Tag Archives: Robert Crumb

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

 

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Dainel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence : Part Two

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What were your comics reading habits like in 1989? I was still in high school, but man — was I ever in the mood for something different. At that point, Watchmen was hardly the distant memory it seems today and the reverberations of what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had done were still being felt far and wide across the mainstream super-hero landscape. Yes, the superficial trappings of that already-seminal-by-then  work had been effectively cheapened and co-opted by “The Big Two” almost across the board — most books were suddenly much “darker” and “more realistic” — but by and large it seemed like DC and Marvel were in the early stages of trying to figure out “okay, where do we go from here?” now that their entire formula had been so successfully deconstructed right in front of everyone.

I would argue, in fact, that they’re still trying to answer that question some three decades later. Grant Morrison was doing his level best to respond to it in Animal Man (and would soon do the same with Doom Patrol),  while Neil Gaiman was successfully building upon the classical- literature foundations of Moore’s prose in the pages of The Sadman, but for the most part it seemed like no one was willing to pick up the gauntlet Moore and Gibbons had thrown down. Vertigo was still just a pipe dream in Karen Berger’s mind and the publishers still had nothing like a firm grasp on what a “mature readers” comic really meant even though they’d just published one that, essentially, blew the doors open and should have resulted in a veritable onslaught of genuinely good and interesting titles.

Rather than embrace this new reality fully, though, DC and Marvel opted to do what they pretty much always do — batten down the hatches, keep pumping out more of the exact same shit they’ve been doing for decades, and hope to dumb everybody back down to the point where predictable dross seems normal. Sadly, it worked — and it continues working to this day.

Fortunately, there was a burgeoning “alternative” comics scene that started to blossom in the early ’80s,  thanks in large parts to the efforts of brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (and, early on, third sibling Mario) in the pages of their magnificent Love And Rockets, and these guys felt no need to tap into the current zeitgeist of superhero comics because, well — they just plain didn’t give a fuck. Soon, their ranks were buttressed by the likes of former Weirdo editor Peter Bagge, who unleashed his first “solo” series, Neat Stuff, in the middle part of the decade,  and one Daniel Clowes, whose early “professional” work saw print in Weirdo (among other places —including, would’ja believe, Cracked, during the legendary editorship of Mort Todd). This new generation of “non-mainstream” cartoonists was far more influenced by the likes of Robert Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, as well as by Kim Deitch, Mary Fleener, S. Clay Wilson, and assorted other underground luminaries, than they were by, say, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, or any of the other (sorry, but it’s true) second-rate, highly-derivative superhero comics creators of their youth. You know who I’m talking about — the guys who drove the bus into the ditch that Moore and Gibbons had just tried to pull out of.

Weirdo gave these artists and others (like Clowes’ good friend, the criminally-underappreciated Rick Altergott) the chance to rub elbows, metaphorically speaking, with a number of the great just-referenced underground cartoonists of years past  by putting all their work side-by-side in the same magazine, but by the late ’80s many were certainly looking to spread their own wings a bit further than a standard multi-creator anthology series would allow. The Bradley family had proven to be popular characters in Neat Stuff, and Bagge soon sent eldest brother Buddy off on his own to join (and in some cases to invent significant parts of) the nascent “Generation X” or “slacker” scene just underway in Seattle in his own solo book, Hate, while Clowes created Lloyd Llewellyn, a magazine-sized series starring a perpetually-disinterested, “too-cool-for-school,” proto-aging-hipster named — well, you guessed it.

It went just about nowhere. After seven issues its publisher, Fantagraphics Books (pretty much the “go-to” publishing house for independent cartoonists at the time, with Drawn + Quarterly still a few years away from bursting onto the scene), lowered the boom on poor old Lloyd citing poor sales, but head honchos Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, who had maintained a somewhat tight editorial control over the just-failed series, were amenable to giving their writer/artist more free reign with his next project. He’d played things their way and it didn’t work. What harm could there be in trying things his way this time?. Forget commercial considerations, Clowes figured, they’re hardly relevant in the world of marginally-selling indie comics, anyway (or at least they weren’t at the time). If he was only going to get one more crack at this whole thing,he was going to do what he really wanted to do .

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What he really wanted to do, as it turns out, made its debut in Eightball #1, cover-dated August of 1989, and it was a book with no real set “format” — just a loose collection of stories that were in no way affiliated with each other apart from coming from the same mind and pencil (and, okay, pen). Clowes’ intentions were clear — he’d  be making it up as he went along, following his own muse, and the publishers could either take it or leave it.

They took it, and we should all be damn glad they did. In the first issue alone we got the opening salvo of the surreal David Lynch-ian nightmare that was “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron,”  we met uber-stereotypical “young hotshot” comics creator Dan Pussey (and his boss, an octogenarian sleazeball named Dr. Infinity who was obviously based on Stan Lee), we were treated to the Jack T. Chick-on-crack religious fanatacism of “Devil Doll?” (later reprinted in  traditional tract format for inclusion inside a Jello Biafra spoken word album), and hey — Lloyd Llewellyn even made a brief return appearance to help bridge the gap.

It was amazing. It was astonishing. It was every other time-worn superlative my brain can’t think of right now. And you know what? It still is.

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Oh, sure, Clowes didn’t invent the single-creator anthology by a long shot — there were, in fact, several others running at the time — but he absolutely got the balance exactly right here. The long-form narrative grounds the book and ensures readers will be back for more. The shorter works take aim at easy and popular targets (Christian fundamentalists, the comic book industry) with as much flair and panache as they do well-deserved venom. Toss in a couple of one-or-two-page gag strips to keep the old-school underground fans happy (I particularly loved the visual adaptations of interviews with nursing home patients that Clowes cobbled together from David Greenberger’s Duplex Planet ‘zine), and you’ve got a winner.

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Okay, make that a modest winner. Eightball #1 wasn’t exactly the talk of the comics world when it hit, but it sold out its initial run of something like 5,000 copies and went back to press no less than five times. Good luck finding a first printing at anything like a reasonable price these days (still got mine! Hah!) No earth-shaking tremors reverberated out of it, by any means, but   it definitely went some way towards cementing the idea that, while the mainstream was definitely moribund on the whole, there were interesting things happening in comics at the margins. And they were about to get exponentially more interesting pretty quickly.

I talked in our first segment about the four creative “phases” Eightball went through in its 15-year history, and “phase one” began right here. For lack of a better term we’ll call if the “Velvet Glove Phase,” and we’ll take a nice, long look at the story that was at the heart of it in our next segment. Hope to see you all back here then!

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

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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.

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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.tumblr_inline_nk2y3zR42O1s2tgut

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.

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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.

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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!