myself, I still had access to.

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The cover is a bit plain but still dynamic, right?  The Dragon, all muscled up, leaping at the reader, fangs bared.  And TWO TAGLINES!  A lot of early 90’s comics seem to have that going.  “1st BRUTAL ISSUE!” was an effective hook for a 12-year-old, I’ll tell you.  Wisely, Larsen’s name is prominent on the cover, which was rare before Image.  The creators were the draw, not the characters themselves, so it was a smart move.

The fin on his head was a bit of a mystery.  I don’t think I had ever seen the likes of it before.  Mohawks were not cool in this era, but given Larsen had dreamt Dragon up years prior, maybe that was an influence.  Regardless, it helped distinguish Dragon from ‘ol purple pants at Marvel.

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Page one starts us out right in the middle of the action, Dragon leaping at a ridiculously 90s bad guy.  Cutthroat, how I love thee.  A black dude with dreads, an eye patch, absolutely covered in spikes and skulls and knives and knives with skulls on the hilts.  Not only that, but poor Cutthroat is an amputee, missing his right arm from the elbow down!  “Don’t worry, just slap a giant-ass sickle on there, doc!”  Did he cut his own arm off so he could do that?  I think he might have!  I need to know!

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Cutthroat also has the standard scantily clad henchwoman, or partner, who goes by Glowbug.  She never uses her powers, if she has any, but does get clocked by Dragon one good time and is down for the count.  I don’t recall Glowbug ever showing back up again, but I can’t guarantee it.

Dragon gets sliced up pretty badly, but still makes short work of the two losers.  As he escorts them outside, a fellow cop asks if it’s a rough day, to which Dragon replies, “I’ve had worse.”  This leads to a flashback sequence with Dragon lying in a burning field, naked and unconscious.

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When Dragon wakes, Lt. Frank Darling interviews him and we discover Dragon suffers selective amnesia.  Weirdly, Dragon seems to know everything, from who the President is to who won the ’45 World Series, but has no knowledge of his own past.  Early on, he doesn’t know why he’s green and super strong, or even the extent of his powers.

Frank sets him up with a job, and the reader is soon shown how dire the crime situation is in Chicago.  The whole city is pretty much at the mercy of The Vicious Circle, a mob of “Super Freaks” who do as they please because the police force just doesn’t have the firepower to combat them.  Frank asks Dragon to help him out, but Dragon turns him away at first.

Looking at these pages, you can get a sense of Larsen’s writing style.  I think he’s great at dialogue, even if sometimes things get overly talky.  It’s obvious how much Robert Kirkman is influenced by Larsen (a fact Kirkman freely admits).

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It’s just a matter of time before Dragon sees how bad the Super Freaks can be.  A couple of them (including the aptly named Skullface) give his boss some shit, and Dragon has to smack them around.  Look at Skullface, by the way.  LOOK AT HIM!  Red and gold armor, a crazy demon skull, and he’s a ginger to boot!  He’s beautiful.

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Soon enough Dragon is on the force, kicking all kinds of Super Freak butt and even handling the normies when need be.  Take a look at some of these panels in this shootout.  So much energy in the artwork.  I still appreciate it now, but as a 12-year-old?  There was no way I could keep from salivating when I read this stuff.

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Issue #1 ends with Dragon promising the public he’ll deal with the Super Freak problem while the head of The Vicious Circle (unnamed here) gives his lackeys permission to take the fight to Dragon.

Much of the first three issues focus on flashbacks to Dragon’s early days after waking up in the field, mingled with the present day.  It flows smoothly enough, but later Larsen would put everything in chronological order for the trade paperback.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an artist, and have no knowledge of how to properly criticize art, so I won’t.  I just know what I like and what I don’t.)

Larsen’s art seems to be divisive, and I’m firmly on the pro side.  His balls-out action scenes are great, but he can handle the little moments too.  In the bedside interview, he nails some facial expressions, and the lightning effects from the storm outside are a great touch.

