Wednesday, September 26, 2007

EightBall #22 - Like Pearls Before Swine

The suggested reading list for Guilford High School is available on the internet here. It is a list of authors that the English Department is expected to have familiarity with. You will notice that, given the number of authors and the number of books written by just these people, every student theoretically could have read a different book from anyone else.

Mr Fisher's assignment of a single book to Suzie Cheesecake was in no way unusual or untoward - she was being treated just like every other student in Guilford. In order to assign a summer reading book she alone missed, she was asked to stay after class and pick a book and she was told that the book, though highly recommended, contained mature content. But it could be quickly read, catching the new girl up to the rest of the class. She could have declined and read something else.

Later her mother claims the girl thought the book was about "shooting pool" presumably pool with mature content.

Mr. Fisher, contrary to Main Stream Media reports violated no rules. The official list of authors was suggested not exclusive. He trusted that the student having been forewarned that mature content would be encountered implicitly was willing to accept the material and process it appropriately.

Had the girl chosen Allan Ginsberg instead, mom might have objected to Ginsberg's enthusiasm for carefree, gay living. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian would introduce the girl to page after page of one nihilistic depravity after another.

As the Rosanna Rosanna Danna Saturday Night Live character used to say, "If it isn't one thing, it's another." Citizens will note NO OTHER GUILFORD HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT freaked out from their summer reading choice. NONE.

The book, Suzy Cheesecake chose is called Eightball #22 or Ice Haven by Dan Clowes.

Kevin Sampsell's review includes this description of the material:
Clowes has taken on the challenge of detailing the dark underbelly of a small American town named Ice Haven. Although the cover advertises "29 stories in full color," each story actually serves as a succinct chapter in what eventually reveals itself as a graphic masterpiece.

Starting with a walking tour of the town by disgruntled poet Random Wilder, the story scatters into various subplots, each one weighed down by its own malaise. We meet Mrs. Wentz, the mundane grandmother whose poetry appears in the local newspaper; her granddaughter Vida, who becomes obsessed with Wilder; a grade-school kid whose heroes are famous criminals Leopold and Loeb; a little boy in love with his stepsister; and numerous others. Clowes' drawings are crisp and straddle the line between realistic and cartoonish. In the past, many of Clowes' simplest frames were still disturbed by odd touches in the background (a pregnant woman smoking, obscene bathroom graffiti); but now, he seems to have embraced a more stringent brand of minimalism (frames of people silently pondering their fate). In one slight digression, Clowes seems to imitate the style of The Flintstones, while telling the origin of a deep hole in the woods. In the following story/chapter, the crime-infatuated child tells Charles, a quiet kid with a flair for Nietzsche-like spouting, about killing another boy "because he was a fag and a retard." It's sort of an anti-Charles Schulz moment, where the act of pulling a football away from an impending kick is simply the precursor to other tortures.

But it's not just the kids who are cold here. When a married pair of investigators come to town to investigate the boy's disappearance, there is a palpable strain on their marriage, especially when the wife's underwear and barrette show up in other people's homes. Random Wilder's poetry is also a constant source of bitterness, even turning inward when he decides his work is "nothing but shit" and tries flushing his notebooks down the toilet.

Surprisingly, most of this tale ends on a positive note and the issue even wraps up with a sort of epilogue by a helpful comic book critic named Harry Naybors (I like the way that Clowes always manages to have direct, sometimes negative references to the comic world in every Eightball). Clowes' art has always been funny, haunting, and appealing, but his storytelling, although sometimes done obscurely, is the reason he remains in the upper rankings of any visual artist today.
Is this appealing to any salacious cravings? How about Mike Lukich's review in PopMatters;
Collecting Eightball #22 (originally published in 2001) in a lovely little hardcover edition, Ice Haven focuses on the titular town and an ensemble cast of its residents. When a young boy named David disappears mysteriously, the citizens of Ice Haven are galvanized and the relationships between the characters begin to slowly unveil themselves through a series of well-constructed vignettes that are tempered with both anxiety and humor.

The cast is quite rich and diverse, but Clowes focuses more on a select few, including the frustrated and unappreciated middle-aged poet Random Wilder, who acts as the narrator of sorts; the lonely, lovesick Violet; Mr. and Mrs. Ames, a husband and wife detective team, who are called in to investigate David's disappearance but end up investigating nothing more than their own disintegrating marriage; and the philosophical young Charles, who's precocious observations are offset by the secret love he beholds for his teenage stepsister.

There are some parallels that can be drawn to both the television series Twin Peaks and the film Magnolia here. Both feature large casts of quirky characters going through their own private dramas, all of which are connected in some way. The tone here, however, is considerably less dark than either, and much of this is due to the artwork.

Clowes' current method of graphic storytelling employs the use of short one or two page strips, which he compiles and serializes to reveal a much larger narrative. It's an interesting, economic, and almost modular approach, and the use of these abbreviated segments, which could easily stand on their own as individual strips, allows Clowes to sidestep unnecessary segues between scenes. This actually creates the sense that there is more going on than what is shown on the page. His drawing style has also become more refined in recent years. The Charles Shultz-like simplicity in many of the strips creates an air of innocence visually even as the characters are being brutally honest about their bitterness, loneliness, jealousy, and sexual longings. In Clowes' hands, the image of a boy peeping through a hole in the wall to leer at a girl in the shower is turned into something sweet and affecting.


Ice Haven is one of Clowes' best and perhaps his most accessible story to date. There is a warmth and sense of optimism present that acts as a nice counterpoint to the harsh although not entirely unsympathetic light that Clowes shines on his characters. He reveals the quiet, complex, beautiful, and downright messy nature of humanity with a keen eye, a sharp pen, and an even sharper wit. The comics medium is privileged to have a storyteller of Clowes' caliber, and we're damn lucky that he loves us so much to keep putting out these wonderful books.
Wow! Pornography doesn't get much edgier than this.

And the book is recommended as challenging reading in this High School English teacher's guide, Making the Journey, Third Edition.

Contrary to popular education myth, school boards do not read every book cover to cover. We don't. Teachers are expected to challenge students to achieve proficiency, maturity, and good taste in culture and art. As a Board member I fully expect and encourage lively, thoughtful educational experiences. And I fully expect someone will get angry about one thing or another. We've hired excellent and professional administrators who -thank god- are graet at maintaining a healthy educational balance.

The books read in high school are largely adult content. That doesn't make them obscene, inappropriate or in any way nefarious. As Gunnard Nelson used to quote, Many are called, few are chosen.

Nathan Fisher's resignation must be rejected and he needs to be reinstated with full back pay due to the temporary insanity of a small town in Connecticut.

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