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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/ .
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.