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In the back of the first issue is a page-length letter from Larsen to the readers, and it may be the contents of this page that cemented Larsen as one of my heroes.  He goes on at length about how he grew up making his own comics and how Dragon was his favorite boyhood creation, one he would re-invent on occasion but always keep focus on.  Now he was getting the opportunity to publish Dragon professionally, and through Image he would own everything he published.

As time went on, other characters and storylines from the comics he produced as a kid made their way into the regular Savage Dragon series.  Erik Larsen was (and still is) literally living his dream, and I think that’s amazing.  There would be many Savage Dragon spin-offs and ancillary series, but every issue of The Savage Dragon has been written and drawn by the man himself. (Although Jim Lee did Issue #13 as part of the Image X Month event, Larsen later went back and produced his own Issue #13).  He’s still putting the book out to this day with Issue #225 on sale now.

In preparation for this article, I went back through all my Savage Dragon trades and re-read the first 11 volumes, which covered up through Issue #58 of the regular series.  Volume 2 starts out with Dragon sporting a wicked sleeveless trench coat, Fu Manchu stache, and some lame-ass spectacles, with the tone and artwork getting extra dark and violent.  The job is proving too much for one Super Freak to handle and some other super powered folks join the department for a short while, but it doesn’t last.

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The next few volumes are a tour de force of insane action and outlandish characters.  Aside from a couple epic tussles with Vicious Circle head Overlord, he confronts one of the most unique rogues’ galleries in comics history.  A shark man (Mako), an ape with Hitler’s brain (Brainiape), and a chicken-headed powerhouse (uh, Powerhouse) to name a few.

Also among the superfreak villains Dragon faces on the job: Dung, who utilizes giant shit-cannons and Heavy Flo, who… um… well, here’s a picture.

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After several years of working as a cop, a few team-ups with the Ninja Turtles, a trip to Hell and back, defending the earth from a Martian invasion, and fathering a child with his super-powered girlfriend, Larsen eventually transitions Dragon into an actual superhero, costume and everything, around Issue #40.  In this role, as part of a government-sponsored team of heroes, he gets caught up in inter-dimensional travels and battles with the gods of legend.

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Also, one time Dragon beat a dude with his own severed arm.

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In the mid-90’s there was even a short-lived Savage Dragon cartoon on USA Network, but it’s…not great.

The trade paperbacks make for generally swift reads, but Larsen made the decision early on to let the characters (at least the ones who survive long enough) age in real time.  As a year passes in what we have to settle for as reality, a year also passes in Savage Dragon land.

My Savage Dragon collection has some holes.  In the early 00’s I lost interest for a bit, partially because Larsen’s art style seemed to change slightly in a way I wasn’t thrilled with, and partially because my local shop wasn’t consistent in getting the issues in.

As years passed, the status quo and cast of characters took on drastic changes, Dragon’s origin story was eventually revealed in the Image 10th anniversary book, and Dragon’s son Malcolm grew up and took center stage as the star of the book.  While I’m not as big a fan of Malcolm, the fact that Larsen is able to do this is so satisfying.  I’m collecting the title now, but while I’m current on buying them, I’ve only read up to Issue #208.

For a number of reasons, the book now is not on par with its heyday of the early to mid-90’s, but I admit nostalgia may well be coloring that opinion.  The focus on Malcolm and more space-faring, dimension-hopping adventures aren’t as appealing to me as the semi-grounded beat cop approach of the early days.  Even still, the book is fun as hell.

Erik Larsen also has always been a fan of drawing well-endowed, scantily clad females, and he made no secret of it.  He likes big, bodacious boobies on his babes and giant, rippling muscles on his dudes.  That’s part of the appeal of his art, overly exaggerated proportions on the men and the women. As time went on, more and more sexuality made its way into the book, including some occasional nudity.  There’s been some press lately about Larsen’s decision to start including some, for lack of a better word, pornographic material in the book.  I actually don’t like it, but it’s Erik Larsen’s book, and I whole-heartedly support him doing whatever he wants with it.  He won’t lose me as a reader over it.

