Issue 16: The Complete Eightball
A graphic history of misanthropy
After the publication of my first book, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, I was pursued across the Internet by an angry reader. The man began with a nasty little know-all review on his blog. Having worked up a head of steam, he then let rip on the UK Amazon website with a one-star take-down. With foam collecting around the corners of his mouth and his computer doused in spittle, he now expanded his campaign to the US Amazon site where—and full marks for effort—he composed a brand new invective and flicked another single star at me. He polished and encored his favourite lines in the comments sections of online bookshops and book discussion forums. He awarded Pretentiousness so many single stars that I wondered if, cumulatively, they amounted to a ten-star bouquet. His hatred had become a labour of love. Then, one day, it struck me that I knew who this guy was. I’d encountered him before. He was straight out of Daniel Clowes’ Eightball comics.
Clowes created Eightball in 1989, subtitling the first issue: “An Orgy of Spite, Vengeance, Hopelessness, Despair and Sexual Perversion,” which is the kind of party I presume my book’s persecutor wanted to invite me to. Each issue contained three to four stories. There were a couple of self-contained strips, usually satirical, such as the now famous ‘Art School Confidential,’ an undercover expose that “blows the lid off a million dollar racket!” The funnies sat alongside more serious-minded serials that ran for a number of issues. The first of these was the sinister, Lynchian ‘Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,’ later followed by the cult hit ‘Ghost World,’ the story of two witty, alienated high-schoolers, Enid and Rebecca, drifting through the dullscape of suburbia, obsessing over pop culture past and present.
One of the mainstays of the Eightball universe was the depiction of cynics and mansplainers, almost always men, stuck in ruts of self-loathing and self-regard. My book reviewer reminded me of ‘Feldman,’ a man who phones his local coffee shop each day to ask what the trivia question is that will earn him a free cup of coffee. He looks up the answer on his computer, then goes to claim his reward, where he can publicly perform the role of the genius he clearly isn’t. “Yes, as a matter of fact I DO rule the universe,” he gloats as he leaves the cafe. I also imagined my devoted critic to be a fellow traveller of Lloyd Llewelyn, whose debut Eightball story in 1989 begins: “If you aren’t A) Exactly like me only a little worse at everything or B) A pathetic yes-man to my ever-changing values and shallow opinions, it’s a pretty safe bet that… I HATE YOU DEEPLY.” Lloyd has a long list of hates which includes: People with Personality, Magnetism and Charisma; British Musicians; Talentless Self-Proclaimed Artistes; State-of-the-Art Technological Bores; Amateur Psychiatrists; Wealthy People Who Try to Buy into the Inherent “Hipness” of the Economic Underclass; Actors/Models and/or Anyone Who Places Disproportionate Importance on that Kind of Glorified Service Job; Occultists, New Agers and Anyone Seeking Simple Catch-All Questions to Unanswerable Questions; and Watered-Down Nostalgia Hounds. (Clowes depicts the last category as owners of the kind of mid-century modern furniture that ate the 2010s.)
This month, Fantagraphics published a hefty paperback collecting the first 18 issues of Eightball. (It’s the overdue but affordable edition of a bank-breaking box set that came out in 2016.) Viewed through the pungent swamp gases of social media, what’s immediately striking about Eightball is that it amounts to a sustained study of misanthropy. It suggests that anger, bile and bitterness in America have not changed one bit since the 1990s. Paranoia, prejudice, self-entitlement, and hypocritical pieties are evergreen. Today’s cast of cranks and creeps is the same as yesteryear’s: neo-Nazis, Christian nationalists, misogynists, conspiracy theorists, racists, homophobes, armies of the self-righteous. Inter-generational resentment is perennial. In Eightball that resentment is aimed squarely at the Boomer generation—see the stories ‘Hippypants and Peace Bear’ or ‘MCMLXVI’—but the attitude is easily transposed to whatever trends in demographic warfare you want to believe exist today. His characters share today’s anxieties about living in an exhausted culture of perpetual recycling. In a story titled ‘The Future’ it’s predicted that one day “There will be nostalgia for the nostalgia of future generations.” “I’m not into The Fifties PER SE, I’m into The Fifties revival of the Seventies…” opines one character. “Bah! I’m more of an Eighties Fifties…” replies his friend.
