Tag Archives: Art School Confidential

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.

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!