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Eightball #23

Eightball #23, by Dan Clowes. Fantagraphics Books, Inc., 2004.

If Eightball #23 were pitched as a Hollywood movie, the high concept might be “A Separate Peace starring Rorschach from Watchmen.”1 As High-school students forced to endure A Separate Peace already know, the novel is at heart a tragic tale of repressed homosexual love. In short: Gene and Finny desparately want to make sweet love with each other, but cannot act on their desire thanks to years of repressive social conditioning. (They’re a couple of WWII-era rich boys trying to dodge the draft by getting diplomas from their exclusive boarding schools.) Finny sublimates his unspeakable desires into being a fine athlete and a ‘nonconformist,’ while Gene sublimates eir schoolboy crush into typical childish envy of Finny’s athletic talents. Eventually, Gene sublimates so much that his love turns to hate and he pushes poor Finny right out of a tree. Finny dies.

The most important thing about A Separate Peace, though, is that all that steamy homoeroticism is entirely subtextual. The novel pretends to be about envy, insecurity, denial, the cultural malaise in elite boys’ boarding schools in WWII-era New England, nice themes that teachers can assign in high-school English classes without offending students or parents. If you asked author John Knowles about the homoerotic subtext, he might even claim not to know what you’re talking about. But the malaise, the undercurrents of moral corruption, envy and denial that bubble to the surface of the text when Gene pushes Finny out of a tree, rise from a repressed subtextual volcano of hot gay sex. That’s appropriate, I suppose—the boys of Devon boarding school are so repressed that even the story about them becomes repressed.

In his review of Eightball #23, Sean Collins writes:

And finally, of course, there’s the unspoken sexual dimension of Andy and Louie’s relationship itself. Paired killers are not at all uncommon, from the Hillside Stranglers to Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, and often the killings serve to consummate the sexual tension that the killers themselves aren’t (or, sometimes, are) willing to consummate themselves. It’s no coincidence that, just before Andy and Louie’s traumatic “break-up,” Louie seems to have found an actual girlfriend and Andy has finally acted on his love for Dinah. The two don’t need each other anymore.2

Like Gene and Finny, Andy and Louie’s motto is “Sublimate!” They borrow some superhero-comics metaphor and mix in the classic ’sex = death’ equation familiar from entirely too much repressed American fiction. Andy, thanks to his dead scientist father, gains superstrength when he smokes and comes into possession of a death-ray which zaps its targets right out of existence. After discovering Andy’s powers, they embark on a spree of violence, punishing men who have committed ‘crimes,’ often sexual, against women. The one exception is their punishment of Stoob for snubbing Louie, but given the homoerotic context, it seems likely that Louie’s antagonism of Stoob is inspired by a schoolboy crush. Little boys, of course, express romantic love by chasing little girls around the playground and pulling their pigtails. Louie is a little old for schoolboy crushes, but since his repression prevents him from simply fucking the boys he loves, he falls back on an especially violent version of pulling pigtails. His behavior becomes regressive and aggressive.

That’s where punk and superheroes come in. Louie is attracted to the pointless violence of punk rock (his immediate response to the first punk song he hears on the radio is that “It makes me want to kill somebody” [p. 6]), and he adopts the most simplistic and reductive, Wertham-inspired definition of superheroes: powerful thugs who pummel justice into weak criminals, most of whom wouldn’t have been criminals anyway if not for the existence of the superhero. Andy and Louie’s attempts to bring justice to the world raise an old moral quandary of superhero comics: may self-appointed heroes be held responsible for creating and enabling a cycle of violence and destruction that wouldn’t have existed if not for their selfish insistence on adhering to simplistic and aggressive notions of justice?3 “The Death-Ray” approaches the question with a literalism at once amusing and too simplistic—too simplistic mostly because there have been so many other supehero comics that have already addressed this question with relative subtlety and sophistication that Clowes’s interpretation looks like the Cliffs Notes version in comparison. Andy and Louie literally create criminals: for example, they leave a cash-stuffed wallet on the street and then attack the first sucker who picks it up and tries to take the money (p. 19).

Sublimation, of course, ends in tragedy. After Andy acquires his death-ray, Louie pushes him to move from superpowered beatings to killing. Louie’s sister left her boyfriend Sonny for another, allegedly evil and abusive, guy, and Louie convinces Andy to help Sonny out by zapping the other guy. Sublimated sexual release through murder turns out to be a little too intense for Louie, though, and he effectively ends his quasi-sexual relationship with Andy by getting a girlfriend. (Andy seems to have the same idea, and at about the same time in the story he decides to express his love for his housekeeper Dinah.) The end of the relationship leads inevitably to Andy’s murder of Louie with his death-ray. After that, Andy, who’s basically a passive slug who goes along with whatever Louie suggests, and now left with no direction other than the one Louie set out for him, lives the next 25 years of his life following that direction. He lives his boring, passive life and occasionally gets out his cigarettes and death-ray to distribute justice among the pettiest of petty criminals.

