Hey, friends, concurrent with the long-awaited release of Fantagraphics Books’ astonishing The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 super-deluxe hardcover slipcase boxed set — which you really need to go out and buy as soon as your budget can possibly accommodate its admittedly heavy $119.99 cover price (thank God for online discount retailers, am I right?)—Dean graciously invited me to take a breather from my usual hangouts (trashfilmguru.wordpress.com , unobtainium13.com , sequart.org , and dailygrindhouse.com is where most of my shit can be found if you’re interested) to stop by here and share my thoughts on this, my all-time favorite comics series.
Does that mean it’s the “best” comic ever? Hell no — although a strong case could probably be made in its favor — it simply means that Eightball was my “go-to book,” for all intents and purposes, for its entire 15-year, 23-issue run, and that in a very real sense I grew up right along with it, and matured at a rate vaguely approximate to that of series creator’s Dan Clowes’ evolution as an artist.
Yeah, sure, he’s a good number of years older than I am — and he’s certainly done a heck of a lot more with his life — but it’s truly uncanny how the trajectory of his his “career arc” seemed to hit just the right notes, at just the right times, in relation to “where my head was at” whenever any given new issue would hit the stands (which was usually a bit of mystery in these pre-Diamond Previews days — the book started out, in theory at any rate, on a thrice-yearly scedule, but delays weren’t just common, they became flat-out expected in fairly short order). The series debuted in August of 1989, when I was still in high school, and breathed its last in June of 2004, when I had just returned from spending nearly two years bumming around various parts of the world. Needless to say, a lot happened — both with the comic and myself — in the years in between, and as I sat down to start writing about it, I realized that my own personal memories were so inextricably linked to the material itself that there was pretty much no point trying to separate one from the other and fake some kind of “objective, dispassionate distance.” If that’s the sort of criticism you’re into, more power to ya, but you just ain’t gonna find it here. Eightball is too fucking personal to me. It means too much.
And so, what started out as a simple run-down /recap/appraisal of the series has morphed into a multi-part semi-monstrosity that I hope at least some of you good readers out there will find worth your time. Shit, maybe you’ll even be able to relate to parts of it. I realize that the subject matter is pretty far removed from this site’s unofficial remit of finding something at least semi-worthwhile in the Image, Marvel, etc. steroid-pumped superhero fare that was utterly ubiquitous in the 1990s (and that remains nearly as ubiquitous in the bargain boxes of comics shops today — those that survived the implosion the onslaught of those titles brought on, that is), but what the hell. Eightball was — and still is — proof that there were, in fact, good comics coming out during that decade, as well.
What do I mean, exactly, by “good”? Now there’s a question that you probably only need to consider on a site devoted to ’90s comics! As a semi-useful (I hope, at any rate) shorthand definition let’s just say that I mean books that possessed actual artistic merit that was obvious at the time, as opposed to, let’s face it, the absolute glut of material whose sole worth lies in its nostalgic value (although Clowes’ series certainly has plenty of that going for it when viewed from our present 2015 vantage point). Books that were more concerned with growing up than offering ever-flashier, but ever-more-creatively-stagnant, versions of the same sort of post-modern hyper-mythology that, let’s face it, has been getting bigger,louder, and more brash ever since Jack Kirby invented it, but with increasingly diminishing returns as the years go by absent the heart, humanity, and soul that The King imbued all of his works with. Books that were about real people dealing with real situations in real ways.
Not that Clowes’ subject matter was primarily autobiographical in the same way that Harvey Pekar’s, Chester Brown’s, Joe Matt’s, and Seth’s (to name just a few) was. Granted, there’s a superb autobio piece called “Blue Italian Shit” in Eightball #13, but there’s also a wickedly precise deconstruction of the genre (“Just Another Day”) in issue five. If that seems a bit scattershot or incongruous, rest assured that it is — and that’s one of the very best things about this series. Eightball, you see, is that now-rarest of beasts — the single-creator anthology comic. Adrian Tomine’s still got Optic Nerve going (occasionally) for D+Q, sure, but on the whole, let’s be honest — this is pretty much a dead format. And the comics medium in general is desperately more impoverished for its passing from the scene.
Heck, kids today might be flat-out flabbergasted to discover that once there was a time when all of the creators just mentioned a moment ago, as well as the likes of Julie Doucet, Peter Bagge, Dennis Eichhorn, and the guy who started it all, Robert Crumb, had the freedom to just sit down at their drawing board (or typewriter) and crank out whatever kind of stories they wanted and that, miracle of all miracles, somebody would even publish them ! But those of us who are getting a bit longer in the tooth remember those times well indeed, and while none of these admitted labors of love moved anywhere near the number of copies of Spawn Vs. Youngblood or whatever, they still sold at a clip that most “Big Two” books today would kill for.
