Wednesday, April 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: "THE DANIEL CLOWES READER" by Ken Parille and Daniel Clowes

Even after having observed the graphic novel/comic’s thirty-years-plus intellectual and artistic metamorphosis into respectability, I have remained, and remain, mostly skeptical. I still have some baggage left over from my 1970s Marvel/DC Comics days, when cartoons-delivered-in-panels were made for dopey kids like me, or for counterculture hippies reading absurdities like “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” or whatever. I went through a brief period in the early 90s where I’d buy copies of “Weirdo” and a few other alternative comics, and that’s where I, like so many others, discovered Daniel Clowes. Clowes wasn’t like the others. Outside of Drew Friedman, I’ve never seen anyone who could wield such devastating descriptive power by simply drawing a human face. Clowes accurately draws people in the ways that we actually see them in the world, sweaty and nervous and in many places between inner darkness and outer light. An entire book of his images, sans words, would easily be enough for me to at least look at it.

Happily, his powers of insight extend into dialogue and story construction as well, and his comics over the years (the masterful “Eightball” series; “Ghost World”; “Lloyd Llewelyn” and many others) have mined pathos and humor and pain in ways that transcend the form. It’s not for nothing that he’s probably the most revered “alternative” practitioner of modern comics; I even went to a show of his work at the Oakland Museum a couple of years ago. Ken Parille likewise sees Clowes as worthy of reverence and study, having published "Daniel Clowes: Conversations" in 2010. Now he’s brought together a number of contributors, essayists and Clowes interview pieces from the 1990s and 2000s to create an annotated “Daniel Clowes Reader” that features the full “Ghost World” collection, as well as some other ringers from the past, like “Blue Italian Shit” and "Ugly Girls".

The collection therefore shifts shape and form time and again; at times, you’re reading some classic Clowes work; at others, you’re reading poindexterish interpretations of those works. Clowes’ own annotations of the many pop-cultural artifacts that he sprinkles throughout his work (weird 1960s records; children’s toys and TV programs; sex-instruction books; fanzines; etc.) are both instructive and a great window into just what makes his complex inner world tick. I think a lot of my punk rock peers got off on his stuff because he, like Peter Bagge, contributed art to many alterna-rock record covers in the 90s and often touched on “the scene” (often heavily mocked) in their comics. Bagge’s stuff I always found pretty unfunny and full of ham-handed exaggerations; Clowes, on the other hand, will do a strip like “The Party” (a first person account of nervously arriving at a Seattle-based party at the height of “grunge”, only to find that one’s friends aren’t there, and having to suffer the conversational idiocy of a parade of drunken alternative rock fans while trying to edge out the door), and just nail it.

If anyone from this medium deserves a series of college-level “readers”, it’s this guy, and getting to re-read a bunch of classic pieces/strips, with Clowes annotations, is icing on the proverbial cupcake. Absolutely worth a look.