One of the joys I experienced when first preparing to teach a class in graphic novels last spring was re-reading Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World. I’d previously read it when it had been serialized in Clowes’s comic book Eightball from 1993-1997. I actually remembered Terry Zwigoff’s more recent film adaptation better. I approached the graphic novel with some trepidation. What if it wasn’t as good as I remembered? Worse, what if it sucked?
My fears were allayed almost immediately. Clowes’s artwork is rendered in a vaguely retro ‘60s style that is quite appealing, and like the best minimalist fiction writers, Clowes suggests more than he shows, the smallest details revealing a world beyond what is literally seen. But what most impressed me from practically the first panel is protagonist Enid Coleslaw’s exhilaratingly vulgar wit. I laughed out loud. Repeatedly. I was charmed and was sure my students would be too (most weren’t).
Reading it again this spring, I once again found myself laughing aloud. What animates Enid’s humor, making it crackle with life? It isn’t merely the vulgarity; as often as not, that’s a sign of lazy writing. Is a joke not working? Throw a gratuitous f-bomb into the mix. Need to make a situation seem far more serious than it actually is? Have your characters curse gravely. Still, it was reflecting on two brief, vulgar lines of dialogue that revealed to me the source of Enid’s humor and helped explain its special charge.
First, early in the novel, Enid’s friend Becky enters Enid’s room unbidden. Surprised, Enid asks Becky who let her in. Upon being told that her dad did, Enid replies, “He’s here?! That asshole!” The way Clowes breaks the line, it’s as if Enid is angry that her dad is home, not that he let her friend into her room. And even though Enid’s dialogue is peppered with enough cussing to make Tony Montana blush, the word “asshole” here seems excessive. It’s like giving the middle finger to a bird for landing in your yard.
The next line is perhaps even more surprising given its context. It is toward the end of the novel, after a montage of images indicates that it is fall, when Enid would have been in college had she passed her entrance exam. Instead, she is alone on a public beach on a windy day. Sitting atop a dune, Enid silently watches a mother tend to her child before saying to herself, “You little fucker . . .”. There is no preparation for the line, especially in relation to the reflective tone of the scene surrounding it. The effect is jarring.
Describing them, the lines hardly seem funny, but they really are funny, whether one laughs at them or not. Both arise from an absence evoked by an unexpected presence. Enid’s response to Becky’s sudden appearance suggests that Enid might be as angry that her father didn’t tell her he was home as the fact that he actually is home. Considering how infrequently we see him, Enid’s father seems mostly absent, a perception bolstered by the number of failed marriages we are told he has been in. When he’s not working, he must surely have his hands full tending to these tenuous romantic relationships.
On the other hand, the mother and child on the beach remind one that Enid’s mother never appears in Ghost World, not even in the scene where Becky and Enid flip through a photograph album and we see pictures of two of Enid’s stepmothers. We’re never told what became of Enid’s mother, but a drawing toward the beginning of the graphic novel, facing the contents page, shows Enid and Becky in a cemetery looking down at a gravestone adorned with flowers, at least hinting at the possibility that Enid’s mother has died, though the scene is admittedly ambiguous. Regardless, Enid is without a mother throughout the novel, and what uncertainty the image raises does not dispel the pall of loss that unmistakably washes over Enid’s life.
It is this loss that charges Enid’s humor, the dark backdrop against which her verbal fusillades are contrasted, allowing them to pop and sparkle like fireworks. Indeed, the novel is saturated with loss. Enid lives, after all, in a ghost world—identified as such by the graffiti scrawled on buildings and fences throughout her neighborhood, whose denizens are blank-faced, zombie-like, stumbling past strip malls and old, fading businesses—represented by the coloring of the book, which is black and white tinted with a wan blue-green that recalls the glare cast by television sets. This is a land of the dead for the dead. There’s no sustenance for the soul in this place, no life, except for Enid’s constant rat-a-tat of one-liners and putdowns. Hers is a laughter fueled by misery, the brightest laughter of all. Long live Enid!