Such are the vagaries of time, I guess. There’s no doubt that if Clowes was just getting started today and wanted to attempt something of this sort in the modern marketplace that he’d be confined to the so-called “digital realm,” but goddamnit, I still miss the days when indie creators who were living on the genuine margins still managed to find a way to get this stuff printed.
And has it ever been printed in this new collection! Fantagraphics has gone well and truly “above and beyond” with the physical product here, making exact facsimilie reproductions of each and every issue (no easy task considering that Eightball went through a fair number of format changes during its lifespan) and binding them inside two standard-comic-sized hardcovers that can be fully opened without cracking or damaging the binding in any way. Throw in some new front and back cover on each of the volumes as well as on the slipcase itself, and you’ve got yourself a package that can be looked at and drooled over for hours on end before you even start reading the thing.
It’s all here, folks — not just each and every story and strip, but the letter columns, the product-order pages drawn by Clowes, the whole nine yards. We go from cheap black-and-white newsprint for the first four issues to glossy covers and paper with increased color content in the interior pages to heavy-duty cardstock covers with even better, shinier paper inside. Hell, even the original mistakes are left intact — the most noticeable being when the printer accidentally ran the Ghost World segment in issue 16 in a risible sort of “split pea soup” yellow rather than the “cool blue” of all the other chapters. I hate to name-drop Kirby again in relation to a series that belies almost no influence from him whatsoever, but, as he once famously stated in 1970s DC “house ad” — “Everything is ‘as it was!'” Yes, right down to the “Modern Cartoonist” pamphlet insert included with issue number 18.
You’re alive? On this planet? And you still haven’t bought this thing yet? What — do your kids need to eat or something? And to think — I’m brow-beating you this mercilessly before I’ve even really started in on examining the actual merits of the comics themselves. Shame on me! Have I no class? No empathy? No basic salesmanship skills?
I’m going to plead the fifth on all of the above, but I’ll tell you what — that’s not a bad spot at all to leave things at for this introductory go-’round, but as for what’s still to come — Eightball went through four distinct creative phases, each “anchored” by a central work, and when we dive in with part two of our analysis here we’ll break those down and then get into the nitty-gritty of critical dissection. We’re going to pay a little less attention to “phase three” and “phase four” because they’re not included in this collection (and, in fairness, while “phase three” started in 1998, it concluded in 2000, and “phase four” — apologies to Saul Bass — was entirely post-millenial, so they sort of fall outside of the loose parameters of this site), but for the sake of completeness even they will be addressed in due course. So buckle up! This is gonna be fun, I promise! As Clowes himself would say — welcome to my house of dreams!
Hello, Legions of the Unspoken! I had the chance to have a great conversation with Paul O’ Connor of Longbox Graveyard about the merits of the 70’s and Bronze Age vs. the 90’s! Scroll through some cool covers of both decades, and then you’ll find the podcast! Take a listen and comment with some of your thoughts! Thanks again Paul! Transcript coming soon!
Hello there, Legions of the Unspoken! We hope you enjoyed the Super Blog Team Up and all that goes with it! I am still sifting through the great offerings myself! it’s truly an honor to be a part of something so great! I already cannot wait for four months to pass so we can play with those cats again!
We have decided to dedicate this month, though, to the independent publishers of the 90’s, in what we are calling Indie February! What a cosmic storm of creativity it took to come up with that title! For real, though, we didn’t want to fancy up a title and draw any attention away from the great indie work that we are covering!
I think it might be impossible to explain just how hot comic books were at one time in the 90’s, but to say that the center of the sun was the only thing hotter is not only an appropriate thing to imagine, but I am sure it was literally true.
The state of the industry meant that those of us who were there got to see lots of comic book companies spring up, some for better and some for worse. No matter how bad someone perceived a Dagger Comics to be, though, their existence and the constant explosion of new comic book companies and universes made for an era of excitement. This part of the 90’s felt like anything could happen. We felt like any comic book company could just be the next Image or Valiant, as unlikely as that would be. That feeling, though, is what led my friends and I to constantly scribble ideas or doodle images in our notebooks.
