The Essential Daniel Clowes

Fantagraphics releases a monster collection of ‘Eightball,’ the groundbreaking indie comic

The recently-published The Complete Eightball 1-18 is a monster 528-page trade paperback collection that includes every page of the first eighteen issues of the ground-breaking and influential alternative comic with its original B&W and color artwork, as well as each issue’s letters page, product advertising, and often-enticing cover artwork. Fantagraphics has republished various stories from Eightball as stand-alone graphic novels through the years, and published a now out-of-print two-volume hardback collection of the series in 2015. But writer and artist Daniel Clowes considers these eighteen issues, which Fantagraphics Books published from 1989 to 1997, as the comic’s true run. Later issues, in a larger, magazine-sized format, sit outside of the anthology’s ‘continuum.’Eightball

Clowes began his professional career in 1985 with Cracked, the less-feted Mad magazine knock-off, contributing cartoons under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as his own name, until 1989. During the same time period, Clowes drew the first comic to feature his recurring character Lloyd Lewellyn, a hard-boiled detective type who experiences humorous adventures in a 1950s-styled world influenced by Robert Williams’ “lowbrow” art style. He sent his first Lewellyn story to Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, and the Hernandez Brothers published it in their Love and Rockets magazine. This led to Fantagraphics subsequently publishing six magazine-sized B&W issues of Lloyd Lewellyn in 1986 and ’87, with all of Clowes’ LL stories later republished in graphic novel form in 1993 as #$@&!: The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection.

Eightball was Clowes’ next project, a solo comics anthology that featured several serialized stories such the surreal “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron,” “Ghost World,” “Pussey,” and “Art School Confidential” alongside cartoon strips and single-issue rants like “I Hate You Deeply” and “Why I Hate Christians,” as well as a handful of new Lloyd Lewellyn stories.

Clowes continued Eightball through 2004 and issue #23, but abandoned the anthology format with issue #19 to focus either on multi-issue stories like “David Boring” or a single-issue length story like “Ice Haven.” Clowes has a fluid but distinctive illustration style; whereas the more realistic art he created for ongoing stories like “Ghost World” and “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron” display what could come closest to being called a ‘trademark’ Clowes style, he’s equally adept at more cartoony, “funny animal” styled art as in the standalone story “Chicago,” a visual ode to his hometown, or the brilliant “Playful Obsession,” a tribute to–and parody of–the Harvey comics characters like Richie Rich that he grew up with.

The cornerstone stories of Eightball are, of course, the eerie, oddball comics noir of “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron” (running from issue #1 to #10) and the “best friends” story of “Ghost World.” The former is a dark-hued tale of paranoia, religious cults, sexual fetishism and, ultimately, bloodless violence. The story’s protagonist, Clay, is ostensibly searching for his lost wife after catching a glimpse of her in a porno film, and his sojourn drops him into a disturbing wonderland of adventure and perils inspired by Clowes’ dreams.

The story is, indeed, imbued with a dreamlike logic, and is “meta” as hell, with characters and references to songs by the Shaggs and R.E.M.; parodies of corporate logos and conspiracy theories; a Manson-like murder cult; and even hints of the Cthulhu mythos. It’s a surreal, albeit heady tale that inspired an official soundtrack album by Victor Banana (better known as cartoonist Tim Hensley).

Clowes parodies his own work with the clever issue #11 story “Velvet Glove,” which uses his previous story as a reference point in the tale of a movie based on “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron,” a shabbily-made commercial bomb that shares little with the original story and includes disparate elements of the hard-boiled detective and science-fiction genres. Clowes even appears as himself in the story, talking with ignorant Hollywood producers sniffing around for an easy dollar. By contrast, “Ghost World” (which ran from issue #11 through #18) is a story of interpersonal relationships that is as realistic as “Velvet Glove” is absurd. “Ghost World” follows the daily lives of fictional high school grads Enid and Rebecca in the late 1990s, both young women unmoored from “straight” society, alienated, witty, pseudo-intellectual, precocious, and cynical beyond their years.

Enid and Rebecca share relationship woes as they roam about their unnamed hometown, ridiculing pop culture and musing on the lives of people they run across even while they question their own futures. Clowes fills the book with a colorful supporting cast, like the soft-spoken Josh, with whom both girls are romantically infatuated; former classmate Melorra; and antagonist John Ellis, a caricature of the 1990s-era zine publisher obsessed with serial killers, circus freaks, and firearms. “Ghost World” is an endearing and insightful look through the window of adolescence, sometimes overly dark and disconcerting as the characters explore the petty resentments of friendship and the paradoxes of modern life. The comic’s critical and commercial success led to a 2001 movie adaptation by filmmaker Terry Zwigoff with an Academy Award-nominated screenplay written with Clowes and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi.

Both “Velvet Glove” and “Ghost World” are drawn in Clowes’ immaculate B&W ink on paper technique, with the latter story distinguished by Clowes’ use of pale blue coloring to bathe the panels in “ghostly” blue light. There are a lot of other entertaining stories in Eightball aside from the better-known, serialized fare. The recurring stories of comics artist Dan Pussey lean into, and satirize comics mythology, with the used-and-abused Pussey making pennies on his best-selling comics while the wily Dr. Infinity–a stand-in for every comics mogul from Victor Fox to Martin Goodman and Harry Donenfeld –rakes in the cash. “Devil Doll” is a parody of the religious tracts of Jack Chick, a hipster cultural touchstone in his own right, while “Marooned On A Desert Island With the People On The Subway” is a fantastical daydream reverie about characters and stereotypes experienced during a train ride.

The Complete Eightball 1-18 includes a copy of the mini-tract Modern Cartoonist, which Clowes originally included with issue #18. Featuring hand-lettered essays, Modern Cartoonist offers Clowes’ thoughts on trends in comics (“The Current Situation”), the artistic freedom of the comics medium (“So, Why Comics?”), the trials and tribulations of cartooning (“To The Young Cartoonist”), and the prospects of cartooning (“The Future And Beyond”). All are well-written and insightful, and Clowes’ is often prescient in his predictions of the art and future of comics. Clowes used latter-day issues of Eightball to perfect his long-form storytelling. Since ending his long-running comics anthology, Clowes has produced full-length graphic novels like Mister Wonderful (2011), The Death Ray (2011), and Patience (2016) as well as working on several movie screenplays. His various graphic novels have earned the artist numerous accolades, including several Harvey and Eisner Awards.

Clowes made his bones during the golden age of alternative comics in the 1990s, a field that included fellow talents Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (Love and Rockets), Jeff Smith (Bone), Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library), and Peter Bagge (Hate), among many others. Influenced by underground comix, Mad magazine, mainstream comic artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and alternative comics anthologies like Art Spiegelman’s Raw and Robert Crumb’s Weirdo, Clowes and his colleagues found creative freedom on the independent fringe of comics publishing.

With Eightball, Clowes could be self-effacing, critical, satirical, experimental, crude, sexy, and serious, sometimes all within the same story. By eschewing (and frequently lampooning) the commerciality and stereotypes of mainstream comics, Clowes found enduring success with Eightball which, on the whole, is as entertaining, thought-provoking, genre-busting, and influential as Mad magazine, Zap Comix, and National Lampoon were in their day.

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

Rev. Keith A. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with nearly 50 years of experience writing about music, the media, comics and pop culture for publications like Rock and Roll Globe, Blues Music magazine, and Blurt and is the author of nearly two dozen books.

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