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Going Girlhood

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Pubescent Pals: Like most teenage girls, Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Dopplemeyer's orbit in 'Ghost World' revolves around pop culture, clueless males and parental figures.

Daniel Clowes vivisects young adulthood in 'Ghost World'

By Jennifer Przybylski

Adolescence begins when you're 12 and ends many hormone-infused tremors later. That those years are often cannibalized by comic books is not surprising. Charles Burns, writer and illustrator of the Black Hole, employs an age-specific virus to represent the anomie and experimentation that come with those years. The symptoms of the adolescent illness are horrifying; its victims ostracized. Just like real life.

Berkeley cartoonist Daniel Clowes evokes a similar sickly limbo in his graphic novel Ghost World, the story of Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Dopplemeyer. Clowes' vivisection of young adulthood is not as bloody as the Black Hole's but it is as stark and memorable. Like, that of most teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca's orbit includes pop culture and the clueless males who claim it as their own, etherized parental figures and the ruddy watermark that separates them from adulthood.

Clowes, 36, is best known for the scabrous self-effacement seen in the panels of his serial comic Eightball. Eightball is not codified for anyone's protection, let alone Clowes himself. A self-caricature caffeinated with lidless eyes and prominent teeth swings gallows-like and soiled in a story titled "My Suicide."

Clowes has made it his business to skewer social mores, self-importance and general contentment. According to Eightball, it is not a great big beautiful tomorrow--and woe to anyone who says it is. Clowes' Everyman is stomped into the sand by a neckless meathead, confronts the false nostalgia of Chicago and rails against the scheme known as art school. Just what you would expect from someone who grew up loving Zap Comix, served time at Cracked (lowly bastard of Mad magazine) and created the pre-Eightball hipster Lloyd Llewellyn. Llewellyn, he of the ever-dangling cigarette, was a send-up of the lounge ephemera that are now considered cool. Esquivel and cigarette holders? Done and done.

So how did Clowes, a legend in the pimply boys club of underground comics, create Ghost World's seamless evocations of girlhood? "I've offered a couple of different explanations for what inspired Ghost World," Clowes says. "One was half of my family were Jewish immigrants who were kind of obnoxious and the other half was of this reserved WASPish Pennsylvania clan. The two girls were a characterization of the two and hence myself  ... but I got to thinking about it and realized the equation was off. The best and most honest response to the question is that I wanted to create two characters that could not be aligned with me whatsoever. Anytime you create a male figure, the sneaking consensus is that it's really me talking. I didn't want room for any speculation."

Part of Clowes' inspiration for Ghost World came from playing big brother to a neighbor's teenage daughter when the cartoonist was in his early 20s. She'd vent, hang out at his place, bring over her friends and talk. This insight carried over to Becky and Enid, assuring that the two would sound like real people, not a male cartoonist glomming onto an alias. "I have received some very nice reviews," Clowes said. "I feel very lucky that Ghost World attracted as much attention as it did. It's funny, though. I have spoken to a few people who thought the novel was actually a parody of annoying teenage girls ... they're like, 'What bitches ... I couldn't stand them!' "

Ghost World is currently being developed for the screen by Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, director of Crumb, the critically praised documentary about seminal cartoonist Robert Crumb. The project has been optioned by Jersey Pictures, the production company behind Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. According to Clowes, Christina Ricci was the natural choice to play Enid. Luckily, she agreed. And Sophie Crumb, the talented 16-year-old daughter of Robert and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, will provide the contents for Enid's sketch pad, increasing the project's teenage authenticity.

Clowes has never felt the need to cultivate a mainstream audience--more a humble loner's conceit than a pompous dismissal--but his obscurity is about to end. Bolstered by the indie cred of Eightball, adoring reviews of Ghost World and Ricci's participation in the film, Clowes--like it or not--is primed to be "outed." It was Clowes who rendered the feckless suburban wonders on the poster for Todd Solondz's Happiness. His publisher is releasing a compilation of nine of Clowes' dramatic short stories, Caricature, including Green Eyeliner, reprinted for the first time from Esquire's annual fiction issue this past July. The studio system and the business of taking meetings are only part of what Clowes describes as a very complicated, Byzantine production.

"It is very difficult for me because I see myself as more of an artist rather than a businessman. I think I'm naturally modest, which doesn't help in the negotiation process. I think both Terry and I are," Clowes says. "I can't go into an office and say, 'My script is the best thing you will ever read.' I'm more like, 'Well, I think it is pretty good.' "

Zwigoff and Clowes don't intend Ghost World to spawn the kind of tabloid sideshow that Crumb did. There will be no randy photo shoots, shut-in savants or beds of nails to contend with. Clowes says that over-the-top shock is not what Ghost World is about. Divisive art-houseness is also not part of the plan. In fact, the challenge of distilling his panels into a film that's equally approachable has found Clowes rereading the classics for form and execution. He envisions master longshots, nothing grainy. Simply put, a movie that is sweet but also one that men in their 40s can relate to and enjoy.

Still, although a gender-specific following is less important than the art itself, Clowes wishes that half of his readers were female, a goal that no longer seems so far off. After all, the editor of the Web zine Girlie ranks Clowes somewhere between strawberry-flavored candies and Anne Sexton (but before the colors pea green and Chagall blue, as well as the old Sassy) on a list of hip female fetishes.

"I took what I knew to be true of the girls at a certain time in my life," Clowes said about writing Ghost World. "I hate stereotypes. I wanted both Becky and Enid to be real people, individuals. I envision Enid going someplace and doing wonderful things with her life."

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From the December 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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