Some companies got involved in creating the atmosphere that predated the era altogether. One of those companies was Malibu Comics, a stalwart publisher that was born as a black and white publisher in the late 1980’s, which was not a great time to attempt to break into comics as a black and white company. They came onto the scene following a glut of black and white material flooding the market in the wake of the huge success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Malibu, however, due to some luck and the hard work of guys like Tom Mason, Chris Ulm, Scott Rosenberg, Dave Olbrich, and many others, kept their operation afloat, and eventually became fairly successful. I knew what Malibu Comics was before I got into comics, although my knowledge of them was fuzzy. Not as fuzzy as the soup my brother made three weeks ago that lurks in the back of my refrigerator trying to kill me, but fuzzy enough that I would only claim cognizance of their existence and no more had I been asked.
Malibu also holds the honorable distinction of being the original publishers of Image Comics. I think Image would have been a success regardless of whether they immediately published themselves or had been with Malibu for the year that they were, but I do feel as though the year that Image spent with Malibu helped ease their transition into the world of comic book publishing. Eventually Image would leave the Malibu umbrella, but Malibu had been preparing, and they gave us the Ultraverse! They let us know the Ultraverse was coming, not just via house ads in trades, Wizard, and other comic book magazines, but they let the whole world know by buying TV commercials!
One of the many things that I find gets glossed over when it comes to the explosion of new universes and imprints in the 90’s gets touched upon in this commercial – how exciting it felt for the fans to get in on the ground floor of a universe. It wasn’t that the DC and Marvel Universes weren’t cool, but for my young friends and I who were into comic books, we wanted something that could “be ours.” We had fun learning the character histories and rivalries within the DC and Marvel Universes, but to be there when it all started was a fun all its own. We didn’t know what would be the next big universe, whether it was Triumphant, Lightning, or a revamped Now! Comics. Malibu seized this feeling with their Ultraverse by telling us directly that not only was this going to be a big deal, but we could get in now. They come across, and I mean this in a complimentary fashion, as a 90’s Marvel Bullpen Bulletins in their self-promotion. To be reading Ultraverse comics would place one in an echelon unreachable for comics fans who were only attempting to belong to a not-so-exclusive club called “EVERYONE.”
Malibu and all the parties involved built a world full of fantastic characters, concepts, and settings that made for a very interesting shared universe. The creators and the company worked hard to keep everything straight, fun, exciting, and most importantly, built to last.
Except one team. One team…was built to die.
The first time I heard or saw anything of The Exiles, the Ultraverse wasn’t around, and Image Comics was still under the Malibu Comics umbrella. I was a huge Protectors fan, and I saw two different house ads in those books for a book called Exiles. This book was seemingly just going to be a part of Malibu. There’s nary a mention of the Ultraverse. There’s nothing about Hardcase, Prime, or even NM-E! There was a house ad with just Exiles, and then there was a promo poster that I feel greatly solidifies the Exiles as having been conceived as properties of Malibu proper.
There in the lower right we see Exiles. There’s Ghoul, Tinsel, and basically everyone in the group but Deadeye. Of course, you don’t know who any of these folks are yet! (Maybe you do; I mean, I dunno if who is reading this right now has read this book or not. I shouldn’t claim such knowledge!) You don’t even know who Amber Hunt is. But here’s a hint as to who she is – she’s sort of a bitch.
Notice how Amber’s word balloon when she says “maybe” has those icicles that everyone knows signify that this lady is unpleasant, in the same way drinking swamp water is unpleasant. She reminds me of that popular girl from high school. You know the one. The one who was attractive, self-centered, and expected you to dote on her because she was attractive and self-centered. If the girl I knew in high school is reading this, I just want to ask her, why? I mean, you hate comic books. You told me so EVERY DAY.
Whew! Guess I need to let it go. Or I need to congratulate Tom Mason, the late Steve Gerber, Chris Ulm, Dave Olbrich, Paul Pelletier, and Ken Branch for doing such a fantastic job on creating Amber Hunt, because that’s pretty much the reaction they are looking for. I guess it is possible I am just an easy audience as well, but I’d rather just call them geniuses. I bet they feel the same way.
I also want to salute them for the arrows showing folks the progression of the panels. Many times, I hear my pals who don’t read comic books bemoan not knowing “how to read” comic books, or complaining that “I don’t understand the order in which the panels are supposed to be read.” Actually, most of my pals end that last sentence in a preposition, but the point is this is an impediment for those who have those issues. And I don’t begrudge the folks who say those things; it can be a legitimate complaint. If I read panels in the wrong order, though, I just re-read them in the proper order.
Now for some action! To make up for biology being boring, Amber Hunt gets a full-on superhero (should I say “Ultra” here?) brawl right outside her high school!
