Dan Clowes' DAVID BORING
Shawn Granton's TEN FOOT RULE
Robert Young's THE COMICS INTERPRETER
Sporting more original ideas than any ten graphic novels by lesser writers, Dan Clowes three-act graphic novel is his most accomplished work to date. Genre-bending with mystery and post-apocalypitic subplots, it achieves a kind of humorous postmodern unpredictability, while developing the theme of sexual obsession in a more sober manner.
Starring a protagonist who may be the fictional counterpart to the author himself, this may be the ultimate Clowes saga.
What follows is not a review, per se, but an analysis of a signifigant work of comics literature. One cannot pen an appreciation of David Boring without interpreting the work, and I can't arrive at any method of interpreting it that doesn't involve a fair amount of synopsizing. Anyone who hasn't read the comic itself is hereby warned that I may be spoiling some story surprises.
'I am cursed by two things: an unsympathetic eye for perfection and a blossoming knowledge of my own feminine ideal, specifically: the head (round eyes and mouth, a jaunty arc to the nose bridge), smallish and ovoid, leading with a particular tilt to an extended neck, swooping outward at the shoulders... a substantial carriage and arms; smallish rounded breasts; a convex stomach dividing powerful hips wich, from side to back, describe a meaty semi-circle; proceeding downward to thick, girlish legs and insignificant feet.'
Cold and joyless, David Boring's descriptions of his own sexual obsessions hardly invite identification. But we develop a morbid curiosity about his borderline sociopathic attitude towards relationships. 'I believe in 'experiencing the moment' in its present tense, without dwelling on bygone associations or a tragic aftermath,' he explains, and we are persuaded to adopt his detached philosophy.
But Boring's non-commital attitude is shattered when he encounters a young woman in an airport shuttle bus. Clowes handling of this event is a masterpiece of embedded meanings. Boring describes his first reactions as if they were movie script footnotes-- 'A pink spotlight lights her face as she comies into focus. Romantic music begins to swell.' A passing reference to a Professor Karkes foreshadows his role in act 3. And the young woman's name, Wanda Kraml, is presented to us, inverted, as Boring reads it from her luggage tag.
At first Wanda appears perfectly normal. Stalking her, Boring actually considers killing another plane passenger just so he can sit next to her on her flight; but her attitude towards him is only polite indifference.
When he finally manages to strike up a conversation with her, however, we begin to get a sense of her invertedness-- she's a shallow, self-obsessed snob with a brutal attitude towards others who fall short. Fortunately for David, he's skinny enough (and computer-illiterate enough) to meet her demanding specifications.
Wanda is also inverted in her sexual attitudes. Though maintaining an almost virginal modesty about her body, she's watched numerous x-rated films for a term paper, and when she discovers a pornographic scrapbook David has compiled, she's fascinated by it.
David, meanwhile, has falled head over heels for her, and fantasizes about making love to her. 'It's possible that I'm going insane,' he writes. After they've consumated their relationship, David's thoughts turn to marriage, disregarding the possibility raised by his friend Dot: 'Face it, Boring... you just like her because she has a fat ass.'
But just as David is drawing closer to her, Wanda grows distant and refuses to see him anymore. David experiences an emotional collapse and a near-fatal physical trauma.
The island has no communication with the mainland, and when David's Uncle August arrives with news that the country's been attacked by germ-warfare bombs, the inhabitants face the possibility that they are humanity's only survivors. To make matters worse, a psychopath is in their midst, gradually withering their ranks with nocturnal homicides.
Although the first act included the offscreen murder of one of the characters, the melodramatic developments of act two are an abrupt shift. Even the perspective, which in act 1 was exclusively David's, changes to the omniscient to show various events around the island.
But this hiatus in the Wanda plot line is a brilliant strategy. It allows David to recover from his collapse in act 1; it provides further opportunities for Clowes to show us how Wanda has infiltrated David's thinking and his dreams. It reveals how David's obsession with Wanda is intermingled with his first sexual encounter with his cousin Pamela on this very island, including a swimming incident where they secretly kissed while hiding underwater.