If you’re a fan of comics (especially the outrageous 90’s variety) and haven’t ever read The Savage Dragon, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  The early back issues and trade paperbacks are inexpensive and fairly easy to find.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.  If you dig it like I do, consider adding the title to your pull list at your local comic shop. Independent comics always need support.

Comics is a shrinking medium, but 25 years in, Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon has soldiered on.  Here’s to 25 more…

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Ultra Strange-A Sludge Podcast

 

Hey Folks!

Hope you enjoyed the Eightball!  Man, Ryan Carey outdid himself!  Now, we turn our attention to something nastier than Eightball, the Ultraverse’s Sludge!  Emily Scott & ‘ol Dean Compton sat down and had a nice chat about Malibu’s muck monster below NYC!  Take a gander at these pics, and then take a listen to the podcast!

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

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And here you thought we were done —

To be honest, there were times when it looked like you were probably right. Having made it through the entire contents of the recently-published The Complete Eightball Issues 1-18 deluxe hardcover slipcase set, I felt like I was, for all intents and purposes, finished writing about this, my all-time favorite comics series. But as most of you are probably well aware, The Complete Eightball isn’t actually “complete” at all, and given that we (fair enough, I) talked incessantly in previous posts about the four distinct “phases” that the title went through during the often-sporadic course of its publication, it seemed a (low-level) crime to me that I had really only talked about two of them — the “Velvet Glove Phase” and the “Ghost World Phase.” So that leaves two more to go, and even though we’re pressing up hard against, and then surpassing, this website’s remit of covering ’90s comics and ’90s comics only, the simple fact of the matter is that I hate to leave a “job” unfinished, and I distinctly recall that I stated in no uncertain terms that we would, in fact, at least briefly touch upon the other two “phases” of Daniel Clowes’ sprawling masterwork anthology before we called it a day around here. And so, that day has arrived. If you’ve actually been waiting for me to get around to this I sincerely thank you for your patience — and if you’ve forgotten about this series of posts altogether, well, I can’t say as I blame you. In any case, here we are, so let’s get started with the task of getting this finished.

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The third “phase” of Eightball‘s publication and creative history is one we’ll unimaginatively title the “David Boring Phase,” because Clowes’ sole ongoing concern at this time was utilizing his publication to serialize the long-form (well, if you consider three parts “long form” — but they were each lengthier-than-average issues) graphic novel David Boring, The story was issued in annual installments (or thereabouts) beginning in 1998 and concluding in 2000, and to mark the shift in focus the comic also saw another shift in format, this time “graduating” to what’s commonly referred to as “Golden Age size” (think halfway between a standard modern comic and a “proper” magazine) and retaining the heavier cardstock covers and slicker, higher-quality paper that had wormed their way in during what we call “Phase Two” around these parts. It’s an impressive package, physically speaking, but as always, the contents of the comic itself were the real “star of the show” moreso than the slick, glossy production values. Hollywood, it seems to me, could take a lesson from this.

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Speaking of which, there’s a definite ethos of “Old Hollywood” (specifically 1940s Hollywood) in full display in the pages — and especially on the covers — of David Boring, and while the story itself definitely has a modernist — or even a  post-modern — overall “vibe” to it, the “Hollywood noir” influences on Clowes’ art are not only apparent in, but gradually come to dominate, the visual language of the tale as it progresses through Eightball  numbers 19, 20, and 21. On the literary side of the ledger, the “noir” tropes are also on full display, as the entire story is related by means of a very matter-of-fact first-person narrative that could very well have come from the pen of Raymond Chandler himself — if it were about a detective.