What has changed is that Clowes’s 1990s characters had little technology with which to express their views. They’re often depicted as loners drifting through empty urban streets, haranguing the world with internal monologues that stall and sputter into embarrassment the moment they speak. Given an Internet connection you could imagine them as trolls, as monstrous bores who become instant experts on every major news story and culture war issue, as fantasists bravely tweeting anonymous death threats from their mother’s basement. In the Eightball universe, they’re stuck with themselves, self-important young men on the subway muttering about revenge, middle-aged losers droning on at fellow patrons in a bar, people hiding their desires from the world. Each one of them depicted with Clowes’ trademark bead of sweat dribbling down their forehead. He keeps the worst of his characters stunted in caricature; he gives his other weirdos psychological complexity and contradiction. They’re often lonely, oddball, wracked with libidinous anxieties and unable to fit in to the boxes America presents them with. Sadness permeates their world.
Eightball drew on Mad magazine and the lineage of underground comix, on EC crime and horror comics of the 1950s and, more surprisingly, the fire-and-brimstone Christian evangelical ‘tract’ comics of Jack Chick, which railed against a world filled with atheists, communists, occultists, perverts and pop music fans whom only Jesus can destroy. Chick’s artwork was outlandishly violent and, as Clowes once pointed out in an interview, full of barely sublimated sexual obsession. Chick’s tracts are spoofed brilliantly in the story ‘Devil Doll,’ about a Satanist teenager who stumbles across a Chick-like comic and is immediately converted into a pious Christian fundamentalist. (Religious hypocrisy was a frequent target for Clowes. An early Eightball features a full-page takedown of a real televangelist conman, Pastor Robert Tilton, a snake-oil salesman preaching the prosperity gospel Ponzi scheme.)
Clowes drew everything by hand in brush-and-ink. He originally intended each story to look visually distinct, as if each Eightball were drawn by a group of artists. Looking back they have almost the opposite effect, more like watching the same person try on a variety of costumes. By Clowes’ own admission, the earliest issues look a little stiff, the compositions flat and frontal. (In a 2014 interview with Collection Revue he said: “I always think of style as something that’s the distance between what you want something to look like, and what your hand and brain make it look like unintentionally.”) It didn’t take long until a greater sense of space emerged, augmented with more sophisticated angles of perspective which often gave the spreads—particularly darker narratives such as ‘Black Nylon,’ ‘The Laffin’ Spittin’ Man,’ or ‘Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron’—the feeling of a storyboard for a 1940s film noir or Twilight Zone episode. Eightball makes inventive use of colour. When ‘Ghost World’ was adapted into a film in 2001 (subsequently nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards) it was shot in a bright palette, losing the black, white and pale blue of the original story. The comic was far more atmospheric than the movie. It was like looking at the world through ice. Clowes is also a brilliant observer of faces, drawing them in all their weird, wonderful, disproportionate variety. Next to the regular human beings he would sit strange-looking cartoon creatures and mutant interlocutors. Surreal visions could be glimpsed in the corner of the frame. The Eightball world always teetered on the edge of reality and there was often the sense of everything trundling inexorably towards a calamitous end.
It doesn’t always land. Enid and Rebecca in ‘Ghost World’ are Clowes’ most rounded female characters but the women of Eightball tend to be mother figures or distant objects of desire, even if many of them have a clearer sense of their own life path than their male counterparts. The parade of men—aimless, dreamy, introspective, bitter, uptight, whatever it may be—can get tiresome after a while, but that may well be the point. Early Eightballs also regularly moan about trained artists and the art world, harping on gags about the Emperor’s New Clothes. But there also lies a truth about the pettiness of creativity that’s rarely acknowledged. As Clowes observes, “all these little things that get you moving to create art are very rarely anything noble. It’s all little pangs of ego, and things like that.”
