The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches.
For as many reasons as there are to speak in hushed tones when referring to comics in that rather fateful decade, there are many more reasons to shout at the sky in praise. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.
Dan Clowes’ quirky surrealism of Eightball.
Technically, the first issue of Eightball was published in October of 1989, but with Clowes’ sporadic output a staple of the series since the beginning, the second issue landed on comic store shelves in February of 1990, so I’ll allow it.
I still remember my first experience with this brilliantly skewed slice of life anthology series. I was browsing the shelves in my local shop, the sadly missed Land of Oohs and Aahs in Fountain Valley, when the owner retired to the back room to find something for a customer. The shop was under new management, and had recently moved all of the mature reader titles into a newly built room in the far right corner of the store, and being underage I used this opportunity as my rare chance to sneak in and take a look.
I was actually looking for Shade, The Changing Man, a title the owner wouldn’t let me read due to my age, even though the book’s artist, Chris Bachalo, hung out behind the counter drawing its very pages. The first comic I saw though would change my views on what comics could be, and instantly became an obsession for High School aged me. It was issue eleven, and it had so much going on that it just pulled me in. And once I saw the first page I understood why it had a mature readers label, and it wasn’t for the reasons most things have them.
This book was mature in tone, in stories like the surrealistic Lynchian black comedy Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, or the deeply cynical Art School Confidential. Clowes was telling slice of life stories that were very human, shining a light on our flaws and shortcomings by using derisive humor, with more than a sprinkling of pessimism.
Sure, there was quite a bit of low brow humor as well, such as the crude satire of On Sports, which is basically an illustrated rant on how “the sporting green is a Freudian battleground on which primitive psychosexual conflicts are played out…”, using sports as a metaphor for ingrained male homosexuality. It was pretty funny too, especially to a dissenting, rebellious, anti-sports punk-rocker like teenage me. There was The Happy Fisherman, Hippypants and Peace Bear, I Hate You Deeply, and so many more shorts that just spoke to my burgeoning anti-social disenchantment.
Though I now view them with different eyes, and a more grown-up mindset, the stories still do hold up. Especially the more reflective episodic ones like the aforementioned Velvet Glove, Ghost World, and the slightly depressing David Boring. These stories show how Clowes grew as a cartoonist in a very short period of time, the later issues featuring less of the crude two-page rant-like gags, with more of the contemplative introspection that we know him for today. Clowes was holding up a carnival fun-house mirror to reality, showing us just how slightly skewed he viewed things.
His art style matured dramatically as well. Going from a slightly off-putting yet endearing style in the early black & white days, to more and more fully painted pages as the title went on. The format changed along with Clowes’ style, first going partially colored, and eventually to the final full-color larger format in its later years.
Very few comics of the time informed my young worldview like Eightball. It just happened to find me at the perfect time in my life, and it has never really left me. I even tracked down a copy of the Velvet Glove soundtrack, featuring some of the most peculiar, unsettling pop music I’ve ever heard, totally befitting Clowes’ disquieting tale. Victor Banana’s (Tim Hensley) fever dream inspired lyrics take these novelty songs into some strange directions for sure, but that’s totally keeping in tone with the world Clowes had created. Clowes even co-wrote a couple of the tunes, and created the album artwork.
To say I was a fan would be the understatement of the year. I was, and still am, a devotee of Daniel Clowes, snapping up any and everything I could find with even a cursory attachment to the book. But I am far from the only fan. This book shot up to cult status almost immediately, and almost breached the mainstream when Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) optioned the rights to make a film out of Ghost World. The film was a moderate hit with audiences, but a small percentage of teenage girls at the time could not get enough of it. Later, Zwigoff would go on to make a loose adaptation of the short Eightball story Art School Confidential, but this one never quite caught on in the same fashion.
Fantagraphics keeps collections of all the Eightball trade paperbacks in print, and they are not hard to find. If you’ve never read them, I’d say give them a shot. They probably won’t change your life like they did mine, but you should find them entertaining, or at least an interesting artifact of the “Grunge years” and the last great decade of underground comics.
There are still very few books like it, maybe none at all, but for its time Daniel Clowes’ Eightball was an eye opener for me, and I owe it all to that random comic shop patron needing something from the back room. Eightball was a book like no other, crude yet erudite, satirical yet ruminative, a perfect reflection of its time and place, and another reason it was great being a comic fan in the nineties. Next week I’ll bring you another.