But it’s not, of course, It’s about a security guard. A young, affect-less, pathologically nonchalant one, at that, who is simultaneously driven to extremes by his very singular obsessions and, paradoxically, sick to death of them, as well. In a move that almost (and I say “almost” because I highly doubt Clowes read the book I’m about to name-drop) seems ripped directly from the pages of Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s classic Vertigo series Enigma (which was covered in wonderfully exhaustive detail on this very site some time ago, and which is a pretty remarkable read in and of itself), our protagonist is fixated on an old comic book called “The Yellow Streak,” but unlike in Enigma,  in this case he’s got a valid, concrete, Earth-bound reason for being so dangerously enamored with it — his dad used to draw it. If you think he’s OCD about the comic, though, you should see his single-minded determination when it comes to visualizing what he considers to be the feminine ideal. Let’s just say that he has very particular — and in the minds of many, I’m sure, peculiar — tastes, and is more or less resigned (as he is, seemingly, about all things in life) to the idea that the girl of his dreams just well and truly doesn’t exist.

And then, one day, he meets her. And that’s when his problems really begin in earnest.

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Over the course of its three-issue “lifespan,” David Boring sees its central character shot in the head not once but twice, throws him into “winner-take-all” competition with an older suitor for the affections of his dream woman, places him at the mercy of his highly dysfunctional family, kills his oldest friend, and oh yeah — the world is ending, too. There’s very definitely a murder mystery and an almost-murder mystery at the heart of the proceedings here, but it’s buried under so many layers of existential ennui and faux-“hip” nihilism that you can’t help but take your eye off the ball on occasion — and that’s, of course, when you’ll miss out on all sorts of valuable clues. It’s a highly accomplished and complex work that wrestles with a number of weighty themes, but don’t let that dissuade the less than ambitious among you from checking it out if you haven’t, because it’s also wickedly, even sadistically, funny. And it lingers in the mind like nobody’s business — I remember that back when it was coming out, no matter how bogged down with “real life” events I may have been at the time (and I switched jobs a couple of times, bought my first house, and went through a couple of harsh break-ups during the three years it was serialized), my memories of what had happened the in the previous issue (which, as we’ve already discussed, would have come out 12 months — or more — earlier) always came flooding back within the first couple of pages of reading the latest one. That’s pretty damn remarkable when you think about how many comics you read where you seriously can’t even remember what happened  in them last month, let alone last year.

Fortunately for any of you folks out there who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of immersing yourself in David Boring yet, those interminable waits between installments are over and the whole thing’s been collected, in both hardcover and paperback formats, from Pantheon Books. Needless to say, it’s worth tracking down and reading faster than immediately. Some folks may find Clowes’ distancing of himself from his characters (an odd thing to say about a story told in the first person, I know, but trust me on this) again after getting a bit “closer” to them in Ghost World something of a “step back,” I suppose, but I find the clinical, even morose, set-up here to be a fairly accurate mirror-image of Boring himself’s “interior landscape,” so to speak, so all in all I’d say it not only works, it works beautifully. If coldly. But then that’s sort of the whole point.

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Which brings us, finally, to “Phase Four” of Eightball, which we’ll label the “Stand-Alone Graphic Novel Phase.” We’re into 2001 at this point, so I’m only going to touch on this last “phase” briefly. The two works in question that comprise this final stage of the series’ development/evolution, Ice Haven and The Death-Ray, are certainly worthy of far more exhaustive analysis than they’re going to get it my “short shrift” treatment here, but plenty of folks have written plenty of wonderfully astute essays about them already, and I would highly encourage you to hit up Google and check ’em out.