Look, I will be the first to admit that there at least a dozen dudes who look like Deadeye. They had the big gun. They had the cyborg eye. They had the big build. AND I LOVED THEM ALL. First off, just ask Emily, the amazing editor of this site (also my girlfriend and a great contributing author here!) about my obsession with cyborg eyes. You will never believe the amount of time I have spent going on and on to her, my brother, my friends, light poles, non-shady housecats, and anyone/anything who will listen (or just can’t move) about how amazing cybernetic eyes are. They are just amazing, and I want one the very second that technology catches up to give me that. I figure I can just pay for it with the eye I am giving up to have the cybernetic eye implanted. That’s why I have to be first, you see, because regular eyes will be dropping in value the way your NES did when the SNES came out. Point being, cybernetic eyes are great, so Deadeye is great to me.
Also, I only have two regrets about the Sinister Supreme Soviet, and one is that he isn’t covered in hammers, sickles, and CCCP in block letters. The other you will see later. For now though, you have to understand that our heroes and the Sinister Supreme Soviet are both after the same thing – Amber Hunt.
That’s right, the snotty homecoming queen is the object that these forces are fighting over, and she does not really care for it one bit.
I am not normally one to be on the side of a young lady like Amber Hunt, but I will say that she probably deserved better than just being taken away in the middle of an ULTRA fight right outside her biology class. Deadeye has her over his shoulder like he is a Visigoth that just conquered Rome and she is his booty. That doesn’t engender Amber Hunt to trust these folks, and she already wasn’t nice. They should have planned this out better. Then again, perhaps the Sinister Supreme Soviet gave them little choice.
Now that she has been apprehended, it’s time for someone to explain to Amber Hunt exactly what is going on, which is nice, seeing how a cyborg manhandled her. Also, something tells me she probably isn’t as enamored with Deadeye’s cybernetic eye as I am. The Exiles also decided to blindfold Hunt, and then they make sure the first thing she sees is comforting.
Or they make sure the first thing she sees is their teammate Ghoul, who is basically a dead guy who looks like The Creature from the Black Lagoon ate a graveyard salad.
Dr. Deming is sort of going about this all wrong, and that surprises me. Not because she is somehow bereft of potential to be mean, but because she has done this before! How could she be so bad at getting folks acclimated to their new surroundings after being kidnapped? Of course, she did convince Deadeye, Tinsel, and Trax to join up, so perhaps she knows more about this than I do…
Malcolm Kort is the mastermind bad guy in this series, and I love him. He has the big office requisite of the corporate villains of the late 80’s and early 90’s. I also approve his hair as being delightfully appropriate for a corporate villain. However, I do disapprove of one thing he does. Remember when I told you that there was only one thing I regretted about the Sinister Supreme Soviet? That regret is that he is gone so quickly.
The Exiles have a purpose though, and said purpose isn’t just stopping sleazeball supreme Malcolm Kort; they are sort of like the X-Men, in that they want to find youngsters with this Theta Virus and train them to use and control their power. That’s what the Beta Team Tinsel was talking about is doing. Sadly enough, though, Malcolm Kort is doing the same thing. Of course, when he has his goons kidnap kids with the Theta Virus, they are kind enough to introduce themselves.
The kid is named Timothy Halloran, and as you can see, he is in big trouble. Bloodbath is truly not be messed with. I recall when I got this issue back in the day, I was so upset because they had taken my name. I had a villain named Bloodbath, and he was so much cooler, better, and (insert the hyperbolic and egotistical self-inflation of a 14-year old here) than what this guy was. Incidentally, he was also the first Ultraverse card I ever got, so I know that Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich, and the rest of the gang basically just did this to spite me. There’s no denying it, fellas!
Timothy was just taking out the trash and minding his own business when all this started. Things don’t get better when the Theta Team turns up because, as you will see as we keep going in this series, the Exiles don’t really know what they are doing, and it costs everyone. It costs the people they try to help, the people they try to stop, and ultimately it will cost the Exiles.
In the meantime, this Theta Team rides in on cool skycycles and attempts to save Timothy.
As has already been stated, the Exiles just do not know what they are doing. Take Mustang. He has a cool electrocution style power, but he just has no clue how or when to use it. He and Catapult (who is good at throwing things) comprise the Beta Team taking on Bloodbath and Bruut, and they fail in the same way that the Arch Deluxe failed. Spectacularly.
I love the subtext of the comic book, in that we rarely see the character talking about their failures, but instead, we see them as headstrong. They don’t know how bad they are sometimes, and they don’t know that they don’t know. That’s the dangerous part. In our world, which (sadly) has a dearth of cyborgs and supreme Soviet mercenaries to kill us, a lack of knowledge can still be insanely dangerous and/or fatal. In the Ultraverse, it can be even worse, because lack of knowledge in conjunction with power means innocents get hurt.
