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Friday, 11 March 2011

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Ahistoricality

I think the last ** point is wrong: If the film dialogue was just "Loser!" then the phrase could have the same free-floating effect.

Rich Puchalsky

I don't know if your pre-critical feeling is matched by mine in the other direction, or something, but I think that you're misreading this. For that matter, I think that you misread Wilson -- which struck me as pretty much the best comic I've read in the last decade.

Clowes has a habit of authorial framing that matches his characters' mental framing. That doesn't mean that he's authorially endorsing it. This page, for instance: the two girls are being cruel and unfunny, mocking someone who is clearly trying to get through his job -- he has a script he has to read about today's specials. Yes, their mocking him ends up with a captioned "You loser!", because Enid feels that she's scored. But what's in the very next panel? He's vanished. He's back to his job. Instead, Enid and Rebecca are left sitting there alone, saying "I hate this song" and "It sucks", left helplessly trying to mock the very air itself.

I think that it's really clear that Enid and Rebecca are being framed as losers here, but not as authorial critique -- it's like Clowes is saying that they should be kind and polite and get jobs. No, they are ghosts, teenagers with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no clear idea of what their life plan is going to be. Their cruelty is powerless, and happens because they have nothing better. They, and Allen, may be losers, but Clowes is neither representing nor endorsing the girls' reprehensible behavior, he's presenting it as what happens when our society happens.

Similarly, in Wilson, Wilson criticizing comic books is tragicomic in ways that I don't think you allowed for. Wilson's a sadistic pseudo-intellectual who tries to make people feel uncomfortable, in part because he's a tremendous loser. He laughs at people who read comic books because it gives unimportant people a false sense of specialness. That's not a critique of comic books, it's self-hatred. Nor, I think, is Wlison supposed to be an authorial surrogate for Clowes, or a reader surrogate: the reader is represented as all of those people who Wilson harasses in coffee shops and airports. If Wilson is a surrogate, he's a very partial one, but I think that the book reads better as Wilson being an actual character.

Rich Puchalsky

Drat. That should be "It's *not* like Clowes is saying that they should be kind and polite and get jobs" above.

NickS

Rebecca becomes more disagreeable.

"It's *not* like Clowes is saying that they should be kind and polite and get jobs"

But (in the movie at least) Rebecca does get a job which requires her to be subject to annoying self-indulgent patrons (the person obsessed with the coffee shop daily trivia), and this is presented as a sign of her being (in certain ways) more mature than Enid.

Dan Coyle

Wow, I was in a bad mood when I posted in that Wilson thread. Not that I'd take back what I said.

The best joke in Wilson is that you've paid $21.95 for 77 variations of the same joke. Hi-YOOOOOOOO!

Josh

Rich, you're right; but I don't know how one stays patient with all the "author must be endorsing his characters' ethics" arguments one sees. I've been running into people who condemn Austen because Emma Woodhouse does terrible things.

I guess one just has to hope that nobody with such a perspective reads Hogg.

SEK

I think the last ** point is wrong: If the film dialogue was just "Loser!" then the phrase could have the same free-floating effect.

Ahistoricality: Not really, but only because I'm giving Clowes his due: that's the sort of effect that can be pulled off effortlessly in comics, but requires awkwardness in film, which is likely why Clowes left it out. (One benefit of adapting your own book, I suppose.) As I noted at LGM, I’m not faulting Zwigof for a lack of imagination, it’s just the unique limitations of different mediums make things possible in one very difficultly accomplished, or only differently achieved, in another.

They, and Allen, may be losers, but Clowes is neither representing nor endorsing the girls' reprehensible behavior, he's presenting it as what happens when our society happens.