Each issue of Eightball included a letters page. Its title would change issue to issue: ‘Who Shaves the Barber?’ or, ‘What Am I, a Psychiatrist?’ Usually they’d be fan letters or words of support from Clowes’ peers such as Gil Hernandez of Love & Rockets fame and Peter Bagge, creator of the grunge comic Hate. Occasionally Clowes would receive letters from other artists, such as Cinqué Lee (brother of Spike Lee), who wrote in to explain that he’d recently acted in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train but that he was a filmmaker at heart, and believed ‘Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron’ would make “an intense movie!”
Naturally, Clowes published his hate mail too. Readers would criticize his use of language or his drawing style. (In issue 8, an angry Don Simpson from Pittsburgh, PA, asks “…what the fuck is going on on p.22 panel four? Those legs under the table must be six feet long! Where’s your fucking sense of proportion, Clowes?”) Others took issue with what they took to be an unduly pessimistic view of the world. (Issue 9, Bob Hartshorn from Essex, England: “…you are a vile, bitter, compassionless cynic whose excess of contempt for humanity goes to show you have no soul and no heart!”) Then there were the death threats, such as the one from V. Reveles of W. Covina, CA, in issue 11: “We natives of California are tired of you foreigners moving here and spoiling it for the rest of us. [Clowes had announced in the previous edition that he was relocating from Chicago to the Bay Area.] My friends and I keep loaded guns in our glove compartments and shoot at any out-of-state plates we see on the freeway. Hope to shoot, I mean see, you soon…”
In a short strip titled ‘King Ego’ we see a needle-nosed, egg-headed avatar of the artist opening his mail. At the start, it seems as if Clowes is going to mock the people that write to him. “Let’s see here… Another death-threat… A half-assed stream of consciousness rant… A postcard made out of a Cap’n Crunch Box […] A guy who wants me to do a comic strip for his fanzine or else I’m a big sell-out.” In the Eightball world, as in our own, fewer people than we wish to believe have any sense of perspective or proportionate behaviour. Love and hate, dread and comedy, empathy and revulsion, they all go hand-in-hand, even if they’re just mumbling to themselves. Clowes gets this. By the end of ‘King Ego,’ his egg-head is moved to tears: “*Sniff* I love you people! I mean it!”
—Thirty years on from its original release, Warp Records are reissuing their landmark compilation of brainy electronic music, Artificial Intelligence, which featured early tracks from Aphex Twin, Autechre, Black Dog Productions, Richie Hawtin, and Speedy J.
—My friends at n+1 magazine are running their annual fundraising Bookmatch quiz. Make a small (or large) donation and take their multiple choice quiz to receive a personalized reading list including recommendations from Alexander Chee, Ken Chen, Jonathan Franzen, A. S. Hamrah, Malcolm Harris, Hua Hsu, Lawrence Jackson, Hari Kunzru, Rachel Kushner, Sophie Pinkham, Max Read, Charlotte Shane, Bela Shayevich, Vladimir Sorokin, Doreen St. Félix, Jia Tolentino, Jennifer Wilson, Gabriel Winant, Su Wu, Molly Young, and Hannah Zeavin. Questions include: “What’s your palace intrigue? A) House of Windsor B) House of the Dragon C) House of Gucci D) Nextdoor” and “What’s your problem? A) Relationships B) I spilled my drink C) This mortal coil D) Trolley.”
—There’s a new album on the way from composer Kali Malone, featuring Sunn0)))’s Stephen O’Malley and cellist Lucy Railton. It’s not out until early next year but you can hear a taster above.
—If you’re in London, visit ‘Industrial Sublime’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a small show of Maurice Broomfield’s photographs depicting factories and their workers in the middle of the last century; the record of a beautiful, dangerous and infernal world.