See that? They just proved how hapless they are, and their only thought is to go and re-tackle the guy who just manipulated them into killing an innocent. Not just any innocent, but the MOTHER of the kid they were sent here to, well, kidnap.
Bless their hearts.
Their ineptitude does not stop them from sporting a fun pose on a badass cover to #2. I am a sucker for dynamic poses. It’s the 90’s kid in me! Hell, it’s just the cool kid in me! I never get why folks hate dynamic poses so much. I especially like it when people tell me “no one stands like that”. Of course they don’t. That’s sort of why I am reading a superhero comic book, bro, y’know, so I can see THE IMPOSSIBLE.
The Exiles continue down their path of ineptness, and it is comically predictable. These guys are a secret paramilitary group who were just involved in major property damage and a murder, and yet they seem surprised when San Diego’s finest arrive on the scene to investigate what is going on.
Also, notice Catapult’s sort of blase attitude about the fact that Timothy’s mother was just killed due to their carelessness. Again, we are seeing little signs that while these guys have power, they do not have what it takes to be heroes. That saddens me, but it also makes perfect sense. I have always enjoyed the Guy Gardner character, and one of the primary reasons for that is because he is one of the few super nice/super mean people to ever get super powers. Even more rare, though, is the person who never really learns to use their power properly, and truth be told, that person would be ubiquitous in a place like the Ultraverse. Even with the small number of folks with super powers there, they would almost all certainly have to go through a period where they didn’t know how to use their super powers. Sort of like how when you were a teenager and you didn’t know how to use your best features. Later you learned, but man, you were annoying until then! Now imagine being annoying and deadly! Now imagine being annoying, deadly, and blase about the impact you have. You’d have Catapult, or me in high school. He and I are sort of similar, although my antics usually drew fewer cops AND caused fewer deaths.
Bloodbath has absconded, but Bruut now gets to show what he can do, which is mostly getting shot.
Bruut is too much for the SDPD, but with the help of Catapult and Mustang (and possibly 22178921789789 bullets), the SDPD manages to stave off Bruut, who then decides to take a nap on top of a tractor trailer, which is something I have always wanted to do. While it seems dangerous, it also sounds like fun to me. I am a man of simple tastes.
Dr. Deming finally gets around to explaining exactly what is going on to Amber Hunt. Dr. Deming fascinates me. I like her look, and I also enjoy her self-awareness. I am pretty sure that may be her actual super power. Her other super power may be that she can’t explain anything well, despite being a scientist. We all know that kind of person, and Gerber does a great job of conveying that personality type.
We learn a little bit more about Theta Virus as well. I wonder how some folks would handle that. There’s a lady in my family who constantly whines about being ill all of the time. If she has the flu, she would complain to the point where you’d think that she had Ebola. If she actually got Ebola, she’d tell you she had cosmic ringworm syndrome or something worse than Ebola, which since I could not imagine anything worse, I had to make up a disease. If someone did have cosmic ringworm syndrome, I bet I could do a better job of telling them than Dr. Deming.
I also want to give R.Phipps a great deal of praise for making each character have great physical personality. Their expressions are wonderful, and they also look their part. Dr. Deming looks like an intelligent lady who is in over her head. Amber Hunt looks like a spoiled brat. Deadeye looks like a guy who would get right to the heart of the matter of why life is rather tough for the Exiles in one sentence!
Malcolm Kort and his cohort have Timothy captured, and there’s a sort of odd analogue going on here, in that Dr. Deming is much more opaque about giving Amber information, but other than the initial kidnapping, has more or less been nice to Amber. I guess there was also that whole showing her Ghoul right as Amber was blindfolded. There’s also this:
So other than those three things, she’s been nice to Amber Hunt. Well, nice may be too strong of a word, but at least she did not expose her to insane indoctrination techniques as Malcolm Kort does, as though he were attempting to become the Jim Jones of the Ultraverse.
It really seems as though the folks interested in the Theta Virus and the people who have contracted it have made plans to go about everything the exact wrong way. I will take Deming’s methods over Kort’s, because she does seem to have a better heart, but also because she has Deadeye on her team. Kort’s stature diminishes in my eyes as well due to the late, great Sinister Supreme Soviet. If there were a way to play Sarah MacLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” here, then I would do so. Wait, there’s totally a way to do that!
The Exiles head off on a mission to rescue Timothy, which I will cover in Part Two of this entry. I also have an interview lined up with Tom Mason in regards to Exiles that you will be seeing in the next 10 days or so! Indie February keeps heating up as well, when Emily Scott brings you Satan’s Six later this week! Enjoy, and we will see you Legions around here again for Part Two!