Monica. By Daniel Clowes. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2023. 106pp, $30.
Guest review by Paul Buhle
This has been quite a year for determinedly offbeat comic artist Dan Clowes. An interview in the New Yorker followed by a strong review beginning on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, not to mention an NPR interview, nailed down the point: Clowes has hit the big time.
Is this as far as “alt-comics,” somewhere beyond the comic strip and the comic book, can go in becoming “mainstream”? It’s a good question, first raised properly by the reception of the comic art of R. Crumb, then of Art Spiegelman (whose looming presence remains above the scenery somehow), of Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco and others. The work of Ben Katchor, who is now designing comic-like images for Paris Metro lines stretching into the villages of the countryside, might remind us that in France, comics can be art. Back in the US and despite the rising prestige (and commercial success) of some artists, their work remains….comic art! If, admittedly, viewed very differently from the comic art of old: fewer readers but more prestige, as cynics would say.
Clowes, part of the alternative comics that followed the collapse of the 1960s-70s underground comix, saw Ghost World, his creation, become the basis for a film about teenage angst, with himself as one of the scriptwriters. It was a first for comic scriptwriters, even if comic characters themselves had appeared in dozens of older Hollywood films, with several series of low-production films dedicated to the sagas of Blondie, Joe Palooka and even Captain Marvel (a kids’ serial).
These three series actually happened to have been scripted by Lefties who would go on the blacklist (except for the Captain Marvel series, whose writer became an affable Friendly Witness testifying against his former comrades), and lose their careers. The films themselves, now totally obscure, even have a curious, populistic social content, leaving one to wonder. What gives? Never mind. These ancient memories of comics adaptations are also buried beneath the tons of animated films from comics, seen especially at holiday times on television or via DVDs.
We are reminded, in an astute Comics Quarterly essay on Monica, that real-life artist Clowes was abandoned by his mother, and that “loneliness” is a continuing theme with a continuing expression in his aesthetics and a basis in personal life. Monica, the fictional subject of the comic is, to put it mildly, a troubled person. But Clowes is not telling anything so straightforward as autobiography. We experience the novel through her wavering consciousness, sometimes beyond her consciousness, which may be the most helpful of all hints.
“Foxhole,” the first of eight semi-discrete and separate chapters or episodes, goes back to the Vietnam War. A disillusioned GI from a poor background reflects on his disillusionment to his battlefield/jungle setting mate, who is from America’s wealthy classes, while they wait to kill or be killed. The trauma in these three pages is not going away. Indeed, the sense of apocalypse described is revisited, precisely, on the final panel of the book.
Other reviewers seem to run away from this particular as anything like central to the plot, and it makes sense. What we see through most of Monica is the results of the 1960s social breakdowns, the impossibility of a thriving counterculture measured in the broken homes and broken lives, crazed cults and children confused or, rather, disoriented for life. Cynical commentators have always viewed this human tragedy as a loss of traditional morals, socially enforced wage slavery, the dangers of drugs, etc. Clowes knows better, although he will not say so.
Our embittered GI returning, he thinks, to a quiet and happy life, is not. He’s the fiancee of our protagonist’s mother, but never her husband. His foxhole mate, a serious painter who has returned to the US first, turns out to be the actual biological father, or perhaps not. Monica’s mother Penny, a counterculture burnout, stumbles along through life, although she actually launches a business that, much later, her daughter can revive and expand successfully, something that brings no pleasure. The book’s sometime narrator, a friend to Penny, relates and reflects on a not-so-unusual confused single mom experience. And Monica emerges, episode after episode, not only damaged but keenly aware of being damaged. She a modern person, a modern woman, who does not accept fatalism, although to do so might have been a better strategy.
In the following vignette, the seemingly more fortunate one of the two GIs returns to his hometown, years later, and quickly realizes that crucial matters including his extended family and their small capitalist empire, have totally fallen apart. In this odd little world, Monica-the-comic becomes a perfectly recreated EC-comic horror story from the early 1950s, updated and upgraded artistically. And then the drugstore supernaturalism ends or perhaps drifts around, looking for a spot to land.
Monica the protagonist reemerges, alone in the world. Reviewers have found something special and intriguing, or at least narratively clear, in her listening to a radio left behind in a family cabin. The radio broadcasts, unbelievably but believably to her, feature the voice of her dead grandfather and allow her to have unsatisfied conversations with him. Although years dead, he is still an anti-Semite.
A few more vignettes and more than twenty years pass. Monica becomes a successful entrepreneur, but success only exposes the emptiness of her life. Her last-gasp effort finds her in a remote cult that manages to somehow be utterly boring, one more sixties offshoot full of conspiracy theories and compulsory collectivity. Successfully tracking down her mother is a total downer, as we might have expected.
That we find ourselves back in EC horror comics at the end is either the fulfillment of the prologue, one Vietnam vet to another predicting utter horror, or it is a general commentary about the average American life in the twenty first century. The consumer society drags on. Dreams of something different are apparently worse than confused. And we face the cosmos, on the cover of the book, searching for a meaning that is not there (on the back cover, more EC, but leaning toward the famed sci-fi series that borrowed heavily from Ray Bradbury.
The Vietnam War explanation to the book’s mysteries, to the mysteries in Daniel Clowes’s mind. Extraordinary crimes were done in our collective name, and someone must be punished. Then again, as The Comics Journal suggests, the aesthetics, such as the darker tinting of pages treating trauma, may work just as well.
Paul Buhle is an editor of more than twenty non-fiction, historical comics.