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First, though, I’d encourage you to check out the comics themselves. Eightball #22 mimics the “deluxe Golden Age” format utilized for issues 19-21, and for this reason (as well as, I’m sure, the fact that it’s also been re-issued in both hardcover and paperback by Pantheon — in a curious but effective smaller format this time around) Clowes and Fantagraphics have likewise omitted it from The Complete Eightball. The story here focuses on the mundane tribulations of a small town called — you guessed it — Ice Haven, where the disappearance of a local youth has set off a chain reaction of, well, various reactions, and is told via a purposely-disjointed series of newpsaper-style comic strips that give Clowes the ability to demonstrate his artistic “chops” in a number of different genres and also, I would assume, helped to prevent him from becoming  bored  with, or bogged-down in, the work as it progressed. It’s a conceit that he would refine and improve upon in both The Death-Ray and his later graphic novel Wilson, and while the tone of Ice Haven remains uniformly bleak and somber throughout — as we’ve no doubt come to expect by this point — the shifting visual look certainly ensures that it never actually becomes dull. Of all Clowes’ works this is, in many ways, the “heaviest,” but it also has an ending that could almost be classified as “upbeat,” and the various characters we meet throughout, from a frustrated would-be poet to a gaggle of precocious youths to some seriously twisted “funny animals” are all quite memorable indeed. And no, not even at my most pretentious and overbearing am I all that worried that I even sound, much less think, like Clowes’ fictitious (although based, I’m sure, on any number of folks he’d actually met) comic book critic, Harry Naybors. This comic came out shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and while anyone who read it at the time would probably second my assertion that it added immeasurably to the sense of overwhelming despair and fear for an unknown future that was already thick in the air at the time, it also served to drag readers forcibly back down into the petty grievances and pointless minutiae that constitute so much of daily modern life, and I remember getting the uncannily accurate feeling upon first reading it that no matter how fucked up the world in general was, most people’s lives, including my own, were probably even more fucked up on a “micro” level than anything the “macro” level could throw at us. For some reason, this made me feel better. Go figure.

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Fast-forward , now, to 2004, which is when, much like this series of write-ups, Eightball appeared again, seemingly out of nowhere, and long after most readers had consigned it to the history books.  But it wasn’t just back, it was bigger — the format for issue #23 was seriously oversized (it was also much more expensive, but in this case we can forgive that), and indeed looked very much like some of the gigantic issues of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library that Fantagraphics had published in then-recent years (I also think Clowes’ art style in this one betrays something of a Ware influence at times, as well,  but maybe that’s just me), and for the first (and, as it would turn out, only) time, the book was also printed in full color from cover-to-cover (Ice Haven was almost all full color, it must be said, but some of the strips were presented in a two-tone color scheme). The “stand-alone graphic novel” this time around was The Death-Ray, a decidedly intriguing revisionist superhero tale that definitely takes some cues from the author’s earlier Black Nylon, to be sure, but is much more straightforward in its execution even though, once again, it’s relayed by a series of stylistically-different-to-each-other short-form comic strips. I’ve reviewed The Death-Ray previously — specifically in its later hardcover iteration from Drawn & Quarterly — and so won’t dwell on it much here except to say that you should read it and re-read it and re-read it because it’s a multi-layered work that reveals new details to the careful and considerate eye (and, I suppose, mind) on each pass-through. It was the first comic I picked up when I got home after spending nearly two years abroad and , being somewhat at “loose ends” at the time, I was able to sit and devour it for a couple of days — which may just be what it takes to get even a semi– full grasp on all that’s going on its pages. I would refer any interested parties to check out my full review of the book here , as long as you know going in that I still don’t come close to doing it proper justice : https://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/tfg-comix-month-daniel-clowes-the-death-ray/ .

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And with that, we really are done here. I promise this time. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and I also hope that’s it’s (not to be too fucking grandiose, but) inspired at least a few of you (hell, I’d settle for one of you) to either give Eightball a go for the first time, or to re-visit your back issues and once again appreciate their greatness. I know that I gain new appreciation for the breadth and scope of what Clowes was able to achieve with this series every time I even so much as skim though it for the cliched umpteenth time, and when I sit down to actually read one of the longer-form stories again, or even just a selection of the short-form works, it consistently blows me away. Some of that is down to nostalgia value and always will be, sure, but this became “my comic” in the first place because of how great it was, and it remains “my comic” because of how extraordinarily well it not only “holds up,” but continues to present new ways of looking at it as the years go on. Clowes’ highly-anticipated (and aptly-titled) new graphic novel, Patience, will finally be seeing the light of day this spring, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I end up giving Eightball another complete re-read in the weeks leading up to its release.