Sunday, 17 October 2010

Daniel Clowes - Art and Comic Books


At this juncture it would be convenient, in both terms of my ego and the esteem in which certain people hold me with regard to my knowledge of comics (limited at best), to pretend that I have, since Dan Clowes first started producing comic strips in 1985, been a big fan of his. Unfortunately, this is not the case and I have to confess to initially dismissing his Lloyd Llewelyn strip as being silly. (Uh Oh. Just blown what little cred I had.) It wasn't until very recently, some yeras ago now, that I became aware of this guy's enormous talent through his incredible graphic novel Ghost World and the subsequent novel David Boring.
  Daniel Clowes is a very distinctive and highly original writer/artist who was born in Chicago on April 14th 1961. This co-incidentally was the self same birthday as Jayne Mansfield the iconic 50's film actress. What the hell do we care about bloody Jayne Mansfield I hear you cry, get on with telling us about Daniel Clowes.
  Well, before you shoot me down in a veritable wall of flames the association is very relevant. Right from the off Clowes took the 50's pop culture look and used it to fashion some of his dark and satirical pieces with. A darkly humorous satire aimed right at the heart of middle-class America.
Although Clowes' initial influences were normal enough and came from watching horror movies and reading Superman and Mad Magazine his reaction to them reflects his own character probably better than any analysis that I, or any one else, can give. His reaction to a cover picture published on Strange Adventures, a picture depicting a typical family scene where the family are all gathered and high above them the sun is seen blazing down, huge and hot, causing the family to sweat in it its heat but as they are attempting to get get a drink of water from the fountain they find that the fountain is frozen and they are unable to quench their thirst. The young Clowes cried and bashed his head against a wall because he couldn't understand the strange imagery that unnerved him.
  This to me, bearing in mind he was still young when he saw this potent image, illustrates what a deep and thoughtful individual Clowes is.
  Although Clowes studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he still thinks of himself as being mostly self-taught. After graduating Clowes spent a year seeking art-related work in New York, but this proved to be unsuccessful and he returned home to Chicago.
  Clowes first break into comics came in 1985 when Fantagraphic Books started publishing Lloyd Llewellyn after its successful stint in Love & Rockets. Initially the work relied heavily on Daniels early influences such as sci-fi, horror and superheroes but as the series progressed a darker and more atmospheric artwork was developed, a style that would lead to the much lauded Eightball.
  Eightball was published by Fantagraphics and has gone on to become one of the most seriously acclaimed of comic books winning numerous awards including Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz. A remarkable achievement.
  Eightball is an on-going and constantly evolving project and its consistently mature viewpoint has set a standard for others to follow. Having said all that it would be less than honest of me to pretend that I am an avid collector of Eightball. I am not. Not because it isn't good but because I have only very recently discovered Daniel Clowes via the wonderful Ghost World.
  Ghost World is a name that you might be familiar with as it was a movie made by John Malkovitch's production company, the curiously named Mr. Mudd. It starred Thora Birch (American Beauty) and Scarlett Johnansson (The Horse Whisperers) as Enid and Rebecca, the comic books two central characters. It also features the highly talented Steve Buscemi. The film was one of the top five critically acclaimed movies of 2001 receiving a host of awards.
  As I have already stated here on this page there is nothing unusual in comic book stories being made into films - often to the detriment of the original. I haven't as yet seen the film so I cannot comment. The comic book original however, is a masterpiece of comic art and muti-layered, subtle storytelling.
  I found the reading the book to be inspirational. There are a few truly great graphic novels and this is up there with Maus, Contract With God, From Hell, When the Wind Blows etc. It is a story of two females as they emerge from adolescence, tangled with all the emotional baggage that that period entails, into mature adulthood.
  There are moments of heartache and moments of pure humour that I defy anyone not to laugh out loud at upon reading it. One scene in particular is when a male character reveals for the first time the surname of one of the leading characters. Coleslaw. Enid Coleslaw. Enid's father, an immigrant presumably, had his surname changed when he arrived in the states. "From what" queries one less than pleasant individual "three bean salad?".
  The alienation that is felt by the two girls living amongst people that, parents included, seem nothing like them is beautifully portrayed as are those awful growing up days. Clumsy and awkward at times both Enid and Rebecca rise from the pages as real people within a very real situation.
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Ghost World was originally published in Eightball and then was released as a graphic novel in 2001.
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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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