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 .
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.
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.
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!