Category Archives: 90s Indy Stuff

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

134012-7153-110380-1-eightball

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.

02.Eightball

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.”

clowes

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.”

clowes_eightball15

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.

 

Advertisements

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

GhostWorld2

 

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.

EB11CoverWeb

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.

43722-7153-51101-1-eightball

 

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.

tumblr_inline_n9achejotx1s2tgut

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.

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

1614593-p00001

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.”

Clowes-Pussey-Bunkbeds-for-web

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.

pusseynosuperheroes

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.

F3F9C7C2-ABCF-401D-91A09E1F7E0B2115

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!