by Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics, 1998)

Daniel Clowes may be one of the few writers in the business -- perhaps one of the few writers, period -- who is able to capture a young girl's perspective so accurately it's almost spooky. It could be that I was more or less very much like one of the two girls in this book; it could be that Clowes is telepathic; or it could be, plain and simple, just damn good writing.

Nowadays, counterculture perspective is so popular (largely as a result of such books as Love & Rockets and Ghostworld, which was successfully transferred to the silver screen with Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in the lead roles, and everyone's favorite little weird guy, Steve Buscemi, who also starred in that deliciously counterculture movie, American Splendor, about underground comix legend Harvey Pekar ... see what I mean?) that it's really more couture than counter. Ghostworld was a big part of that catalyst that resulted in a wave of new interest in non-superhero, slice-of-life writing, a slice that comes heavily laced with surrealism and the occasional dash of magical realism. While spandex and action will always have their place in pop culture, there is a burgeoning sense of appreciation for graphic stories that center more on how people really act and think, an appreciation that is finally moving out from under the rock it's hidden under for so long and finding critical acceptance in a mainstream too long dominated by comic books whose creators are still thinking in terms of Silver Age morality.

Which is why dealing with today, with right now, can be a refreshing experience. Ghostworld isn't a trip into existential navel gazing: it's the story of two young girls recently graduated from high school, Enid Coleslaw and Beck Dopplemayer, who are trying to deal with the fear of finding their way in the world and the tedium of living in a very small town where there's nothing to do but fantasize about boys in high school and concoct fantasies about the people they see in the diner and on the streets. They are completely fleshed-out characters, each dealing with boredom, sexual frustration and anxiety in her own way. Nearly every human emotion is covered in deceptively simple vignettes that connect in a way that adds great depth to what is actually a many-faceted glimpse of what it's like to be starting out in a world that seems programmed to turn you into one kind of jerk or another.

All Enid wants to be is authentic in a commercialized and hypocritical world; all Beck wants to be is more like Enid. Enid, under pressure to attend a high-ranking college, wants to escape but knows she can't go back to a past that doesn't exist, if it ever did; and Beck wants to survive without losing Enid. The closeness between the two is touching, the complete opposite of Mean Girls, as the basis of their friendship is tested throughout the book.

This is some of the best storytelling the graphic medium has to offer, both in story and art. It's deceptively simple at first, with Enid and Beck having a go at everything and anything they see as superficial or commercial, and the black-and-white artwork, with its simple, clean lines covered in a washed-out teal. But slowly the pieces start to come together, acquiring an emotional density that's as compelling as a thriller, until the powerful and very poetic conclusion, which has the best ending I have ever read in any comic or graphic novel. It's not an easy read; sometimes it's a little heartbreaking. But this is far and away one of the best graphic novels ever published, and one you should definitely not miss.

review by
Mary Harvey

28 July 2007

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