The situation on the island also places David in proximity to his mother, so that we can examine their adversarial relationship.
Furthermore, it gives David time on-screen to wonder about his father, a cartoonist who left the family when David was very young. The vehicle for this is an old comic book that his dad authored and illustrated. Titled 'The Yellow Streak,' it's a superhero tale ripe with Freudian symbolism, not the least of which is penis-like antenna protruding from the caped hero's forehead.
'I allow myself to read only two panels a night,' writes David, 'very closely, with an eye for uncanny parallels and traces of my father.' Brief excerpts indicate a storyline in which a Jimmy Olsen type character named Testor is hypnotized into zapping Streak into another dimension, where he is helpless to prevent Testor from being further duped by a villainous hag. If the Streak is symbolically David's father, then Testor might be himself, and the hag (who is shown wearing disguises) may be David's mother.
As if confirming this, Mrs. Boring discovers David reading the book, grabs it away from him and tears it to bits.
Strangely, the island sojourn is the occasion of a subtextual family trade. Mrs. Boring reaches out supportively to comfort her young cousin Manfred (he being, ironically, the murderous psychopath.) She eventually abandons David to flee with Manfred from the island.
Meanwhile, David's cousin, Mrs. Capon, secretly enters his room to make love to him, and her affection for the young man is almost an adoptive act. Also, when the family employee, Mr. Hulligan, rescues David from a fistfight with Manfred, a fatherly bond is established. Later, David and Hulligan work together to escape the island in a hand-built raft.
This reassessment of his family life, and a redemptive shift in his affections, heals David of the wound inflicted in act 1, and prepares him for the final act of the saga.
In the city, David soon finds himself with a steady job, a steady girlfriend, Naomi, and an aspiration to be a screenwriter. But he remains haunted by the surviving fragments of the Yellow Streak comic book, and dreams of an eerie boy who's the imaginary love child of his love affair with Wanda. Although she has disappeared, he soon gets a lead on her wearabouts when he discovers pages from his pornographic scrapbook in a thesis by Professor Karkes.
When David tracks down Karkes, the professor confesses to having an affair with Wanda. Like David, he's searched for her to no avail. The two of them decide to pool their resources; thus is born 'The Wanda Club.'
Karkes, a spiritual carcass, is an aging counterpart to the detached David at the beginning of act 1. He was seen in the opening act arguing with colleages about placing passionate impulses before responsibility. Now he is revealed as a petty, jealous old man, obsessing about a departed lover half his age. David's comment, 'He's not a very good role model,' is quite an understatement.
As a result of their investigations, David goes to interview Wanda's sister, Judy, who greatly resembles her in appearance. Indeed, it becomes clear to David that an envious Wanda had changed herself to imitate Judy, even to the point of dyeing her hair. Judy, however, has a much sweeter disposition than her younger sister.
Their first meeting foreshadows a transferal of David's affections. This is cleverly suggested by Clowes, who shows them conversing on the patio while drinking from paper cups. Just as Judy is revealing some disillusioning facts about Wanda, a gust of wind blows their empty cups off the table. Judy retrieves them, then nestles one cup in the other, while saying 'You seem like a really sweet guy... you'll find somebody else!'
David's growing love for Judy, however, is doomed from the start by the fact that she has a husband, one with violent tendencies and an emotional hold over her. Although David's own girlfriend Naomi soon departs for Europe (still fearing the apocalypse), David never gets beyond a kissing and hugging relationship with Judy.
Karkes tracks Wanda down to a commune, where she is the only surviving member of a religious cult that aspires to have sex with God. 'I figure, who's got a bigger dick, right?' she jokes, after revealing that she plans to 'pass over' soon like her fellow cultists. It is a chilling portrait of sexual obsession even more destructive than Karkes'.
As they talk, David considers a ball of hard candy as if it were a planet, and imagines himself as God, choosing one tiny fleck from it to be God's girlfriend. 'And if God were to select a fleck from this world, he could do much worse than poor Wanda,' writes David, distancing himself from her, but not without affection.
