Graphic Novel Friday: Daniel Clowes, David Boring, and The Best American Comics Criticism
Last week, I highlighted cartoonist Seth’s essay in The Best American Comics Criticism, where he introduced me to The John Stanley Library. While new comics are always welcome, rediscovering books can be just as rewarding, and BACC succeeds here as well with Ken Parille’s piece on David Boring by Daniel Clowes.
I first read David Boring when I was not ready for it. I grew up unknowingly exposed to his work in Cracked (I wish someone would salvage and collect "The Uggly Family") and graduated to Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and, of course, Ghost World. But creatively, David Boring fell somewhere in between those last two. It’s the story of a disaffected youth in search of a connection through comics to his missing father. It’s a murder mystery, a study of obsession and objectification, and a treasure hunt for answers that may or may not exist within its narrative. A few years later, I re-read David Boring and thought I “got” it, but then I read Ken Parille’s essay over brunch one morning.
Clocking in at almost 20 pages, Parille’s “Re-Reader’s Guide” to David Boring is an engrossing and enlightening exercise in deep reading. My synapses started sparking when he brought up the point in the story where David is shot by a shadowy character:
“…Clowes leaves a visual pun as a clue for us in the seventh panel on page 36. David holds a set of keys in front of a car: car + keys = Karkes [the name of another character in the book]. This pun is not a clue in the traditional sense because, although it names the assailant, it’s not evidence related to the crime. Instead, it’s an artificial clue, a kind of in-joke between author and re-reader.”
I never registered this clue--and “car + keys” even appears a second time in the book. Where had I been looking when I previously read David Boring? Parille’s essay is full of insight like this, but it’s not all necessarily related to the story. As David’s friend, Dot, notices a woman who fits his preferred body type, she exclaims, “Holy 36-26-48…” It’s an otherwise humorous but toss-away line, except that Parille notes these are “three numbers that correspond to the page counts for the book’s three acts” (a connection that is attributed to artist Adrian Tomine in one of the many footnotes). Not only is Clowes squirreling away story clues in his panels, but he’s making self-referential nods to his book’s structure in the dialogue. Reading this, I wondered how Clowes organized such a piece of dialogue. Did he write the sections, only to realize the number of pages in each fit the measurements of his main character’s ideal conquest? Surely the dialogue didn’t come before the page counts, but what a coincidence and what a fun bit of trivia.
“To understand these ‘tiny background details’ and the comic as a whole requires a fetishistic reader, who, like the artist, should confront the story as if every minute detail is important and related to other details. Since the comic book is a fetish object, David Boring is therefore a fetish object about fetishes that should be read by a reader who is governed by fetishistic principles of interpretation…”
I have to believe some of this in tongue-in-cheek, but it’s difficult to refute, given that Clowes names the two brands of beers in the book “Elba Light” and “Blight Ale,” both of which are “anagrams of each other and of Eightball,” Clowes’ lauded comic series (and where Boring was originally serialized). Plus, the latter brand reflects the apocalyptic subplot that creeps within the corners of the main story until it mushroom-clouds across the final act.
My breakfast cooled as I read Parille’s piece for the first time at my favorite brunch spot. I later found a copy of the out of print hardcover [right] on Amazon’s marketplace (Parille notes the minute differences between the this edition and the paperback as well) and re-read it when it arrived. There’s so much more uncovered in the essay, but I don’t want to spoil too much, as reading the secrets and alleged coincidences (“333”) are worth discovering while compared in tandem with the source material. “The more you take apart Dan’s book, the more complicated it gets. I think it’s one of the greatest comics ever written”--high praise from Chris Ware, as noted by Parille, and I’d suggest that The Best American Comics Criticism is an essential supplement to David Boring.
As I did my own obsessive study, I found that the University Press of Mississippi released Daniel Clowes: Conversations, a collection of his interviews and screenplays, this August, and it’s edited by--you guessed it--Ken Parille. See you on the other side of that rabbit hole.