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August 04, 2004



Tim O'Neil, jumping on the Eightball commentary bandwagon even later than I did, offers a thoughtful review over at The Hurting. Tim's reaction to Eightball #23 is even more negative than my own, placing me in the heretofore unprecedented position of arguing in favor of a Dan Clowes comic.

Tim suggests, and not without good reason, that "The Death-Ray" suffers from its unremitting focus on "misanthropic alienation." Tim feels the issue's thematic and emotional limitations even creep into the one traditionally unimpeachable aspect of Clowes's work, his craft and formal control:

Almost every line is drawn with a weighty premeditation. He has suffocated his own style, burning every extraneous element away until we are left with the awkward utility of an educational pamphlet. Sure, every line is placed with the utmost virtuosity, and every angle is exquisitely deduced, but there’s not an ounce of life in the whole thing.

I can't disagree with any of this, but I think Tim overlooks the other themes that, while they don't ameliorate the book's cynicism, do make it more than just a portrait of misanthropy. As I argued above, the political subtext (or sometimes not-so-sub-text) adds an exigence and an engagement with the world to what would otherwise be a mere character sketch, redundant even within Clowes's own body of work.

Tim suggests that Clowes's earlier works recognize "the limitations of alienation as a rigid lifestyle creed." Yet "The Death-Ray" does as well; Andy is not being offered as a role model, or even as a reliable voice of social commentary like the smirking, unbearable narrator of "Art-School Confidential" (can't wait for that to get expanded into a two-hour movie). The story criticizes Andy, silently but with unmistakable clarity, for his solipsistic, self-aggrandizing world-view.

But that, as I said in my review, would be just as redundant, just as cliched as a story that fashioned Andy into another one of Clowes's whiner-heroes. We don't really need to be told that misanthropy is bad, especially when the misanthrope is also a serial killer. It's the political context, the connection of Andy's sociopathic detachment to America's post-Iraq relationship with the rest of the world, that redeems "The Death-Ray" from being just another unflaggingly alienated Dan Clowes story. The alienation is still unflagging, but the critique is no longer limited solely at the usual Clowes targets of art or character or social interaction.

Finally, and quite separate from all this, Tim also stumbles across one of my main objections to the fawning acclaim that's usually heaped upon Clowes:

He’s one of those rare cartoonists who is respected not because he is popular but because there is a critical consensus that he is Important.

This passage, though offered in praise of Clowes, unwittingly identifies the crux of my problem with his reputation: it's founded on the tautology of self-fulfilling fan acclaim at least as much as it is on the work itself. Clowes is respected because he's Important, and important because he's Respected. That his work isn't popular with X-Men readers is irrelevant - in fact, it's a selling point. His "critical consensus" still stems from popularity, which is to say that it also carries a dangerous element of inertia. (I found it telling that, of all the people to object here and elsewhere when I left Clowes off my list of great comics, almost none of them elected to tell me why Clowes should be considered a great. The partisans of Frank Miller, Walt Kelly, and even Neil fricking Gaiman were far more game.)

Kudos to Tim, though, for looking beyond the bandwagon and writing a well-considered analysis of an ambitious but deeply flawed book.


Just curious, but did you feel the same way about Ice Haven (i.e. #22)? I'm more fond of the Death Ray than you and certainly of Tim O'Neill(though admittedly more in the style of the story, than perhaps its content)(though i thought the lack of dynamics to the supposedly dynamic parts, and the lifelessness was actually all quite intentional).

But that said, I think its very much the inferior of Ice Haven, which really ... while the individual characters might have had a sort of negative "It's all bad bad bad" quality that i can be bored by with Clowes and that seems to be a turn off for you... i thought in unison with the other characters, it ended up being much more than the sum of its parts; things that sometimes come across as cruel, by putting it in context of the various failures of the other people in the community, it ended up feeling sympathetic. (Doesn't that comic climax with the characters running into the streets and holding hands and singing? I know its not played straight, but I don't recall feeling it was a cynical moment either... more a fantasy moment, which...)

that was the first Clowes book i liked without any hesitation, and i felt like all my usual complaints about him just evaporated on that one. if the usual accusation against him is that his work suffers from a very dull kind of misanthropy (which i guess was my complaint, so correct me if i'm wrong), i can't say it applied to that comic which ...

by being about community, and by attacking all the different comic styles it did, i found it far more, i don't know... affirming? that's not the right word. far more... well, genuinely positive (even while individual elements might have been highly cynical) and in love with comics than any number of, you know, more sugary affairs.

if your criticism is based on the stuff in 20th Century Eightball, i would happily agree. there's bits i like (i liked Art School Confidential much more than Schlong Baseball or whatever that one was called). but i should think a defense of clowes would best start at ice haven, and a critique of clowes would have to consider it.


Haven't found a copy of "Ice Haven" yet, although having seen the comic behind the fawning praise for "The Death-Ray" I'm now preparing myself for disappointment on that front as well.

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