Rich: Howdy, buddy! Long time no see! That said, I think you're clearly wrong when you write "They, and Allen," because I don't think Clowes can conceive of a "They" than includes "and Allen." I doubt I'm going to convince any Clowes fans of this short of writing a dissertation on the man -- and I've already written a dissertation about one figure I loathed, so I'm not keen to do so again -- but when I claim that certain characters speak in Clowes' voice and are, on some level, author-surrogates, I'm not basing it on a single book. I'm vexed by Clowes, have read everything of his I can get my hands on, and am identifying a pattern based on a recognizable voice. I'm not claiming that he endorses every word his protagonists utter, but there are moments -- and they're always associated with people his characters consider unsympathetic "losers," here, in David Boring, and in Wilson -- in which the judgment of characters slips beyond "ironic detachment" into "self-loathing and cruel."

He laughs at people who read comic books because it gives unimportant people a false sense of specialness. That's not a critique of comic books, it's self-hatred. Nor, I think, is Wlison supposed to be an authorial surrogate for Clowes, or a reader surrogate[.]

Reading comics gives people a sense of specialness? I follow you on the "self-hatred" line, but in terms of social standing, walking into a comics shop isn't that different from walking into a strip club in the eyes of society.

That said, I think you and Josh need to realize that I'm not claiming that these characters are author surrogates ... only that there are moments, structurally and contextually consistent across his oeuvre, in which his self-loathing becomes unironic and turns outward.

But (in the movie at least) Rebecca does get a job which requires her to be subject to annoying self-indulgent patrons (the person obsessed with the coffee shop daily trivia), and this is presented as a sign of her being (in certain ways) more mature than Enid.

Zwigof makes a concerted, albeit pedestrian, effort to rehabilitate Rebecca, as if she's the high tide that'll lift Enid too, which is why I prefer the fill to the book.

Wow, I was in a bad mood when I posted in that Wilson thread. Not that I'd take back what I said.

Dan, it didn't bother me, as you'd already been commenting here awhile ... but actually, no you hadn't, now that I look at it. It's just that, well, The Facebook, so it was like water off this duck's back.

I don't know how one stays patient with all the "author must be endorsing his characters' ethics" arguments one sees.

Josh, I really don't think I'm doing this. There's a reason for that formal analysis up there -- it's to avoid simply conflating the author with the characters. Demonstrating that Clowes has a revealing formal tic isn't the same thing as claiming his characters speak for him. I know that you know that I know that we both know that I know this.

tomemos

Oh my God. I've been waiting for, like, months—when did Iceland blow up? it would have been around then—for the Wilson argument to resume, and now it does…in the middle of the night, the night before I'm going to be tutoring all day. So I'm not going to be able to take part for a bit. Instead, two requests:
1) Rich, fight the good fight. You're going to say everything better than I would anyway.
2) Scott, I don't know if this is fair, but would you take a stab at responding to the points I made in your Acephalous post on Wilson, and the points that Hob made in your LGM post on the same? Like I said, I don't know if it's legit to make you suddenly fight a thread on multiple fronts, but I think that Hob and I both made points that were … well, I think they were correct, but at least they were strong—that didn't get responded to. Specifically, that your position is circular (we can tell Clowes is mean-spirited because of his characters; we can tell that his characters are mean-spirited because Clowes is), and so there's nothing Clowes can do that would convince you that that's not the case.

(Hob and I both, it seems, have also read everything or nearly everything Clowes has done, so "it just is, trust me" is not an adequate response.)

SEK

Hob and I both, it seems, have also read everything or nearly everything Clowes has done, so "it just is, trust me" is not an adequate response.

The problem is, that requires evidence, and I've only got scanned copies of Ghost World and Wilson. Given that my arguments rely on the interaction of text and picture, it makes sense that I couldn't answer your complaint about David Boring without referencing panels in the book ... which would've been completely unconvincing if they weren't accompanied by the actual panels. As above, my arguments simply don't work if we're talking thematically. Put differently, if you can score/lend me copies of the issues of Eightball I lost when I moved out of Verano, as well as a scanner, I'd be able to make my argument.

In short, my "trust me" argument isn't asking you to agree with me about its conclusions, only acknowledge that I'm basing my interpretations of these particular panels on a familiarity of long-standing. Also, albeit implicitly, I'm vehemently arguing that libraries ought to stock the complete Clowes, if only to help louts like me argue on the internet.

