(Published in OC WEEKLY… uh, sometime in the ’90s. Probably ’97 or so, around the same time that Clowes had one of the Ghost World girls declare that they hated anybody who could ever write for an alternative newsweekly. Sigh… I still love you, ladies!)
Picture this: A strange invader – part human, part mid-’50s tin-toy – has just parked his rocketship above the streets of a gray urban metropolis and climbed down a rope ladder. Clearly, he does not come in peace. With one metal claw he beats upon a little war-drum mounted to his belly, with his other claw he brandishes a pistol firing thick spurts of a pink, mutagenic goo vaguely resembling Pepto Bismol. This slimy stuff has already transformed much of the city’s population into grotesque, unhappy-looking freaks, and the homely, inexplicably naked nuclear family cowering in the scene’s foreground are clearly the next in line for transmogrification. All would be lost, but a green ray has just blasted a hole in the stunned spaceman’s groin. The ray is being fired from outside the scene, from just about exactly where we’re standing. The fate of the world, it would seem, rests in our hands. A mysterious apparition hovering over the action complicates things still further: it’s the bland face of a bald, bearded, bespectacled older gentleman who bears a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud. He holds something in his hands that looks like a remote-control device. Does he control the killer spaceman? Or is he us, firing the ray that saves the day?
This scene of cartoon carnage graces the cover of Eightball #18, the latest issue of an amazing periodical from cartoonist Dan Clowes, and it serves as an interesting contrast to Clowes’ earlier work. Clowes first made a splash on the comics scene in the late ’80s with the debut of Lloyd Llewellen, a campy, seriously retro comic that chronicled the adventures of the book’s titular character, an early ’60s swinger who was constantly getting entangled in ginchy sci-fi adventures involving aliens and beatniks and curvy dames with big, B-52-style bouffants. The book was one long, snide, adolescent giggle, and when it folded in 1988 Clowes’ small cult of fans must have assumed he’d soon be back with more of the same.
But with the publication of the first issue of Eightball in 1989, it was immediately clear Clowes’ work had undergone a major evolution. Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, the saga Clowes began in issue #1, had a truly nightmarish quality. Velvet Glove began just as Twin Peaks was hitting it big, and the articles comparing Velvet Glove to Lynch’s work were endless. Indeed, there were parallels to be drawn – Clay Loudermilk, Velvet Gloves’ feckless protagonist, lives in an irrational, violent, vaguely Eraserhead-like America where monster births and dismemberment are treated as little more than creepy inconveniences – but while the Lynch of the early ’90s was an artist in rapid decline, Clowes’ talent was just beginning to fully blossom.
Early issues of Eightball featured entertaining but relatively lightweight satirical pieces that might have been more at home in the pages of Lloyd Llewellen. In fact, Lloyd actually starred in a couple of them before Clowes dropped the character for good. The best of these pieces was probably the Dan Pussey stories, which took a long, unblinking look at the absurdities of the comic book industry and its artistic domination by books about super-powered guys in their underwear. (In an interview, Clowes once noted that there’s hardly anything “natural” about the marriage of superheroes and comic books: “What if every novel or film was about clowns who took drugs? It would be just about as strange.”) Clowes later admitted that poor Dan Pussey, the terminally repressed superhero artist who starred in these stories, was a nightmare projection of the geeky hack that he himself nearly became, which perhaps explains the passion, almost hysteria, of these strips’ attacks on the comics industry’s stagnant and polluted “mainstream”.
Once Velvet Glove and the Dan Pussey stories were completed, Clowes’ work underwent yet another startling evolution, as the artist ditched most of the wise-guy attitude that had made his name. Caricature, the main story in Eightball #15, tells the heartbreaking tale of Mal Rosen, a self-deluding soul who travels the land, eking out a meager existence drawing caricatures at county fairs. He’s managed to get by for years without realizing just how desperately lonely and unfulfilled he is, until one day when he meets Theda, a troubled teenaged girl with whom he strikes up an ambiguous friendship. As a recovering caricature artist myself I can say that Clowes gets every miserable detail of the profession exactly right, right down to those awful, all-too-frequent moments when a family plops their literally deformed, developmentally disabled child in your chair and expects you to make the kid look “funny”. The relationship between Mal and Theda feels just as true. Few stories in any medium, and none that I can think of in the tragically underused medium of comics, have handled loneliness and narrowly missed connections with such depth and grace.
As good as Caricature was, it was merely a dry run for Ghost World, a series of interrelated but not exactly serial stories that draws to a close in Eightball #18. Ghost World follows Becky and Enid, two bright, aimless, would-be hipster teens who may or may not be in love with each other. They spend their days watching crappy TV, rummaging through boxes of junk in thrift-store bargain basements and imagining elaborate biographies for the various weirdoes they spot on the street, until the day comes when Enid has to decide whether or not she’s going away to college. This new development puts their friendship to the test, and the fear of losing each other eventually drives both girls to desperate, alarmingly petty behavior.
In Ghost World, Clowes displays such skill that he makes a good case for the argument he puts forth in the Modern Cartoonist booklet included in Eightball #18: “(Comics) are in a sense the ultimate domain of the artist who seeks to wield absolute control over his imagery. Novels are the work of one individual but they require visual collaboration on the part of the reader. Film is by its nature a collaborative endeavor. Comics offer the creator a chance to control the specifics of his world in both abstract and literal terms.”
The pity of it is that so few comics creators take advantage of this absolute control. Clowes does, and in the pages of Eightball he creates work that is the equal of art being done in any medium today.