When Daniel Clowes’
David Boring was published in 2000, it looked for a while as if the graphic novel had finally shed the stigma of “comic book” and broken out onto the high plains of literature. Pantheon Press, a Random House imprint, cast its PR net wide, hauling in widespread raves for Clowes’ hallucinatory first-person biography of a passive, self-centered loner looking for the perfect woman while the world around him crumbles toward mundane apocalypse.
In retrospect, 2000—which also saw the publication of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan—looks like the high-water mark for serious graphic narrative in the U.S. The Japanese still consume manga by the millions, and European writers and artists still manage to sell a substantial number of graphic titles in the broader literary marketplace. But in America, the genre is still stuck with the rap that has always haunted it. Here, as Portland critic Douglas Wolk once put it, the difference between graphic novel and comic book is the binding.
Well, what the hell. David Boring is still a masterpiece, as spooky and gut-troubling as The Turn of the Screw, and Clowes, now in his mid-50s, remains the one to beat among living cartoonists. (There: I’ve said it.) With R. Crumb alive and well but living in Provence and Art Spiegelman apparently content with teaching and recycling his early work (Maus: 1991; Metamaus: 2011), Clowes is the Man. And as if to nail that title down, we now have a two-volume hardcover edition of The Complete Eightball 1–18 (Fantagraphics, $120), which originally ran from 1989–2004. It’s an early but by no means immature work, establishing Clowes as perhaps the best exemplar extant of the underground-comic sensibility of the late 20th century.
Fantagraphics’ numbering is a sneaky way of admitting that the final five installments of the comic aren’t included. Clowes, in a prefatory note to the this collection, makes the sound point that the missing items—including David Boring, Ice Haven, and The Death Ray—are available as separate titles. He further advises that “collectors with OCD should seek treatment rather than wait for some future volume that contains these other five issues.”
Fair enough. On their own, the first 18 Eightballs provide an oeuvre so caloric that even comix gluttons are unlikely to read even a single issue straight through. But patience is rewarded. Eightball is not just a record of one obsessive’s tussle with the comics medium, but a kind of history of that medium as it comes to maturity.
“Underground Comics” as a genre have surprisingly deep roots. I still remember the shock of seeing “Lena the Hyena” when she appeared in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner newspaper strip in 1946. Billed as the world’s ugliest woman, Lena offended as many people as she amused, even in those pre-feminist days. But she inspired widespread emulation among the ranks of young males occupying the back rows of junior-high classes. For at least my own pre-college years, it was stock recess entertainment to exchange, to the accompaniment of Beavis and Butthead-like snickers and snuffles, the grossest possible scrawls of classmates and imaginary gargoyles like Lena.
MAD first appeared as a color comic in 1952 and matured (is that the word?) into a black-and-white monthly in 1955, inspiring even more adolescent emulation. When the sex-drugs-rock-’n’-roll revolution hit, “underground newspapers” that celebrated the counterculture welcomed such graphics—psychedelic, political, and sometimes obscene.
Reading through Eightball today is something like re-experiencing the history of the ensuing decades: watching the idealism and enthusiasm of the antiwar and pro-drugs movements sag into apathy and cynicism; experiencing again the inward-turning and vainly questioning mood that infiltrated our increasingly commercialized and regimented popular culture.
Three of the four stories in the first issue of Eightball feature white male protagonists, legally of age but of dubious maturity. One is a passive victim of nightmare realities in Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron; another a wise-ass pussy-chaser hexed by a rubber-novelty salesman; the third a pimply nerd taking his first steps into the hell of commercial comic-book publication. All three serve as devices for self-examination. Clowes himself is never far from the figures he uses to explore personal fetishes and nightmares, scarifying second thoughts about his own persona, and his more-than-ambivalent feelings about the work he finds himself doing.
These shape-shifting avatars and their helpless struggle to survive continue to dominate the pages of Eightball throughout its run. Strangely, they never become predictable or tiresome. They are saturated with a kind of desperate truth. The masks they put on and take off over the years are rendered with an ever-increasing deftness of style and variety of graphic treatments: from raucous kid-comix vulgarity to Charles Burns-like gothic to the simplest line-drawn sequences. All demand to be read at a pace determined by their creator.
For me, and for many others, the apex of Clowes’ comic art came with Ghost World, which began in Eightball #11. Unlike virtually all the other content, the series is almost relentlessly realistic. It’s the story of two adolescent girls and their intense and conflicted attachment: Enid and Rebecca don’t have much in common but their fascinated disgust with the world around them. They spend their time dishing, quarreling, making up, daring each other, confiding in each other.
I don’t know how Clowes created the dialogues between Enid and Rebecca that constitute virtually the entire text of Ghost World. They seem so real, so right-off-the-tape, that they make the dialogue in most movie and TV drama sound as artificial as Gummi Bears. Someone who “heard” that dialogue was Terry Zwigoff, whose 1994 Crumb was widely regarded as the best documentary film by far of that year. Zwigoff and Clowes later collaborated on an excellent film adaptation of Ghost World that premiered at SIFF 2001.
Given the hefty price tag Fantagraphics wants for this 560-page box set, you can always ask Clowes to autograph one of your dog-eared originals of Eightball or your Ghost World DVD. He probably won’t be offended. Just don’t ask him about those last five issues.
FANTAGRAPHICS BOOKSTORE & GALLERY 1201 S. Vale St., 658-0110, fantagraphics.com. Free. 6–8 p.m. Sat., April 18.