"Comics were just not a thing yet." Daniel Clowes (who would know) is talking about the period that led to the creation of Eightball, the stunningly smart and innovative comic that did what almost no other comic seemed able to do at the time: enter the culture of people who didn't like comics. Eightball became one of the essential comedic touchstones of 1990s culture, a way to help the self-selecting weirdos of the pre-internet—or at least pre-good-internet—era identify kindred spirits and speak in shorthand. (For a time, if you heard someone say the words "Needle Dick, the Bug Fucker," there was a reasonably good chance that person would become your friend.) As a result, it joins the now-long line of things still unaccountably filed in your consciousness as bold new works that are, in fact, older than you were when you first discovered them. No matter how timeless it always seemed, Eightball being 25 is a stiff drink.
Like any great breakthrough (and many stiff drinks), it was born of desperation. As Clowes writes in the intro to the gorgeous new The Complete Eightball collection that attends the 25th anniversary of his masterpiece, "Overwhelmed by failure, I decided to put everything into one last hopeless non-commercial effort, hoping to finish one or two issues before being expelled from comics forever." In the immortal words of Devil Doll, "HAW HAW."
Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron often felt like it was made of very specific visual references that disappeared the more you tried to identify them, like trying to remember a dream. Was that strategic, or were your references just that much more obscure?
I liked things that were obscure, things that were a mystery to me. Back in those days, you might see a movie halfway through in the middle of the night in black and white and have no idea what it was. There was no way to find out any information about it. That's how I wanted that story to feel: like a movie there was no trace of. That was a very exciting feeling, that kind of fleeting notion when you wake up in the middle of the night and you're half awake and you turn on an episode of The Outer Limits or something and you can't figure out what you're watching.
At the time, there was a strong subculture dedicated to appreciating pop culture that wasn't popular. When did you become aware that Eightball was becoming important in that world?
I wasn't aware at the time. I knew it had caught on to some degree, but it was so hard to tell how many people were actually reading it. It was a comic that people talked about, but it was still during that time when a guy who was collecting Alpha Flight or whatever would hear about a comic like Eightball or Love and Rockets and add it to his weekly pull list at the comics store. It was hard to tell if it was a lot of those guys or if it was all these kind of tastemakers in the counterculture who were responding to it like they'd never read a comic before.
Do you enjoy revisiting your old work?
The funny thing about reading all my comics, but especially those old comics—which I usually avoid like the plague, but when I was putting this collection together, I went back and read every single issue—is that it's really like a record of your life. Almost everything in the comic is based on something, a joke I had with one of my friends or a real-life experience, and all the characters are based vaguely on people I know... It all feels like reading a diary almost, even though it's entirely fictional.
There's an interesting correspondence to the readership in that, since Eightball was really significant to a lot of people. In a way, it's like reading a diary for them, too. I mean, the number of things in the comic that became inside jokes for me and my friends—
Which is funny, since they probably originated as inside jokes that I had with friends.
Do you have the sense that the '90s have had absolutely zero cultural impact on the decades that followed? Do you have any sense of why?
It feels like it was the last monolithic cultural era. After that, everything got so dissipated. In the '90s, or more in the late '80s, it really felt like the mainstream culture was not satisfying to anybody. There were these little things that came up around the cracks, but it felt like there was a huge expanse of cultural terrain that we could occupy and no one was even thinking of going in those directions. I think now that's not necessarily the case, although I'm not sure anything is any better now. The overall quality of movies or books hasn't improved. It's just the way it feels. I think more about 1974 than 1994. You hit this certain thing where all the decades seem really similar because all the things you're doing don't have anything to do with the culture anymore once you hit like age 22. The 2000s have zero distinctive qualities to me.
That sense of being captive to culture was really frustrating at the time, especially when it seemed like whoever was in charge didn't know what they were doing.
Exactly, it all felt like it was a corporate board making decisions, and they figured out the average entertainment, and that was passed on down—and if you didn't like that, too bad. You really had to go out of your way to find something... When I was a kid, the only time they'd show really crazy horror movies was at like three in the morning. And I'm not sure who this was for. Just for really disturbed insomniacs who didn't have jobs—which was certainly what I was hoping for in my job description. But you'd have to really plan it out: You'd tell your friends and set your alarm and sneak into the other room and not turn any lights on... I remember seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time at three in the morning in Chicago when I was 10 or 11 years old and just being so terrified. But mainly it was the situation, being up when nobody else was up. And then I went to school on Monday and found out that four or five of my friends had done the same thing. It was a really intense thing, that night. I'll remember it the rest of my life. Now you'd never have that experience. I'm sure my son can't remember the 11 times he's watched every Pixar movie.
Was there a point that you felt like Eightball had outlived its usefulness?
I never wanted to stay in one place. You see a lot of cartoonists, especially guys who did mainstream comics or daily strips, they fall into something successful and they just do that. Like the thought of the guy drawing Funky Winkerbean for 40 years... that's the perfect example, 'cause it's a strip that was meant to be in 1973, and if it had been a TV show, you would not have heard about it again by 1975. But because it was a comic strip, it just stayed there forever. And the thought of that guy waking up and thinking, "What can Funky do today?" was terrifying to me. I always wanted to move around. I felt like I had perfected the early Eightball style by the 18th issue, the last one I did in that format. I thought I'd get back to it, but it never felt right. I got more interested in immersing myself in a world or a story and spending time in that place.
Was that because you became more ambitious as a writer with the longer, nonserialized stories?
Back when I first started doing comics, a little before Lloyd Llewellyn, I was looking around for a writer. I thought I'd like to find a guy who has my sensibility who'd write the kinds of stories I wanted to draw. I thought that'd be no problem, that I'd have 15 or 20 guys to choose from. Of course, everybody I tried: (a) it's really hard to write for comics, and (b) nobody was doing anything like what I wanted to do. So I thought I'd do it for myself for a while, until I eventually met my collaborator. And that just never happened. At a certain point, I realized I had more natural ability as a writer, imagining things and storytelling, than I do as an artist. The art part is always a struggle.