by Dan Clowes
When I'm in the mood to play "Devil's Advocate", I like to use Eightball as Exhibit A in the case against the Comics Are Art movement.
Don't get me wrong: I think Ghost World and David Boring and Ice Haven, which all first appeared in the pages of Eightball, are as serious, thoughtful, and analysis-worthy as any of the critically acclaimed lit-fic novels that have been published since Eightball began in 1989.
But Eightball isn't just the place where Dan Clowes published these important "comic strip novels": it's also the place where Clowes published his not-quite-so-important gag strips, like "A Message to the People of the Future" and "I Hate You Deeply". If Dan Clowes had simply been interested in making "art comics", I'm not sure that we would have been treated to his thoughts about sports or Christians. And it's these strips that earned Clowes a place in the satirical tradition of Harvey Kurtzman and Robert Crumb. By not trying to make every issue of Eightball a work of art, he was free to be as disreputable as he wanted.
I'd also argue that Clowes's "serious" lit-fic-like comic strip novels owe part of their sensibility and effectiveness to having come out of this satirical/underground gag tradition. The earlier, "funnier" Eightball provided a necessary foundation for the later, more "serious" Eightball.
I first discovered Eightball when I was 13. My family had just moved to Montreal after living (for most of my life) in a very small border town in upstate New York. I had always gotten most of my comics through the mail. The closest comic book store was an hour away, and it was always a special occasion whenever I got a chance to go to it. (I also used to look forward to our summer vacations at the New Jersey shore, because I knew I could talk my parents into stopping at a comic store on the way home from the beach). The most "sophisticated" comics that I read--or was even really aware of--were Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Doom Patrol and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I had tried out some black & white independent comics, but hadn't been very impressed.
When I got to Montreal, things changed. All of a sudden I lived in walking distance of a major, urban downtown area. It wasn't long before I discovered Nebula, a sci-fi bookstore that had a low quantity, high quality comic book section. They didn't stock any comics by Marvel or DC, but they must have had just about everything from Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink.
I really had no idea what most of these comics were, but something about Eightball grabbed me. Thinking back on it, I'm not sure what exactly made me go for Eightball before, say, Cerebus--which was probably more in line with the type of genre stuff I was used to--or Hate--which actually turned out to be more in line with my sense of humour. My guess would be that Dan Clowes's confident, polished retro cartooning looked a lot more stylish--slicker even--than anything else on the Nebula racks.
I've read a lot about the mind-opening experience kids had when they first read the Harvey Kurtzman issues of Mad: all I can say is that, at 13, Eightball was my Mad. It was one of the first examples of "transgressive" art that I ever came into contact with: I found it offensive, entertaining, funny, thought-provoking, and, often, confusing.
Nowadays, though I've grown away from Eightball's somewhat alienated sensibility, I still look forward to each new issue, primarily because Clowes is such an inventive, constantly advancing cartoonist. (Ice Haven is one of the most technically brilliant and innovative comics I've ever read.) He's also able to populate his books with varied and interesting characters, which is, unfortunately, becoming a lost art in the art comics scene.
Ealier entries in this series:
#25 on RAW. I started this out with the intention of doing one entry a week... Oh well... This one is short and sweet. I'd only add that RAW has really spoiled me when it comes to art comics anthologies.
#24 on Hate!, which features one of my earliest attempts to write about the backlash phenomenon. Also, I seem to have been reading too much Donald Phelps at the time.
#23 on Dick Tracy. Still too much Phelps and too much Manny Farber, but this one reads pretty nicely, if I do say so myself.
#22 on Ditko and Lee's Dr. Strange stories. This is the first entry where my own "voice" really comes through. I also bring up a lot of issues that I continue to deal with on the blog.
#21 on Calvin & Hobbes. This piece might be the most interesting for casual comics fans, since most people are pretty familiar with this strip.
#20 on The Dark Knight Returns. Sums up a lot of my feelings on "revisionist" super-hero books.