It’s appropriate that Andy’s costume is clearly inspired by Spider-Man’s, since Spider-Man is probably the quintessential loser-hero popularized by Marvel in the early 1960s. Andy’s problem, unlike Spider-Man, is that he’s just as much a loser when he’s playing superhero as he is in his normal life. He’s such an unimaginative loser that he can’t think of anything more interesting or worthwhile to do with his powers than beat up an insensitive bartender (p. 36) and zap a possibly abusive boyfriend (p. 38) (not his own boyfriend, his neighbor’s). The panels in which the adult Andy goes into superhero mode are drawn in full-color, contrasted with the monocrhome panels of Andy’s everyday life. The contrast creates an artificially higher level of visual interest that isn’t reflected in the narrative—as I said, Andy is equally a loser as a superhero and a regular guy, basically indistinguishable. In the first scene of the story, the panels go full-color when Andy confronts a litterer and doesn’t zap him (p. 1). As it becomes clear that color panels of adult Andy mean he’s in superhero mode, this early instance may engender a minor hope that Andy is capable of standing up for justice without resorting to absurd violence, but that hope is dashed when Andy later meets the same guy sitting on a park bench and zaps him (pp. 39-40).

In his writing on Watchmen, David Fiore discusses Spider-Man and Rorschach:

Take Peter Parker, for instance. When we first meet him he’s an ostracized nerd—a nonentity. In more realistic fiction, this type of character only has two options open to him: either he continues to endure social oppression, or he becomes a “somebody” by “standing up for himself”, thus altering the power dynamic in his community. In the actual event–he does neither, thanks to the spider bite. Throughout Ditko’s run, at least, Parker remains the same bookish nerd he’s always been. And yet, his newfound indifference to the power structure that so determined his life before his “conversion experience” enables him to develop actual relationships with other characters… His “adventures in morality”, as Spider-Man, ground him.

But what if that adventure consumed his entire life? Wouldn’t that “grounding” then become something akin to a burial? […] if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a “free spirit”, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost. He’d be like Rorschach, in fact.

When Walter Kovacs gives up his dual identity, he upsets a delicate balance. No longer grounded, he goes underground—and his capacity to relate to the world rots away. Rorschach’s strange destiny is to become the undead embodiment of his own moral law.4

David calls this “failing the Rorschach test,” and Andy surely gets an F- on that test.5 As an adult, he doesn’t even bother distinguishing between his normal and superheroic lives by donning a costume.

Andy’s narration is written in speech balloons (he appears to speak directly toward the reader) instead of the more traditional captions. The effect is similar to documentaries or reality-tv shows in which footage of an event is edited together with interviews with people who participated in the event—the effect is enhanced by two “What do you think of Andy?” interview sections with other characters from the story (pp. 4, 41) in which they also speak directly to the reader. It’s a neat twist of the comics form that gives the story a confessional tone. Andy doesn’t appear in special interivew panels to narrate, though—he usually narrates at the same time he’s participating in the narrative, so that his adult narration of flashbacks to his high-school days comes from the mouth of his teenage self. That’s appropriate, since Andy is such a static character and the only change he manifests as he grows older is increased assurance in his stunted emotional and social life.

I think it’s really too bad Clowes allowed the homoeroticism to remain a subtext, really. We’re not living in the 1950s anymore, and nobody’s going to assign Eightball as a high-school reading assignment, so why be coy with the subtext? American literature (including American comics literature) has plenty of stories about fucked-up repressed guys already. Male comics writers of America, get over your crisis of masculinity! We already get that masculine culture and superhero comics are seething with sublimated homosexual urges, so what I’d like is some more comics (superhero or not) about totally unrepressed gay guys who have hot sex and aren’t loser serial killers.

1 Lev Grossman, in Time Online Edition article “If You Only Read 10 Trashy Novels This Summer”, offers the equally appropriate and much funnier “IT’S LIKE Holden Caulfield with his phaser set on kill. Phonies beware.”

2 See Sean Collins’s “Eightball #23″, Comic Book Galaxy.

3 This question is actually probably raised by superhero comics themselves much more often than by moral critics of superhero comics. Clowes’s story follows a long tradition of superhero comics which offer self-critique: Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Brian Michael Bendis’s Daredevil, Gran Morrison’s New X-Men, etc. etc. and so forth.

4 See David Fiore’s “Rorschach Test”, Motime Like the Present.

5 Again, “The Death-Ray” follows a long tradition of such ‘heroes’ who choose to reject their human identities in favor of living entirely within their superheroic identities, including Rorschach himself, various interpretations of Batman (e.g., in The Dark Knight Returns), various interpretations of Wolverine (I’m most familiar with Morrison’s take), various interpretations of Spider-Man (e.g., during the early-mid 1990s prior to the Spider-clone storyline), Daredevil (e.g., during Bendis’s current run on the title), Superman (in Kingdom Come), Captain Marvel (in Peter David’s run, in a rather offbeat way). Just about every DC or Marvel character seems to have been run through this particular story at least once.


  1. Achtung Baby! says:

    Eightball #23
    If Eightball #23 were pitched as a Hollywood movie, the high concept might be ???????A Separate Peace starring Rorschach from Watchmen.?????? [ Review and Critical Thinking ] , [ Toward a philosophy of the funnybook: “Criticsm” ]

    — 20 July 2004 at 2:16 am (Permalink)

  2. Johnny B says:

    …I don’t think I’ve ever seen footnotes in a blog entry before…!

    — 20 July 2004 at 2:27 am (Permalink)

  3. Steven says:

    I like footnotes more than is strictly rational. I think everybody should use more footnotes.

    — 20 July 2004 at 5:06 pm (Permalink)

  4. Johnny Bacardi says:

    Oh, yeah, nothing wrong with them, I like them as a matter of fact…I just haven’t seen ‘em before in a blog entry! You’re a trail-blazer, my man!

    — 20 July 2004 at 7:33 pm (Permalink)

  5. Rose says:

    Johnny, don’t encourage him! He’s practically incorrigible as is.

    — 20 July 2004 at 7:48 pm (Permalink)