by Dan Clowes
In October of 1989, Daniel Clowes put out the first issue of Eightball. It was a 32-page, black-and-white comic that catapulted readers straight into his bizarre world of fetish films, sadistic cops, and characters like the pathetic Dan Pussey. Clowes has always strung together near-surreal tales that span several issues of his comic, from the David Lynchian "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" and the comic tales of his bumbling alter-ego Pussey, to the bittersweet story of teenage friends Enid and Rebecca in "Ghost World." On some occasions, he's pulled off a complete and memorable story in one issue, such as "Caricature" in issue #15.
Now, with the success of the Ghost World movie, and the conclusion of the "David Boring" story in issue #20, Clowes has taken on the challenge of detailing the dark underbelly of a small American town named Ice Haven. Although the cover advertises "29 stories in full color," each story actually serves as a succinct chapter in what eventually reveals itself as a graphic masterpiece.
Starting with a walking tour of the town by disgruntled poet Random Wilder, the story scatters into various subplots, each one weighed down by its own malaise. We meet Mrs. Wentz, the mundane grandmother whose poetry appears in the local newspaper; her granddaughter Vida, who becomes obsessed with Wilder; a grade-school kid whose heroes are famous criminals Leopold and Loeb; a little boy in love with his stepsister; and numerous others. Clowes' drawings are crisp and straddle the line between realistic and cartoonish. In the past, many of Clowes' simplest frames were still disturbed by odd touches in the background (a pregnant woman smoking, obscene bathroom graffiti); but now, he seems to have embraced a more stringent brand of minimalism (frames of people silently pondering their fate). In one slight digression, Clowes seems to imitate the style of The Flintstones, while telling the origin of a deep hole in the woods. In the following story/chapter, the crime-infatuated child tells Charles, a quiet kid with a flair for Nietzsche-like spouting, about killing another boy "because he was a fag and a retard." It's sort of an anti-Charles Schulz moment, where the act of pulling a football away from an impending kick is simply the precursor to other tortures.
But it's not just the kids who are cold here. When a married pair of investigators come to town to investigate the boy's disappearance, there is a palpable strain on their marriage, especially when the wife's underwear and barrette show up in other people's homes. Random Wilder's poetry is also a constant source of bitterness, even turning inward when he decides his work is "nothing but shit" and tries flushing his notebooks down the toilet.
Surprisingly, most of this tale ends on a positive note and the issue even wraps up with a sort of epilogue by a helpful comic book critic named Harry Naybors (I like the way that Clowes always manages to have direct, sometimes negative references to the comic world in every Eightball). Clowes' art has always been funny, haunting, and appealing, but his storytelling, although sometimes done obscurely, is the reason he remains in the upper rankings of any visual artist today.