Friday, September 13, 2013

Neighborhood Tour: The Daniel Clowes Reader

Ken Parille's The Daniel Clowes Reader (Fantagraphics) is a compulsively readable mix of comics, interviews, trivia, anecdotes, and academic writing about Clowes, one of our greatest cartoonists. My only real quibble with the book is necessitated by its format; by choosing to focus on comics included as part of the reader, some of the most important works of Clowes' career are barely mentioned. I'd read an entire book about Ice Haven (hell, I'd like to write a book about Ice Haven!), yet it's only touched upon briefly. That said, I agree with Parille that in a reader like this aimed at scholars, students and general readers alike, it's never wise to assume that a reader will be a Clowes expert who's read nearly everything. Instead, Parille wisely aims the book at the Ideal Reader: a smart person who has no knowledge of your subject but can pick it up if you it explain it carefully. As such, Parille even includes a glossary of comics-specific terms for the uninitiated.

I do see the Reader as being ready-made for a college course about comics or Clowes in particular. At the same time, Parille is also interested in analyzing works in a format that relies less on academic jargon and more on concepts and language that a layman can easily understand. It's a hybrid work in that regard, and I applaud this approach for taking that extra step to bridge the gap between theoretical language specific to certain disciplines while still retaining a disciplined, exacting analytical approach that relies heavily on what is on the page for a close reading. That sort of single panel/single comic focus is Parille's calling card as a critic, and he puts that to good use in analyzing the last line of Ghost World. This remains Clowes' most popular and best-selling comic, and it is reprinted in full in the Reader. Given its popularity and length, it's not surprising that the bulk of the criticism and analysis is about this comic. Parille's article on the last one is a sage one, because he's able to address ideas from the entirety of the book and offers multiple possible explanations as to how the line might be interpreted.

Ghost World is very much about ephemera, both in terms of objects and lives. As such, it was interesting to see articles about and examples of the cultural touchstones that fascinated its lead character Enid so much: cartoons, pages from zines, lyrics from a song, etc. Parille also has excerpts from interviews that delve into specific points about his work that shed light on the subject while presenting them as another way of looking at the work. That actually ends the first part of the book, which focuses on "girls and adolescence" through talking about Ghost World. Part two is "Short Stories, Boys and (Post) Adolescence", wherein the stories "Like A Weed, Joe", "Blue Italian Shit", "The Party" and "Black Nylon" are reprinted with commentary. In addition to annotations providing context for certain cultural references, there are once again interviews and articles examining the stories from different points of view. I thought Joshua Glenn's article "Against Groovy" was the most interesting of the lot, putting Clowes into historical context with regard to what his comics critique: early 90s generation X culture. Parille's article decoding the enigmatic super-hero story/Freudian metaphor "Black Nylon". Parille is not one to attempt to give a definitive answer. Rather, he provides different critical frameworks with which one can view the story.

The final section of the book is on "Comics, Artists and Audiences", and her we get a number of explicitly autobiographical stories, the most famous of which is "Art School Confidential". This section really gets into Clowes' aesthetics, especially his love of the grotesque and ugly. It also gets into his creative process, reprinting Clowes' minicomics insert ""Modern Cartoonist" and then printing an interview on the methods he uses when creating.  There are timelines and other bits of trivia for the Clowes enthusiast as well. By the end of the book, the reader gets a good sense of Clowes' cultural and individual influences and where he's coming from as an artist. The flexibility and openness of the book's interpretations of Clowes' art make it a perfect teaching tool, as it would allow students a chance to defend any number of their own conclusions without trying to give them THE answer. Parille excels both at putting comics in their historical and cultural contexts as well as putting all of that aside for a more phenomenological reading that relies solely on the text itself, suggesting that both methods are necessary in order to fully grasp the wide range a meanings a text might have.

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