(All that said, I'll revisit those arguments shortly, possibly by taking a digital camera to David Boring and editing the pictures so they're legible. Not that I have any teaching responsibilities to attend to, mind you.)

Ahistoricality

in terms of social standing, walking into a comics shop isn't that different from walking into a strip club in the eyes of society.

I keep trying to come up with a rejoinder to this, and failing.

Rich Puchalsky

"Reading comics gives people a sense of specialness? I follow you on the "self-hatred" line, but in terms of social standing, walking into a comics shop isn't that different from walking into a strip club in the eyes of society."

Wilson makes a specific argument to the cab driver in that page that you posted on last time. It's not a good argument, but it's an argument. Wilson says that liking comic books is like patriotism, or religion: that it gives losers the illusion of specialness, and he mockingly says "'I live in the best country!' 'I'm going to live forever in Heaven!' "I've got super-powers!'"

Maybe Clowes should have avoided mentioning comics since he's a comic book writer, but to some extent that's like saying that he should have avoided having his character diss religion if he were a priest, since then his readers might think his character was speaking out of authorial self-hatred, or authorial scorn for the other people in the author's business.

At any rate, if Wilson is an authorial surrogate, the book flatly doesn't work, because Wilson is a comically malevolent person in ways that Clowes pretty clearly isn't, and then the book just becomes a massive authorial self-indulgence. If Wilson is a reader surrogate, the book similarly doesn't work, because then it becomes a sort of inverse Gary Stu -- the character who is specially, projectively bad. Luckily Clowes puts reader surrogates all over the book. They're the people that Wilson is talking to, the puzzled and ever-polite cab drivers and people sitting at coffee shops and next to him in airports. If Wilson is those people, he's those people gone wrong. They know how to cope, more or less, and he doesn't. The book works if you recognize that Wilson is more or less a real, possible person, and if you reflect on the actual differences between the reader projection and him. I think it's critique of this kind of "I'm-horrible" projection, or at least can be read that way.

For this panel, I just don't see any way in which Clowes isn't loading the dice to make Allen as sympathetic as possible. His little "I imagine so!" means that he's gamely trying to go along, he's not just robotically going through his script, trying to tune them out entirely. I can certainly see not liking Clowes because mocker and mockee in his works all live in a depressing neverending aura of mockingness. But I don't see that he's being particularly authorially cruel to any of his characters here. They're bored and directionless girls being as cruel as they know how to be, which isn't very, to a waiter.

Rich Puchalsky

My comment wandered all over the place, and I didn't explain the part I should have explained:

"He laughs at people who read comic books because it gives unimportant people a false sense of specialness. That's not a critique of comic books, it's self-hatred."

What gives Wilson his sense of specialness? His intellectuality. His father's a professor in comp lit, and Wilson desperately tries to live up to that and confronts everyone with a knowing attitude, as if he is a thinker who sees through the illusions that they don't. But Wilson has pretty clearly never studied any of the things that he alludes to in any serious way. There's an airport scene where Wilson asks someone what physical activities their job actually involves, and you think he's going to go off on one of the various work critiques, but he comically doesn't know anything about it. He doesn't know that I.T. stands for Information Technology in the next scene so that he can make fun of I.T. work -- instead he's reduced to childishly making fun of acronyms. His intellectuality, the thing that he's confronting the cab driver with, is his own thing that gives him, a failure, his false sense of specialness. That's what I meant by it being self-hatred -- it's in-character self-hatred, not necessarily authorial.

tomemos

I don't see why comic panels are necessary for every discussion of a comic. They certainly help, but a lot of the conversation has to do with character and dialogue, for which panels aren't always necessary--plus, your interlocutors are never going to have panels to present anyway.

