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Twentieth Century Eightball

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Daniel Clowes’ Twentieth Century Eightball (Fantagraphics Books) is an entertainingly slapdash collection of rant comics and surreal misanthropy from the title that also yielded Ghost World and Daniel Boring.
It’s probably safe to say that if Clowes had produced nothing but strips like the selection in this book, he’d still be residing in the margins of alternacomics. In the aftermath of Ghost World‘s indy film success, it’s worth noting that the satire strips of Twentieth Century at one time reflected Clowes’ primary cartooning voice: withering putdowns of pretension and superficiality by an artist who simultaneously was doing art for Cracked magazine. When Eightball #1 first appeared, in fact, it seemed more in tune with Mad-inspired underground collections like R. Crumb’s Weirdo than the more nuanced title that it is today. It wasn’t ’til Clowes’ first serial novel, Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, was released in a single volume that it became clear the artist was doing more than reviving Crumb-styled ranting for a younger generation.
Still, what great rants: here’s Clowes holding forth on art school, devastatingly nailing both students and teachers (“If you must go to art school, for God’s sake make the most of it . . . Seldom if ever again in life will you be afforded the chance to scrutinize such an array of losers in an environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations.”); here he is, in the guise of Lloyd Llewellyn holding forth on everything he hates (including “People who hide behind cartoon characters to espouse their unpopular opinions”); there he goes, slapping Freudian interpretation on popular American sports; or lamenting the elevation of loutishness in his hometown Chicago.

All very “total wiseass” (to quote Clowes quoting Art Spiegelman), all nicely keyed to the “everything sucks” attitude of all the male Enid Coleslaws out there. (The Ghost World heroine makes a brief appearance as “Little Enid” in an opening strip done for the book, incidentally.) In “The Stroll,” “Marooned On A Desert Island With People On The Subway” and “The Party,” the artist fantasizes about strangers much like Enid & Rebecca did in Angels restaurant. Do the beliefs espoused in these strips represent the writer/artist’s? Somewhat, I’d wager, though Clowes also includes a neat four-pager (“Just Another Day”) tweaking autobiographically-focused criticism by presenting himself in a series of bewilderingly contradictory cartoon personas.
As an artist, Clowes primarily works in a cartoony mode here: showing traces of EC greats like Bernie Krigstein and Wally Wood (also appearing as a character in a new strip in the back of the book), parodying artists like religious tractster Jack T. Chick or the Harvey Comics bullpen. Clowes’ flair for facial caricature frequently recalls Chester Gould (another Chicago boy!) Though where the “Dick Tracy” artist elevated grotesqueness to define villainy, Clowes is more interested in the way these “flaws” reflect his figures’ humanity (c.f., his only half-ironic paean to “Ugly Girls”).
Between the rants, Clowes also includes a series of one-three page stories featuring a variety of unappealing types: agoraphobic Zubrick and his underwear-clad roomie, Pogeybait; teenfreak wannabe Hippypants; and the Happy Fisherman (who walks around with a frozen fish over his dick). Packed with crass behavior and barely concerned with story, these entries read like the free-flowing displays of stonery that characterized the underground press in its heyday. (No, I don’t know or care if Clowes has indulged in any pharmaceuticals – but in one early strip he does characterize what he’s doing as “underground.”) While not as strong as the cartoon diatribes, they can be laff-provoking if you’re in a dark enough mood.
On the book’s back cover, our artist hero gives us a fanciful version of this collection’s genesis. After speaking to a mustachioed Fantagraphics publisher (who tells him the company wants “a book which elicits not morose empathy but applies to our wounded collective soul the soothing balm of laughter”), Clowes considers his early work. “As I recall,” he says to himself, “I occasionally used to include amusing material in my old comics!” Yes, you did, Dan – and some snottily bilious stuff, too.

It’s all on display for our divertissement in Twentieth Century Eightball.
(Reprinted from Pop Culture Gadabout.)

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
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