This “Palmer’s Picks” posed a unique solution to the problems of being a college student moonlighting as a magazine columnist. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, circumstances dictated that I really didn’t have the time or means to conduct phone interviews for my Wizard column while away from home at college. In earlier installments of “Picks,” I got around this by devoting a lot of space to recounting the various ins and outs of a cartoonist’s career and publishing history. But with this profile of Daniel Clowes‘ Eightball from Wizard #29, I took a different approach: an analysis of the themes and characters in Clowes’ work.
Go ahead and scroll down to read the old column to see what I mean. I’ll wait.
I guess the whole college experience was starting to seep into my Wizard writing. I had just started my sophomore year and I was taking a lot of courses as part of my English major, so it was pretty simple to take an analytical approach with a comic like Eightball that had a “throw everything at the wall to see what sticks” style. There was also the fact that the serialized “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron” had recently concluded in Eightball #10, so I was able to re-read the entire story and appreciate all of the seemingly random elements in the story that Clowes was able to bring together as he wrapped things up.
It’s easy to forgot how groundbreaking each and every issue of Eightball was. If you have copies of the original comics, dig them out of whatever hole you’ve stashed them in. Or better yet, pick up the lavish, slipcased, hardcover reprint of the series that Fantagraphics published a few years ago. Clowes didn’t create the one-man-anthology comic format, but he damn well perfected it. The growth in his art in the early issues is astounding, and the level of experimentation later in the series is incredible. It was always an experience when a new issue of Eightball was published because you never knew what you were going to get.
I definitely regret not having the opportunity to interview Dan Clowes for this issue of Wizard. It would have been nice to capture something from this point in his career where Eightball was already a success and he was producing the early chapters of “Ghost World,” which would go on to become one of his most recognizable and celebrated comic stories.
When you read the original “Palmer’s Picks” below, you might notice one small mistake. I refer to the Lloyd Llewellyn Color Special, but there is no such thing. It should have just been the Lloyd Llewellyn Special. It’s probably hard to believe, but I can’t be perfect all the time.
Behind the Eightball
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Few comics creators are as original and unpredictable as Daniel Clowes. After attending Pratt Institute, where he studied to be an illustrator, he switched gears and came up with Lloyd Llewellyn, a comic based on trashy ’50s pop culture and detective novels and drawn in a simple minimalist style. Clowes soon grew tired of Llewellyn, who became an empty character around which to write stories. Clowes needed a change of direction.
He made a radical change in 1989, when he started Eightball, a comic which can best be described as a one-man anthology along the lines of Mad Magazine. In the first few issues, Clowes experimented with several art and writing styles, like the simple yet realistic stream of consciousness drawing in “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” the thickly textured art of the bitter “I Hate You Deeply” and “The Future,” and the loose caricature of Clowes’ satire of the comic industry in “Young Dan Pussey.” The stories in Eightball continue to draw from a wide range of influences and styles, as is evident in the Harvey Comics-inspired characters of “Playful Obsession,” the extremely minimalist cartooning of “Why I Hate Christians,” and the amazingly accurate observations of “The Party,” a story seen through the eyes of Clowes.
The main attraction of the first ten issues of Eightball is “Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” Clowes’ intuitive, dream-inspired, experimental epic. “Velvet Glove” features some of the most unforgettable and nightmarish images and characters that have ever appeared in comics. Its images of a man with sea crustaceans in his eye sockets, a dog named Laura without any orifices who must be fed water through a syringe, and Tina, the deformed and mutated dolphin-girl—all of whom appear in “Velvet Glove”—make it almost impossible not to be struck by deep-down feelings of uneasiness or discomfort.
“Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron” is a pseudo-mystery that takes Clay Loudermilk through a series of seemingly mundane situations which are skewed by surreal, nightmarish peculiarities and details. Loudermilk sees his wife, who unexpectedly left him, in an avant-garde snuff film and becomes obsessed with finding her. As the plot progresses and he looks for clues to her whereabouts, seemingly insignificant events and characters take on more important meanings. Loudermilk is essentially passive throughout the course of the story; everything that happens happens around him or to him, rather than as a result of his actions. Most of his dialogue consists of tentative questions and choppy sentence fragments which subtly suggest the character’s overwhelming confusion.