The story builds to a climax somewhat artificially, as corrupt cops investigating the murders in act 1 and 2 decide to frame David for them. As they close in on him, David has a violent encounter with Judy's husband on the stage of a vaudeville performance (an aptly over-the-top scene.)
Once again emotionally shattered, David poises suicidally on the railing of a bridge, as the cops aim their pistols at him. But a gun-wielding Dot shoots the police and rescues him. They flee once again to Hulligan's Wharf.
Dot, his best friend throughout the story, has been shown in a series of failing lesbian relationships. She's earned our compassion as someone whose need for love has been frustrated by social taboos. Her only solace has been David's friendship. They are, in the truest sense, family. Being reunited on the island would provide them with a satisfying closure.
But Clowes has an even more charitable ending in store, as David and Dot encounter Pamela hiding from the impending apocalypse on the island with her infant son.
As the story closes, Dot has transfered her need for affection to the young child, and David and Pamela have resumed their long-ago relationship. Although fatalistic about the coming apocalypse, David is grateful for this period of happiness. This fleeting bliss is symbolized by the closing image of David once again kissing Pamela while they are underwater. His earlier remarks about 'experiencing the moment' are echoed, but with much greater feeling, in his closing sentence, 'Believe me, I'm thankful for every second.'
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Shawn Granton's digest-zine comics anthology is everything a small-press comic should be.
First and foremost, it's a terrific showcase for a promising new talent. Granton is a skilled artist and an engaging writer, and the book presents us with the many aspects of his work.
As a pure artist, he can be dazzling, evidenced by his lovingly-detailed surreal portrait of Ricardo Rosa on the inside front cover. Illustrating a poem by Rosa as a 2-page comic, Granton cuts lose with a series of bizaare images that range from the cosmic to the barbaric. But for the majority of his comics work, Granton uses a clear, well-designed cartooning style that conveys the narrative smoothly and effectively.
As an autobiographer, Granton is droll and self-effacing; his account of a Big Apple Con visit notes his shyness when confronted by attractive women, and his outrage at a New Jersey bridge toll-- 'Four FUCKING dollars to cross the George Washington? FUCK?!' Another true account touches on the bizaare, as a nerdish co-worker is caught trying to steal a rifle from the sporting goods section, for uses unknown.
In 'Heat', a semi-humorous comics essay about the heat wave of June 1999, Granton shows a poetic side. 'That heat and humidity gets deep inside my brain, and gives me urges. I can't stay still, I have to get moving. My wanderlust kicks into high gear.'
One of Granton's frequent themes is the dehumanizing tedium of work. He imagines himself as a futuristic robot doomed to 'a "career" filled with mind-numbing drudgery.' And in his best-conceived one-pager, 'The Difference Between Want and Need,' he evokes the 'retail hell' of being constantly in demand on your job until you ask for a raise.
But look here, Ten Foot Rule is more than just a one-artist showcase! Granton presents an excellent 2-page strip by Sarah Oleksyk about the overheard conversation of two elderly men. And on one of his back pages he assembles a 'Reading List' with capsule reviews of 21 other minicomics!
All in all, a terrific little comic book, highly recommended!
Also recommended is LEFT OF THE DIAL, a TEN FOOT RULE special edition Granton released for the APE 2000 show in San Francisco. It's strongest story is a character sketch of a punker named Misery, still a college DJ at 30because her hostile, gloomy attitude towards life prevents her from moving on.
The other pieces are interesting commentaries on the rock music scene. Says Granton, 'Y'know, it saddens me to think how the youth of today are being deprived of the cryptic iconography that rock once possessed! I mean, when I was 12 I used to stare at the cover of Zeppelin IV for HOURS, tyring to figure out what the hell it means! Where is that kind of pseudo-mystical shit today?'
Granton also recently edited and published MODERN INDUSTRY, showcasing ten other exceptional artists.
The high points in this collection are 'Closin' Time,' F. C. Brandt's take on the heisting of fast-food joint, with a really clever surprise ending; and Robert Ullman's 'Fake Out', a slick skewering of a typical dance club pickup, revealing the stereotypes that drive people apart.