But we can certainly restrict the conversation to Ghost World; that might make more sense than a Clowes's Entire Oeuvre thread anyway. I agree with Rich that Allen is shown to be a nice guy with a goofy haircut doing his best. I also think that, before we look at this exchange in the context of Clowes's entire arc, we should look at it in the context of the chapter: at the disastrous second trip, where they execute the Missed Connections prank, Allen is the one who's confident in his role, while Enid, Rebecca, and Josh want to crawl through the floor. On the last page (here panels would be useful), Josh is furious, Rebecca uncomfortable, Enid guilt-stricken...and three of the last four panels are of Allen alone, impassively collecting Enid's penitent tip and throwing out the Missed Connection guy's rose petals. I don't see why Clowes would linger on Allen if he wanted to portray (or couldn't keep himself from portraying) him as a meaningless tip drone. For that matter, I don't know why he would necessarily be agreeing with Enid in a chapter where he portrays her cavalierly dashing a guy's expectations and then feeling terrible about it.

One last quibble: Enid is not saying "Whatever!" to mock Rebecca for playing the game, but to distance herself from her own losing move: Enid tried to keep the exchange going, but "the car wash" is not a convincing 50's icon, and when Rebecca calls her on this Enid has to pretend like she doesn't think any of it matters. Like I said, a quibble, but important only because it is one of the many places where Enid's confident cynicism is shown to be an inch deep, with an ocean of insecurity below.

NickS

Zwigof makes a concerted, albeit pedestrian, effort to rehabilitate Rebecca, as if she's the high tide that'll lift Enid too, which is why I prefer the fill to the book.

Not to interrupt the other arguments, but the tone of this seems wrong. I think one of the strengths of the movie (and I've already stated my position as a fan) is the way in which it shows how "small victories" can in fact be victories. The scene in which Seymour breaks up with the woman that he was dating is a good example -- you can see that this represents a significant step forward for him in terms of self-knowledge, and willingness to act on that knowledge, while still being a pretty modest achievement (he manages to break up with somebody in a moderately excruciating way).

Similarly I think the juxtaposition of Enid and Rebecca's job experiences show that Rebecca is displaying meaningful maturity in being willing to put up with a shitty job. Again it isn't the sort of accomplishment that anybody would take pride in, but it is nevertheless won at some cost. In that case it creates a division between her and Enid, and you can see why they would both be a little frustrated with each other at that point.

Matt Merlino

Here's the problem with this whole reading: Clowes thinks Al IS a loser, but he thinks Enid is a giant dick for saying so and that Rebecca is spineless for just going along with Rebecca.

And Clowes is completely right. Al is in fact a loser. What else can you call an adult who submits to such a job? But the difference between Clowes calling that guy a loser and Enid calling him a loser is that Clowes sense of the term is not pejorative. It's like a realist type versus a stereotype. Clowes deals with losers, and he treats them as real people who exist in the world. (Fancy writer types call them grotesques.) There are those who "win" at life and those who "lose." We see this more in the film. Seymour loses at life, and Clowes shows quite well that this is very much his choice and his fault. We see Enid making similar choices with similar faults.


Now, we might like a socially conscious Clowes who would show supreme sympathy to Al by highlighting the economic forces that have created 50s Theme Restaurants and that have pressured grown men to work at such restaurants and look like Al. But that's not Clowes. He's a weak Flannery O'Connor, not a weak Victor Hugo.

Rich Puchalsky

Matt is basically right, I think, but his reading depends on authorial intention a bit more than I'd like in this case. Clowes is showing a scene in which all three characters are losers, in a fairly ordinary descriptive sense. I don't think he's authorially condemning any of them for being losers, and I don't think that he's authorially elevating any of them either -- I don't think that Enid's a superior loser to Allen because she's articulate and younger and one of the main characters.

The difference between Matt's reading and mine is that I'm not really sure that Clowes is calling Al a loser. The term is Enid's, and seems completely in character for Enid to use. Clowes highlights it with the three of them arranged around Al. But that doesn't mean that it's his authorial term, as if he's setting out to document the lives of losers. On the contrary, people in Ghost World make choices, they move up and down and around in various gradations of loser-dom -- it doesn't work very well as a descriptive category for the characters since they're all losers yet are not undifferentiated.