“Velvet Glove” is a many-layered story that succeeds because of its twisting and intertwining situations and characters. On a simple level, it is a series of subconscious dream images that string together to form a sustained narrative. But it also functions as a social commentary, thanks to its unflattering depictions of police officers and a group of hippies who overthrow the government; as a critique of American popular culture, via an alleged conspiracy disguised as a simple advertising icon; and as a new take on the age-old battle of the sexes, with Loudermilk being beaten by a group of women.
Clowes’ other renowned Eightball tale is “Young Dan Pussey,” a series of strips which systematically dismantle the comic book industry. Nothing is sacred to Clowes: superhero comics are assaulted in the original “Young Dan Pussey” story with as much intensity as “alternative” comics are lampooned in “The Return of Young Dan Pussey.” In parodying the comic book world, Clowes also brings up some disturbing and painfully true aspects of the industry, like the mistreatment of creators by companies and the inherent stupidity of many types of comics.
While Clowes’ artwork constantly changes, there are some aspects which remain constant. He has a bold, graphic line which is versatile enough to hold up in both black and white and color strips. His panels are very simple, yet he has a strong sense of design that holds the elements of each panel together, and lets all the panels of a page come together as a unified whole. There is evidence of a strong Harvey Kurtzman influence in the layout of Clowes’ pages and in some of the outrageous characters he devises. Clowes is always ready to experiment with different techniques, ranging from simple black and white art to bold full-color stories to intricately cross-hatched work to compositions fleshed out with multiple layers of zip-a-tone dot patterns.
Aside from being a versatile artist, Clowes is also a perceptive and oftentimes hilarious writer. No matter what kind of story he does, be it a sustained narrative like “Velvet Glove” or a sharp parody like “Young Dan Pussey,” there is always a sarcastic and caustic bite under the surface of Clowes’ work that keeps him at the forefront of innovative comic creators.
Next month: I’ll write about Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff and Hate. If you have any requests, or if you just feel like getting something off your chest, don’t hesitate to write to me at Palmer’s Picks, c/o Wizard Press,
100 Red Schoolhouse Road, Bldg. B-1, Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977. I’ll do my best to answer any questions or comments you have.
Tom wants to grow up and live in the suburbs with a wife, a dog, and 2.5 kids. Hopefully it’ll be somewhere other than New Jersey, where he’s lived all his life.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Eightball: The twelfth issue of Eightball should be available about now, and all issues are being kept in print by Fantagraphics Books. Ask your local store to contact them or order directly from Fantagraphics at 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115. Sample issues are $3, and a four-issue subscription is $9.50. (All prices here and below are postage paid.) The first four issues of Eightball are all black and white, but the remaining issues contain some two-color and full-color strips. Although many of the stories from Eightball have been reprinted elsewhere, the actual issues are the only places to see some strips in their original color versions.
Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: This 144-page comic-sized book collects all ten chapters of Clowes’ breakthrough story. The softcover goes for $16 and the signed hardcover version will set you back $45.
Lout Rampage: This book reprints the best of Clowes’ shorter comic stories, including “I Hate You Deeply,” “The Stroll,” “Life in These United States” (with Peter Bagge), and “Playful Obsession.” Most of the material comes from Eightball, but there are also some Clowes strips from Blab!, Weirdo, and other magazines. The book contains 96 magazine-sized pages in black and white, and it runs for $13.
#[email protected]&!: A second printing of this book of Lloyd Llewellyn stories is now available. Thirteen tales are reprinted, including “Crawl, Worm!,” “The Eatniks,” and “Dementia Praecox.” The stories are reprinted from the original Lloyd Llewellyn comic series and the Lloyd Llewellyn Color Special, both of which are now out of print. #[email protected]&! runs 96 pages and is in black and white. The second printing has a new cover by Clowes and goes for $13.
Other Stuff: Fantagraphics also offers several Eightball-related items. There is a set of ten color Eightball postcards for $7, a coffee mug decorated with Clowes characters ($9), a cloisonné pin or a rubber stamp with Clowes art ($9 each), and a Young Dan Pussey and a Lloyd Llewellyn T-shirt ($17.95 each). Two high-quality silkscreen prints of Clowes’ artwork are also available. Clowes produced an all-new 11-color “movie poster” for “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” which goes for $80 and is limited to 400 copies. Fantagraphics has also printed an eight-color silkscreen of Clowes’ artwork for the Misfit Lit contemporary comic art exhibition; it costs $60.