The complete Eightball collects the first 18 issues that Daniel Clowes published between 1989-1997. It is a beautiful two volume set encased in a newly drawn slip cover. Clowes is probably most famous for Ghost World which originally appeared in Eightball. Those who’ve only read Ghost World, which I would count myself amongst, will perhaps be a little surprised by tone of his work. However, after reading the collection it is clear that Ghost World is just another facet of Clowes work and vision, which is dark, comic, and at times caustic, always drawn with a detail and precision that make him one of the most interesting comics artists out there.
The first 18 issues of Eightball usually comprised three or four stories and perhaps a few single page items each issue. During the first half of the run each issue contained an episode of his episodic comic, Like A Velvet Cast In Iron and in the second half, Ghost World was his episodic story of choice. While his two long form stories gave Clowes an opportunity to tell larger and more complicated stories, his short form work is well written and worthy of comment. Thematically, it focuses on common alt-comic themes of alienation and frustration. Written between the late 80’s and through much of the 90’s there issues of the day that show up in the pages. That is not to say, his work is dated, but the obsessions with alt culture and the conflict with corporate comics culture is clearly of the era. The conflict brings me to the second common theme: what it is to write comics. Every issue has some reference to writing comics, often in the form of the Dan Pussey story. Dan is a comic genius who gets too full of himself, thinking he can control his publisher, and ends up as a slave in the corporate empire. While not of obvious interest to the general reader, the tone of his stories are often funny, definitely irreverent, and filled with just enough self loathing to make them a perfect read when one is in a dark mood.
Of the the two long form stories, Velvet Glove is the strangest and least interesting of the two. As story telling goes, it might be better than Ghost World, since in sustains one story over nine issues. However, it is a very fantastical and nihilistic story that charts a search for a mysterious film and actors that ends in a dark end that is just the last of many indignities heaped on the protagonist. If one likes a dark fantastical vision of the world, it is a delightful story.
Ghost World, on the other hand, is more successful in that it brings that self loathing and the biting sarcasm under the control of a human touch. Most of Eightball is working towards Ghost World in the sense that Clowes is playing the outsider as an alt writer, but in Ghost World, he takes that sense of being surrounded by stupidity and uncertainty and hones it, placing it in his most fully formed characters. The characters have inner lives, something missing in the grotesques that are a staple of his work. Enid becomes Clowes alter ego and in doing so makes a more compelling and less self absorbed character. Clowes is deft at creating characters infused with a sense of alienation, yet making them compelling, characters you want to return to whether or not you relate to them. If I have any complaint with Eightball, it is that dichotomy represented between the self-absorbed frustration of the characters and the more open Ghost World so stark.
Any mention of Eightball, is not complete without a note of his art. Clowes, in terms of art, is a brilliant artist. One thing that strikes you is his detailed line control and use that to make grotesque exaggerations is powerful. His work is never sloppy and so when a charters has a wild facial expression you see every bit of sweat and know that the weight of his pen carries real passion. Even when a story is misses the mark, his art work makes up for it.
Finally, Fantagraphics has done amazing work with this reissue. Not only have they matched the original color, they have matched the original page weights. Given the ever changing publishing history of Eightball, from just a color cover, to later several pages of color, to occasional cardboard covers. That Fantagraphics reprinted each pages as it originally appeared, is testament to their careful and detailed reprint. It is what makes Eightball a great pleasure to read.