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Overdue Billiard

Media Mavens: Enid and Becky confront the specter of cable TV.

Dan Clowes predicts the end of adult comics. Or is it only the beginning?

By Richard von Busack

LOST AND TINTED ice blue, the two heroines of Dan Clowes' Ghost World series finally reach the end of their story in the long-awaited Eightball #18 (Fantagraphics, $3.95). Enid Cohn is a bright, "plain" girl of about 18; her very close friend Becky is somewhat prettier--well, blonder. They are trying hopelessly to keep things as simple as when they were children.

Their friendship has an aura of frustration--marked by their furtive, almost hostile crushes on boys they know slightly and combined with an inability to cross over and become lovers themselves. They can't love anyone else, and they're really the only people in each other's world.

Enid and Becky might, with effort, get over the revulsion that's been duly installed in them against going lesbian--though the problem might be that they aren't attracted to each other. I had an old girlfriend who told me that I was too much like her for us to go on, that instead of being able to forget her problems when she was with me, she just saw her problems looking back at her. Something like this might constitute the barrier between Enid and Becky.

The delicacy of Clowes' characterizations should be the envy of most current novelists and filmmakers. We see what the girls see: a world of weirdoes, monsters and snobs. Enid and Becky, however, never seem like princesses.

For example, Enid's loving, though much-married, father is almost everything a daughter could want. He's been urging Enid to go away to college, which has caused a rift between the two girls. The sign of mediocre teen drama is a mother or father who doesn't care, but what's worse about late adolescence is having parents who do care, who make displays of love that can't reach you. Becky has a half-senile older relative who, trying to be kind, makes matter worse: "It would suit me just fine if you stayed here with me for the rest of your life."

I was sorry to see Ghost World go, even though the story ended exactly where Clowes had aimed it. As Nabokov's conclusion to the short story "A Russian Beauty" puts it, "I repeat the words of the merry king in my favorite fairy tale: Which arrow flies forever? The arrow that has hit its mark."


THE END of this story, which has occupied Clowes for the last couple of years, is marked by a manifesto, inserted as a small pamphlet inside the comic book. The Modern Cartoonist is illustrated with a typically macabre drawing of a sober-looking, middle-aged artist in an eye shade opening a vein in his wrist. In the essay, Clowes appeals to the next generation of cartoonists, proclaiming comics to be "the ultimate domain of the artist who seeks to wield absolute control of his imagery."

The Modern Cartoonist speculates that the history of comic books goes in cycles of approximately 15 years. So far, we have witnessed the founding of Mad Magazine and E.C. Comics in 1953; the wave of underground cartoonists that crested in 1968, bringing with it Robert Crumb, Justin Green and others; and the 1983 success of Raw, Weirdo and various other new-wave undergrounders. By this reckoning, the comet will return in 1998. "Are we on the brink of rapture or apocalypse?" Clowes asks.

It might be the latter. The abysmal sales figures for comic books, which have been pushed into the dust by television, movies and video games, may signal an irrevocable decline. The audience for "Advanced Readers" comics (to use a Clowesism) is stable, but it isn't leaping in the fashion that makes hearts flutter in marketing departments.

In The Modern Cartoonist, Clowes wonders whether comics books are like a Mom and Pop store ailing away in the vicinity of a new supermarket--a place where you might shop out of guilt, even while realizing you're just prolonging the agony.

As hard as it is for the average American to look beyond the bottom line, Clowes urges the reader to do that. We stand, he claims, at the end of "the most artistically successful 15 years in the history of comics," and it is possible that the accumulated wisdom will be passed on--as well as the knowledge of mistakes that won't be repeated.

I'm skeptical, and I also don't know how Clowes does it all--how he continues to work with such craftsmanship at the frontier between commercial success and the world of fine art. The latter, even after a remarkable 15 years, still considers comic books butt-wipe for children. And the latest wave of youth "alternative culture" in other media seems firmly in the grip of the marketing types, who have themselves learned from their predecessors' mistakes.

But I'd much rather be wrong than right in this matter. The idea of a new comic millennium at our doorstep is so fetching that it almost makes up for the retirement of Enid and Becky.

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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