Book Review: Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball”

By Henry Dykstal

If one were to make a list of what might be called “secret architects of pop culture”—figures whose names are unknown to most but their work, as well as what they influenced instantly recognizable—the architect of Generation X would almost certainly be Daniel Clowes, screenwriter, designer, and most importantly, comics artist.

From his time designing covers for bands on legendary indie label Sub Pop to writing the screenplay for “Ghost World” alongside Terry Zwigoff, Clowes is—despite his reluctance to be called such—a key figure in the introduction of irony and sarcasm to mainstream culture, as well as a fantastic writer and artist. While his work has been championed by “The New Yorker” and The Criterion Collection, Clowes’ early comic work is for the most part inaccessible to the general public simply because many of his stories were serialized in an anthology format, in his personal triannual “Eightball” magazine. While several of those stories have been collected into individual volumes, the full experience of reading Clowes in the original context has been lost.

Until now. This year on “Eightball”’s 25th anniversary, Fantagraphics has published the 18 issues that made up the original run of the series—issues 19-23 are a special case, each being their own graphic novel. Everything is in place here, from the original covers to the fake ads Clowes placed in between stories, to the letters column at the back of each issue—issue 3 features his recounting of getting recordings of people’s prank calls for a contest. It’s quite funny.

Read in this collected anthology form, “Eightball” takes on the properties of an alternate universe, one where you can get legal advice in a bathroom, get your eye lockets cleaned by prawns, have a child write a blockbuster movie for you and many more strange, disturbing and hilarious things.

But what makes “Eightball” great is the stories. While the Dan Pussey stories—about a comics artist who is continually humiliated by the world—and the various shorts are definitely worth your time and attention, it is the two long serials, “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron” and “Ghost World,” that fully show off Clowes’ prodigious skills. The former is the greatest David Lynch/Alejandro Jodorowsky movie never made, a deeply sad and surreal saga of a man searching for the origin of a mysterious blue movie his ex-wife appears in, a tale that involves ancient folk ballads, a conspiracy involving the world’s first cartoon character, and Tina, a fishgirl who will break your heart from the first panel. The latter, the basis for Clowes and Zwigoff’s film, is like a piano coda at the end of a symphony; a story in black, white and blue about the disintegration of the friendship of two teenage girls. In both of these books, despite Clowes’ love for the strange and the grotesque, he never once condescends to his characters or humiliates them for his own purposes. They are stories, rather, of people who are walking open wounds, in need of love and with no way to tell if they can give or receive it correctly. In graphic novel form they are both still great stories, but broken up in “The Complete Eightball” they become something even more: glimpses of a strange world into a pure strain of humanity. This is an essential purchase.