Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Panelists Archive: Enid Coleslaw and the G.O.P.

You may already know that The Panelists, a six-member blog that launched at the beginning of this year, is shutting its doors on January 1. As one of the contributors (if perhaps the least steadfast of them), I'm planning to transplant my smattering of posts from there to here, where they will at least still be available to internet searches (if in a more obscure or less trafficked corner of the web).

I'm going to try to reproduce or archive the comment threads for the articles, too, at least to some extent. They're a little messy, because of the nesting of replies, but I'll make what I can of the muddle and present them in separate posts after each article.

I'll start with my very first piece, from the first round of our two-week "one-panel critics" stunt. Here it is:

I’ve been teaching comics in university English departments for nine years now, and I think I’ve put Ghost World on every syllabus I’ve used. Assigning the book to a decade’s worth of college students means that I’ve watched Enid Coleslaw and Becky Doppelmeyer go from being hipster role models to historical specimens.

(Here’s a way to simulate that experience: imagine a book about two teenage girls in which every phone conversation is connected to the wall by a wire and every bit of recorded music comes from vinyl and a stylus.)

From the beginning, one of my preoccupations with Ghost World has been the way Clowes begins with three or four self-contained short comics that he initially has no intention of gathering together, then transforms them post-hoc into the first chapters of a longer narrative. He has to find clues of a nascent story in the material he has already written, because it’s already published and read, impervious now to editing.

So I’m interested in watching the later chapters develop conflicts from brief signs earlier in the book, then escalate those conflicts and resolve the tensions that Clowes has actually only recently introduced. The book is also clever in the way that it selectively returns to the sideshow characters of earlier episodes—John Ellis and Bob Skeetes, yes; but not Carrie Vandenburg or Johnny Apeshit—in order to create a sense of narrative symmetry. (David Boring also makes a remark about “narrative symmetry” as his plot is hurtling toward its climax, even though it’s a narrative he has supposedly constructed himself.)

I’ve also become interested in trying to pinpoint the moment when things change, in Ghost World, from satiric one-off observational strips to the “plot” or the sense of “emplotment” (a word academics actually use). The shift follows pretty closely on the moment when Enid and Becky go from being culturally savvy know-it-alls, ripping on Sassy magazine and assorted local weirdos, to vulnerable and somewhat naïve girls. Maybe if you scratch any rebellious indy teen façade, you’ll find self-image angst underneath, but the redefinition of Becky’s and Enid’s characters isn’t only a question of revealing their vulnerability. It’s also a question of redefining their interaction with the culture around them, since the characters began as spokesgirls for a certain stripe of indy scorn and satire.

This is why their two trips to the fake ’50s diner and the practical joke they play on “Bearded Windbreaker” are important enough to be the crux of the Ghost World movie. Watching “Bearded Windbreaker” suffer the heartbreak they invent for him, Enid and Becky get their first grownup sense that not every prank call is funny for the person who picks up the phone.

At the beginning of the chapter, Clowes reveals Enid to be deeply clueless about the outside world in a way that rewrites a lot of her seeming savvy in the previous chapters. Up to this point, Enid has been cool, positioning herself against the stupid, the pretentious, and the lame: “I just hate all these obnoxious, extroverted, pseudo-bohemian art-school losers!” (Is that Enid talking, or Lloyd Llewellyn?) But then the change-up:

Enid’s fun to hang out with, but how seriously can we take a high-school graduate who doesn’t know what the G.O.P. is, or what it would mean for a lobbyist to be in bed with them? Don’t we have to think of her as uninformed, immature, and a little lame? This is the panel that gets us ready to think badly of Enid’s prank on “Bearded Windbreaker.” It’s also the moment, at least in my reading experience, when we start looking at these girls from the outside, as characters, instead of seeing the semi-grotesque world through their eyes. In other words, this is the panel in which Clowes moves away from Lloyd Llewellyn and Like a Velvet Glove territory and starts to make David Boring and Ice Haven possible.

In the next post you can see the original comment flurry from this piece.

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