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Comic books were also a relatively new medium whose artistic possibilities had barely been tapped. They were relatively cheap to create and distribute. They didn’t cost much. They held little cultural cachet, and all of these factors helped make them a medium conducive to innovation, experimentation, and artistic ambition.
As it turned out, Clowes’ early years as a comic book auteur coincided with the advent of desktop publishing. All over America, individuals and small groups of people started using personal computers and photocopy shops to produce publications that mirrored those that had once been the province of professional organizations. In their pursuit of authenticity, the personal over the corporate, these new publishers often favored the kind of spontaneous, slapdash, deliberately rough-hewn aesthetics that informed punk and indie rock.
Clowes, however, brought a different sensibility to his comics: An obsessive compulsive commitment to craftsmanship. An issue of Eightball was emphatically personal—Clowes literally produced every element of every page by hand, with no assistance from Illustrator, Pagemaker, or any other tool more high-tech than a ruler -- and yet there was nothing slapdash about it.
Instead, Clowes strove to make the comic book as artful as possible, a complex but organic object that was perfect in all its parts. “Think in terms of the entire package, the structural cohesion of every component (from page numbers to indicia, etc.)” he would eventually advise in his Modern Cartoonist manifesto, and Eightball was the medium where he put such ideas into action. Issue by issue, his storylines grew more complex, his emotional palette more expansive, his draftsmanship more meticulous. Over time, he upgraded the paper Eightball was printed on from newsprint to coated stock. He added more interior color. He even improved the aesthetics of the staples that bound each issue -- early efforts featured flimsy ones that tended to bend in unbecoming ways, but later issues use more substantial ones that stayed flat against the page.
By the mid-1990s, artists like Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, and Charles Burns, to name just a few, had joined Clowes in regularly producing comic books characterized by their virtuoso craftsmanship. Like craft brewers and artisanal bakers, they helped pioneer the idea of the exquisitely over-crafted commodity—the everyday object which, in the hands of mass-market manufacturers, had devolved into “good enough status,” transformed by aesthetic prowess and hyper-meticulous labor into an object of stunning utilitarian beauty. Those $198 plain but inexplicably gorgeous blue jeans constructed from narrow selvage denim made on vintage shuttle looms? Those $8 single-estate chocolate bars hand-wrapped in packaging that could moonlight as wallpaper in Zoe Deschanel’s bathroom? Eightball is their spiritual father.
One important factor distinguished Eightball from much of today’s super-deluxe commodities, however. While the cost of an issue nearly tripled over time, with #1 originally going for $2 in 1989 and Issue #22 going for $5.95 in 2001, the price was so low to begin with that it never became an elite version of a mass market product that only the elite could afford. At $5.95 for a 36-page, full-color issue, it was still an eminently affordable consumer commodity, an elite version of a mass market product that the mass market could actually afford.
Unfortunately, the mass market didn’t respond with quite enough enthusiasm. Clowes began to spend some of his time pursuing better-paying (if less controllable) Hollywood writing projects. And when he did create cartoon stories, he published them as graphic novels rather than comic books, a decision that allowed for higher price points and better distribution.
This evolution made artistic sense too, as Clowes’ increasingly complex tales grew to dimensions that could no longer fit in the pages of a single 36-page comic book. And yet seeing every issue of Eightball arranged in a long glass display case at his Oakland exhibition, as stunning as a row of perfect dead butterflies, as unfathomable as a collection of Egyptian funerary jewelry, it was hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for that era when you could walk into a comic book shop and, for the price of a burrito, get a piece of museum-caliber art. It was one of life’s great bargains and great pleasures.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.