Saturday, February 11, 2012

GN Review -- Ghost World / Daniel Clowes

I’ve been staring at a blank word processor page, a library copy of Ghost World on my desk, for about half an hour now as I try to figure out what to say about this semi-classic, somewhat disconnected yet strangely involving story by Daniel Clowes.  

It’s certainly a memorable story, with a good deal of acclaim, though I find myself caring little for its overall tone and content.  It has a strong following among fans of alternative comics and post-adolescent drama; some have hailed it as a spiritual successor to Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye.  It certainly has no self-esteem issues, with some of its summary and promotional materials calling it “a must for any self-respecting comic fan’s library.”

The story centers around two young women, Enid Coleslaw and Becky Doppelmeyer, and their mundane antics as they wander around their hometown, analysing and criticizing the people, the popular culture, and each other.  As they make fun of and interfere with the lives of others around them, they also wonder what they will end up doing with their own lives, now that they’ve graduated from high school.  Becky, the more normal-seeming of the two, seems intent on starting a “normal life” in some fashion, while Enid, an out-there and rebellious misfit, relates some designs on attending college.

Over time, the girls’ differing personalities and outlooks cause tension between them, and they eventually drift apart.  While Becky seems ready to start her normal life by dating Josh, a friend of theirs, Enid, who remains anything but normal and wouldn’t have it any other way, has failed to get into college.  She leaves town on a bus, presumably to start a new life for herself, after acknowledging Becky’s maturity from afar

I think one of the major problems I have with this story is precisely for what so many others praise it.  Passing off the inane, judgmental and often loudly crass proclamations of its main characters as some kind of exploration of post-adolescent drift and angst, lovers of Ghost World seem to conveniently forget that their heroines here are making no visible effort to right themselves or find their own place in this world, aside from the occasional vague questioning of the future, which is quickly discarded and forgotten.  In the meantime, they prank lonely men, wander into adult bookshops and loudly criticize the people there, and argue about what modern punk is vs. 1970s punk.  It all feels somewhat shallow--which I can handle in comics--but when you then also have to deal with their bluntness, it makes for spending time with people with whom I’d simply rather not have anything to do.

I will, however, praise Mr. Clowes very much for capturing a realistic narrative with these two, as Enid and Becky, whatever issues I may have with their attitudes and behaviors, are extremely well characterized.  They feel very genuine as young women on the drift, and their slow estrangement from one another is no less painful because of their own self-absorptions.  Enid’s own insecurities and self-doubts, when she displays them, stem from the very uncertainties she expresses about the future, and what will become of her life.  Her exit at the end of the narrative seems to symbolize a willingness to face that uncertainty and confront it head-on, and while you ache for her loss (Becky’s friendship) at the end, it’s also easy to cheer for her as she moves on.

The art style, like the writing, has its strengths and weaknesses for me.  Clowes definitely can capture expressions of emotion, and knows the right moments to do so, such as Enid’s plea to Josh near the end of the book, or her holding in laughter during her first sexual experience.  But the inconsistency sometimes seen between the chapters in the characters’ looks can be a little off-putting (Becky seems to suffer the most from this).  The overall style feels like something you’d see from comics in the 1960s--it has a vintage feel to it.  No real opinions about it, good or bad, just an observation.

Overall, it’s still hard for me to come to a firm conclusion about this book.  It has its flaws, and it has its strengths, and both seem to pull me in different directions at various times.  It’s certainly a memorable story, and a good slice of realistic fiction for comic books nerds, both the ones who are too pretentious (yes, I said it) for the mainstream, and those who like comics of all stripes.  If you haven’t read it yet, I would say to check it out.  It’s at least worth a look.  Recommended.

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