Daniel Clowes’ comics series Eightball, which ran from 1989 to 2004, was one of the signature alternative comics of its era — creepy and tender, smart and disaffected, beloved by the cynical, cultural-trash-picking subculture it savaged along with everything else. Eightball was a one-person anthology: each issue collected whatever Clowes felt like writing and drawing at the time, from surreal narratives to brutally hilarious satires to carefully observed character portraits. (Clowes and Terry Zwigoff went on to make two films, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, based on Eightball stories.)
Recently, there’s been a little flurry of activity around Clowes. In late April, the University of Chicago announced that it had acquired his papers, and Fantagraphics will be publishing his graphic novel Patience next year. And now there’s The Complete Eightball #1-18: a slipcased hardcover book collecting the bulk of Clowes’ series as it originally appeared. (The five subsequent issues were later published, only slightly revised, as books: David Boring, Ice Haven and The Death-Ray.) Playboy talked to Clowes via telephone about girlie ties, mail fraud, and Eightball becoming the sort of odd cultural artifact that it was so often about.
The new collection is dedicated to the late Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson — you describe it as “in every way the result of his brow-beating.” Can you tell me more about his role in getting Eightball off the ground?
When I first proposed Eightball, it was after I’d done [his earlier series] Lloyd Llewellyn, and that had been cancelled due to plummeting sales — although I always like to point out that when it was cancelled it was selling more than several Marvel comics sell today. I still don’t quite understand how the economics work. I came to Kim with Eightball knowing full well that it was a doomed enterprise at best. I never in a million years dreamed it might have any chance of success. I think he felt an obligation, which I think he still had to the end, to publish things he thought deserved to be out there in the world. I will always love him for that.
Eightball was always so deeply rooted in being a pamphlet-format comic book — there was so much junk-culture stuff that went into it — and now it’s this slipcased hardcover.
I always felt like Eightball existed perfectly as a comic at the time it came out. It was intended to be something current — it came out and you read it at that time. Then, as time passed, people would bring these old comics to signings; it became this kind of artifact, with a very different meaning. I thought, if I was going to put this stuff together as Kim was always begging me to do, I wanted it to be as if somebody just took the original issues to a book binder and had them bound into a volume, so not necessarily where all the paper stocks are the same.
At the same time, so many of the stories themselves are about weird artifacts from the past.
Yeah, that was part of the culture at the time — it was impossible to find out about stuff! It felt like our recently buried culture had this really compelling mystery to it. Trying to find out about old movies, old books, things that you just came across in your travels was always a challenge. You felt, once you learned about these things you were interested in, you gained ownership in a way I don’t feel like you do now. You hear about something at 9 in the morning, and by 5 in the afternoon you know every single thing that’s ever been written about it! I’ve certainly had that experience many, many times in the Internet era and I feel like I never retain any of that.
The other side of that was the parts of culture that Eightball rejected, as in your story “I Hate You Deeply” — an attack on “zillionaires,” “fashion plates,” “guys with short hair on top and long hair in back,” and ultimately “everybody except you, dear reader.” How much of that stuff do you still hate?
When I did that story, those were the unfiltered opinions I might throw around in a certain context when arguing with a certain type of belligerent friend, of which I had many. I intended it to be walking the line: Am I serious, or am I just making fun of this type of opinion? And so there are certain ones that I’m far more angry about than I probably actually was at the time, and others that just seem absurd and irrelevant, as I sort of knew they were. I threw in a little thing about “zillionaires,” you know — at the time I’m sure I thought, “Anybody who’s even making a living is worthy of my contempt, because I wish I was…” And now there’s this sort of weariness I have with a world of people where that’s their focus in life, which always seems to me to be such a thwarted way to spend your existence.
Did you get any orders for the $100 hand-painted girlie ties you advertised in an early issue?
I think I got four. Four orders. Two of them, a collector now has. And the other two I have no record of — it’s not like I was writing down in my ledger who ordered them. A lot of people thought it was one dollar, so they’d send me a dollar, and I used to keep their dollar and write back “This is a lesson in postal fraud — don’t ever send money through the mail.”
The one voice that’s not yours in Eightball comes through the interviews with old people you drew in the early issues.
Yeah, and it’s an interesting thing. David Greenberger used to send me his magazine [The Duplex Planet]. He worked in a nursing home in Jamaica Plain, Mass., and he used to interview the people there. Their answers always struck me as the best kind of dialogue, where you have no idea what they’re going to say next, and yet it seemed absolutely real and perfect. It seemed like the perfect kind of feature to put in, saying the kinds of things that I was wishing I could write in dialogue.
Do you have any urge to do the sorts of short, one-and-done strips you drew in the early issues of Eightball — work that’s not a several-hundred-page graphic novel?
I think I got it out of my system back then. Whenever I’m trying to do a shorter story, it always turns into something bigger. I’m really interested in creating the characters and the world they live in and making it an experience where you’re almost not aware you’re reading a comic, and it’s really hard to do that in a short piece. It’s something I might get back to at some point.
Are there things you wrote or drew for Eightball that you’re especially proud of now?
…It’s like they’re your children. The ones that didn’t quite succeed, you still sort of are pulling for. I like the density of it, looking back on it — I didn’t want any blank space to appear. [Laughs.] It felt like I was giving people enough stuff for their $2.25, or whatever, to justify their purchase. I know I worked very, very hard on it, and looking back on it I can see that. I was always hard on myself, and now I’m trying to give myself credit for at least working hard.
Douglas Wolk is a freelance journalist and critic who writes about music, comic books and other things for TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other places. He’s also the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Live at the Apollo. He also wrote the Judge Dredd: Mega City Two comic series, recently collected as a graphic novel.