The Complete Eightball 1-18
Daniel Clowes (pronounced like wows) is one of the most important comic artists around. In the 1990s, his wildly creative, darkly funny Eightball comics were a must read. Although some might know Clowes primarily from the comic-adapted films Ghost World (2001) and Art School Confidential (2006), in the 1990s those of us in the know read Clowes. Fantagraphics Books, who Clowes recently called “the greatest publisher of comics of all time” (New York Times, May 5, 2015), has been a source of excellent comics and graphic novels for decades, and I’ve long relied on them for great reads the way I used to rely on indie labels like Sub Pop, SST, Touch and Go (and so on), for great music. This September’s release of The Complete Eightball is a more affordable paperback but no less gorgeous version of the now out of print hardcover dual volume slipcased edition (2015). A flurry of press coverage around the release of the hardcover edition waxed ecstatic about the care taken to produce a historical artifact that is rife with vibrant art, extras from Clowes, and a higher price point than many of us could have paid in the 1990s.
In a recent interview (Publishers Weekly, Feb 01, 2016), Clowes describes revisiting Eightball so many years later as “confronting this alien being—this artist who is me but doesn’t feel like me anymore … you can become a completely different person in twenty years.” Rereading Eightball so many years later I experienced a repeated revelation that I am indeed a very different person, and reader, than I was in the 1990s. I don’t have much nostalgia for my life back then, although I do miss the excitement of heading down those steep stairs on East 7th Street into See Hear to discover which new zines, comics, and music was on offer. I don’t miss the weirdness of the male gatekeepers at the NYC comics stores I went to—particularly the sneers I got when I ignored their suggestions and headed for the titles I wanted. Eightball was on my list, as was Peter Bagge’s Hate and, perhaps more predictably, the Hernandez brothers’s Love and Rockets and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I remember one clueless male clerk ringing up my purchases and suggesting I was probably buying Eightball for a boyfriend. As if. And this to a woman whose cat was named after a character in Pepe Moreno’s Rebel and who’d once regularly foregone food to buy the latest 2000 AD.
One of the aspects of Eightball that kept me coming back for more was the compelling strangeness of the serialized and very dark mystery “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron” that appeared in Eightball’s first ten issues. It’s roughly the story of a man, Clay Loudermilk, who sees an intriguing woman in a film, tries to find her, and eventually comes to a bad end. The stark black-and-white panels resonated with me, connecting at the time with my own personal soundscape and visual world of indie music, film, books, and art. I’ve never been as deeply knowledgeable about art as some of my friends, but to quote that overused line, I know what I like when I see it. I liked “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron” enough that I still own two signed pieces by Clowes, and I’m not generally a person who owns art. When Clowes mentioned in a recent interview (Nerdist) the influence on his work of “crazy, surrealist cinema from [Luis] Buñuel” and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, something finally clicked, and the power of those black-and-white panels suddenly made sense. I love when something I knew subliminally is brought to the fore like that! I was lucky enough to have film school friends who dragged me to screenings of anything and everything, and while films by Fuller and Buñuel blurred into those by Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, the prevalence of creepy black-and-white imagery was foundational to my visual experience of Clowes’s work. Unlike the superhero and anti-hero comics and Manga that were also on offer at the time, Clowes presented variety, humor, and a weirdness I understood.
Clowes has also mentioned that Mad Magazine was an influence on his work, and that he wanted to produce comics that were anthologies—not just a single story. But he also wanted to do all of the work himself. This is another reason why Eightball worked/works so well: it’s a bit like a buffet of weirdness all done by one person. Some people love the social commentary in shorts like “On Sports” (baseball bats as penises and so on) and “Ugly Girls,” or the bitterly caustic voice of Lloyd Llewellyn in “I Hate You Deeply” (with brilliant dialogue that at the time often read too much like people I knew), and of course the serialized tale of young comics genius Dan Pussey’s rise and fall. Some of the shorts are laugh out loud funny, others are quickly-turn-the-page disturbing (“My Suicide”), and some short pieces lead to other creative endeavors for Clowes (“Art School Confidential”). As each issue shifts through different story lines the art also changes: black and white is primary, but there’s color too, and stark realistic lines shift into colorful cartoons (see the brutal send up of “Richie Rich” in “Playful Obsession”), and the Jack Chick tract-influenced imagery in “Devil Doll?”.
Of course, some fans of Clowes discovered his work through “Ghost World”—a serialized story that appeared starting in Issue 11 of Eightball after “Like A Velvet Glove…” wrapped up. If you haven’t seen the film based on the comic, “Ghost World” focuses on two cool young women during the summer after they graduate from high school. Clowes uses his sharp dialogue and characterization skills to present their conversations, thoughts, desires, and caustic and often hilarious judgements of others as they go about their lives. Published in 1997 as a graphic novel, Ghost World is Clowes best attempt at presenting female characters as more than objects of desire or derision. And it’s brilliant. The 2001 film (directed by Terry Zwigoff) deservedly won Clowes an Academy Award nomination and if you haven’t seen it, you really should. Thora Birch is charming as Enid Coleslaw and Steve Buscemi is always a joy to watch.
Among the glorious aspects of The Complete Eightball, aside from the deep dive this reissue allows the reader to take, are the notes Clowes adds in sections he calls “Behind the Eightball.” These sections provide insight into his process, influences, and other tidbits on each issue—including details of printing nightmares and disasters. I’m not a comics artist but I found these snippets incredibly interesting—partly because I like to learn things and partly because Clowes uses a welcoming and conversational tone that serves to draw any reader in, as if we were listening to him talk about his art in the least pretentious way possible. And that’s part of the appeal—this isn’t some precious private club that you can’t join if you don’t know the in-jokes and secret passwords. Eightball was important then as it’s important now: because Clowes is telling stories—not superhero, juvenile male fantasy escapist stories, but real stories with real characters living real lives, and maybe they’re weirder than the average reader but they’re people all the same. Clowes is, of course, a consummate artist and anyone wanting to see good comics art should read this book. But he’s also a story teller, and while his images last, seeping into that collage of all the powerful art that’s out there if you look for it, for me it’s the combination of both image and story that gives Eightball its lasting power. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Clowes mentions making Eightball “to see if it somehow transmitted something to another person.” It did and still does.