With its cool arrangements of shapes, textures, and blocks of solid black, Dylan Williams' art shows great promise in his stylish short 'Shoes'. It's slender storyline is about a writer at a crossroads-- should he continue to be 'content with endlessly cataloguing the minutiae of day-to-day life' or has he become 'stuck in a rut.' But William's narration is awkward, needlessly puzzling, and occasionally ungramattical-- he obviously has more fundamental issues to deal with as a writer!
Androo Robinson (of PED XING fame) contributes an intriguing visual poem, demonstrating that his art skills are improving by leaps and bounds. And Keith Knight turns up with two installments of his reliably hilarious THE K CHRONICLES.
Closing the book, Granton contributes a short SF tale, "Nor 'Easter" that's a delightful counterpart to the aforementioned 'Heat.' In it, a lonely space traveler comes to realize that there's a quiet beauty to the winter landscape of the remote interplanetary outpost she inhabits. The only problem I have with this story is that, while I like the fact that it's Sf, the speculative elements aren't really relevant to the theme. Nevertheless, this piece once again demonstrates that Granton is an interesting talent well worth checking out!
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Robert Young has gained notoriety for his frequent bouts with other correspondents on the comicon.com and tcj.com message boards. In his flame wars with Comics Journal publisher Kim Thompson and others (including yours truly), Young has displayed a talent for colorful invective that has set him apart, and even won him a band of loyal followers.
But Young is slowly building a more substantial reputation for comics journalism and criticism with his quarterly zine, THE COMICS INTERPRETER. With Jeff Levine's DESTROY ALL COMICS long gone, and Chris Staros' THE STAROS REPORT set aside indefinitely, Young's magazine may be the leading print alternative to THE COMICS JOURNAL.
Issue 3 is a thick 128 digest-sized pages, and includes two creator interviews, three review sections (one for mainstream comics, one for minicomics, and one for zines), several essays, and a sketchbook section from cartoonist Nick Abadzis. A ten-page section devoted to artists revealing their Millenium plans is of absolutely no value whatsoever; but otherwise, this book is all meat.
Young's reviews are lengthy and contain many keen observations, both about the comic in question and the artist's position in the industry. In an extensive review of Paul Pope's HEAVY LIQUID, for example, Young makes much of the fact that this is a Vertigo book, and may influence for better or worse the future of indy cartoonist in that branch of DC Comics.
Young argues his positions carefully, and one can appreciate his point of view even when one disagrees with it. He does, however, sometimes need to provide more foundation. Case in point is his general criticism of Pope's stories as 'all tantalizing surface that once punched through reaveals a hollow, airy center swimming in copious pools of black ink on white paper.' Colorful as this metaphor is, it's all rhetoric without supporting observations of how Pope's THE BALLAD OF DR. RICHARDSON is, supposedly, shallow.
Also, the reviews are poorly organized, lacking in focus, and somewhat repetitious. Young needs to do a lot more proofreading to eliminate redundancy and awkward phrasing. For instance, of Alan Moore's LEAGUE OF DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMEN, he says 'The League's characters are mostly interesting.' Not to nitpick, but does he mean most of the characters are interesting or that the characters are interesting most of the time? Frequent stumbles like this undercut Young's authority in assessing other writers.
Young chooses worthy subjects to interview (in issue 3, dream scenario cartoonist Jesse Reklaw, and NON editor Jordan Crane) and asks some interesting questions. One fine moment is when he gets Reklaw to talk about the prank dream scenarios he sometimes receives from his collaborators.
But Young often doesn't follow up on intriguing remarks by the interview subjects. Take Jordan Crane's assessment of artist David Choe: 'He takes everything I would normally think is all wrong, and somehow makes it into something that works beautifully.' If you think about it, this really says absolutely nothing! You want Young to ask, 'What do you mean, 'all wrong?' Do you mean Choe's punk sensibility, his busy linework, his verbosity, what?' The fact that it's an email interview shouldn't prevent Young from pursuing these points.
Young unquestionably possesses great energy and a passion for the comics medium. He has a talent for turning a memorable phrase that will serve him well as a writer. What he needs to do now is to concent on perfecting his craft.
THE COMICS INTERPRETER c/o Robert
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