Is Clowes socially conscious? In a certain way I think he is. At any rate, I think that Al, even in the brief look at him in this scene, is drawn basically sympathetically. Even Wilson is depicted pretty much as sympathetically as he can be. I don't think that these are laughing at losers scenes.

Gary Farber

You all make very good points, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

Fortunately, I do, insofar as time allows.

Scott, you make a very convincing argument, which I'm not in a position to refute never having, er, actually read Ghost World as yet.

Rich also makes a very convincing argument. I'm more sympathetic, because I liked the movie, and prefer to bring my own reading, I can, so therefore I win! Subjectively, with tiger's blood.

Rich, you're right; but I don't know how one stays patient with all the "author must be endorsing his characters' ethics" arguments one sees.
Repetition + time = ennui/occasonal desires to punch someone in nose spiked by adrenalin, usually resulting in sudden need to vacuum cats.

But primarily familiarity breeds contempt, which must be blended with Zen patience, not shaken nor stirred.

www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnQP3Cx6HjLOcsa24G26s9EB00GdBlWNkc

Saw this a bit late, thought I’d chime in anyway.

I’ve seen the movie and read only part of the book (never found that one issue of Eightball). From what I remember, the overarching story of both is that Enid and Rebecca have formed a pocket of, to borrow a term from above, specialness that they’ve manufactured as hyperaware minds who don’t really have the drive to, y’know, actually do anything that would actually make them special. The whole mood is awash with Enid’s anxiety that the bubble will burst, which is understandable because the driving force in the story is Rebecca’s coming to terms with how hollow the sham is, and finding the will to leave it and assume a normal life, letting go of the delusion of specialness (though the movement itself often pretty subtle because we don’t access Rebecca’s internal life like we do Enid’s, but it mirrors the way the whole of Enid’s constructed reality is revealed, gradually, to be unstable do to other realities of life).

That said, I think you are missing, by focusing on one formal element, the point of the scene, which is that Rebecca is thinking about actually ordering one of the "specials" (paradoxically, because that's what the "normals" order), instead of a food that can be eaten ironically like onion rings (you know, real “diner” food… I’ll have a PBR with that). So, sure, you can close read it to pick up the undercurrents (which are valid), but the prevailing current is that Enid is losing Rebecca, she throws “loser” on the table, in front of Rebecca, with Alan in the background, as if to say “if you leave this, you will be out there with him, and I will cut you the same way we cut “them”. We get there by way of a lot of subtle conversational reversals that show Enid agitatedly trying to play their specialness game to the nth degree, and Rebecca half heartedly going with it, moving from her earlier fear-of-leaving motivation into a cagey dance of less fear-more-concern-for-Enid, and (low level) passive aggressiveness against her for holding her back (calling her on the Car Wash comment is this - there is disgust there). Rebecca is getting ready to check out, and this is her going through the stages. So the next panel after "Loser" is Rebecca indicating that she’s back in line for right now and not trying to rock the boat (or pop the bubble), after Enid’s threat. It won’t last long.

Alan is just a stand-in for the "others." I think Clowes is (as suggested earlier) indulging in something like reverse Marty Stu-ism, i.e. allowing the characters (and the lens of the story) to demonstrate his own negative biases (I think he hates Alan too), but here I think the heart of the story identifies them as negative, and Rebecca ultimately wins by getting away, and Enid is left to the purgatory of Clowes’ self loathing. Thus, this works for me as a successful hipster self-autopsy/examination(and hipster self loathing/finding themselves wanting). I think it is Rebecca that makes this work, though, since without her you get Wilson, which I hated (though, to be honest, I hated that for other reasons too like the fact that its formal elements utterly failed in the way Ice Haven’s succeeded). Wilson is also Clowes self flagellating, but with an appeal to find the repellent characteristic lovable, where in Ghost World we are supposed to identify them as alienating.

Todd Murry (in case my Goole name shows up like I think it will - got to work on that)

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