For a minute, forget there's anything significant about The Complete Eightball.
Forget that it contains the seminal works of one of the greatest artists in modern comics, unexpurgated for the first time since they were penned in the '90s. Forget about the charismatic heart-burnings of Ghost World's Enid Coleslaw, immortalized on film but originating in these pages. Forget the surreally hilarious horrors of Like aVelvet Glove Cast in Iron, also seen here for the first time.
Instead, consider The Complete Eightball as an object. What an object it is! A shiny, slick, candy-colored brick, it's decorated on every surface with Clowes' most absurd and monstrous creations — Lloyd Llewellyn, Tina from Velvet Glove, that sweaty guy who announced on the cover of #8 that "I have chosen you at random to obsessively pester and annoy for the rest of your life, starting right now." Each of the two hardcover volumes has different illustrations on the front, back and spine. The heavy cardboard slipcase is even decorated on the inside (with unsettling pictures of organs and a tongue). Every drawing is saturated with Clowes' characteristic jellybean palette: sweet pastel pinks and blues jostling against burnt umber and sick green. The overall effect is visually luscious and existentially disconcerting.
That's to be expected considering that Clowes, with his '90s-forged sensibility, is all about stark oppositions and the irony (sweet, sweet irony!) they provoke. Even his brief description of Eightball's origin sets up a paradox. "Overwhelmed by failure, I decided to put everything into one last hopeless non-commercial effort, hoping to finish one or two issues before being expelled from comics forever," he writes. Now this hopeless, non-commercial work is getting the custom-printed royal treatment at a list price of $119.99.
For a crowning irony, the pathbreaking longer stories like Ghost World aren't the real reason to buy this collection. After all, you can get Ghost World and Velvet Glove in separate editions of their own. No, the reason to buy this is for the stuff Clowes himself would probably dismiss as half-baked and puerile: His autobiographical gripe sessions about everything from sports to life in Chicago.
Like another '90s cultural icon, David Foster Wallace, Clowes is at his most charming and accessible when he's simply documenting the world around him with the eyes of someone unseduced by it. He might go for a walk around his neighborhood ("The Stroll"). Or, in another notorious story that became a movie, he reflects on his experience in art school ("Art School Confidential"). Or he might just stay home and speculate about the fate of the species ("The Future").
These speculations are usually gloomy — but absurdly so. In Clowes' future, gender ambiguity will become so mainstream, regular guys will wear Doris Day wigs while watching sports bloopers. "There will be nostalgia for the nostalgia of previous generations" — which is actually one facet of The Complete Eightball's appeal. As for trends, "teenage boys will adopt the 'balding, paunchy, fortyish businessman' look."
Clowes can definitely be a downer. In "The Party," he manages to make a run-of-the-mill Wicker Park gathering, circa 1993, seem like a bummer for the ages. Those who have chosen to dance are frozen in absurd positions, and the only people Clowes talks to make themselves ridiculous in one way or another.
"It always depresses me to see the stuff that hipsters have on display in their apartments," he broods, surveying a collection of kitschy toys. "It always seems so childish and unoriginal, but it's really not much different from my stuff." He might as well be talking about psychic baggage. Clowes is as hard on himself as he is on everyone around him — or most people around him. The exceptions are bullies and people who buy into the American consumerist mythos.
That's why it seems so odd to see Eightball packaged up so seductively. Maybe it's actually anti-Clowesian to purchase this edition at all. Maybe it would be purer to, say, try to find it at the library or score a few issues from an aging hipster's moving sale.
Nah. If it were possible to be truly pure, we wouldn't need Clowes in the first place.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.