Several years ago I was talking to a friend of mine from high school who is now an English teacher. She asked me if I had any suggestions for comics, trades or graphic novels that might be useful examples of the form for her AP students to read. I want to say she’d already read Watchmen at this point, so I went with several suggestions of books that I had either read myself or heard were good and passed whatever hard copies I had along to her for her perusal.
Well, today I got a box from her in the mail with all those books. I remembered passing her Dan Clowes’ Ghost World, Mo Willems’ travelog You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons and a pair of Marjane Satrapi books — Embroideries and Chicken With Plums — but had no recollection of giving her Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. This surprised me because it’s a book that I’ve been hearing about since it came out in 2006, especially from my pals at Wizard who were for more tapped in to the indie comic and graphic novel scene like Sean T. Collins and Kiel Phegley.
Anyway, getting this box today was kind of like comic Christmas. I felt like reading something I was excited about and ABC fit the bill. I’m going to say right now that I only knew that people liked this book and understood that it had something to do with trying to fit in as a kid of Chinese lineage in America. That’s it. So I was pleasantly surprised by everything in this book. If you’ve heard good things and want to check it out, I recommend stopping here and getting your hands on a copy because it was a delight having this tale unfold before me.
If you’re still here, I’ll explain a bit more. The book features three different stories. One is of a monkey king who flirts with the idea of becoming a man, another stars a wildly racist version of a Chinese person visiting and embarrassing a high school student and the third follows Jin Wang as he does his best to navigate a school that’s not overly friendly to him while dealing with all the feelings and emotions any kid that age finds themselves surrounded by. All three stories are really enjoyable, but it’s tough to talk about how good they get without getting into spoilers.
So, this paragraph is SPOILER TERRITORY. The beauty of this book is that it kept these three stories going along and each one was super entertaining. I wondered why I was reading all three in the same book, but it didn’t bother me much. Then — BAM — you find out how they’re related and it’s this great Usual Suspects like moment where the good thing you were reading just revealed to you that it’s great. What started out as three different stories turned into this much more impressive non-linear fable that left me a little slack jawed, I must say. That was a great experience and I hope repeated readings will only add to the experience.
I can easily say that all the hype around ABC is dead-on accurate. There are bits in this book that made me laugh, cringe, feel sad, remember the awkwardness of growing up and even thrill to some pretty spectacular action. For all that, it gets a gigantic thumbs up.
I don’t remember when I first read Ghost World, but I feel like my reaction to this book has probably changed since then. I want to say we first crossed paths in college. That’s when I was really building up my trade collection by buying cheap lots of on ebay. I wound up with a wide variety of books to explore. I’m not sure if I saw the movie before reading its sequential inspiration or not, but kind of think that was the case.
Ghost World first appeared in Dan Clowes’ self-published comic Eightball which also birthed The Death Ray and Art School Confidential. The comic follows lifelong friends Enid and Rebecca as they wander around town, talk and create complicated backstories for the people they encounter. It’s nearly impossible for me to separate this comic from some of the indie movies I rented from Family Video back in the late 90s/early 00s because it has that kind of slice of life, slightly meandering tone that shines the spotlight on young people trying to figure out the world.
The problem? These young people are assholes. Man, I feel ancient writing that sentence. But, reading this book kind of made me feel ancient anyway and not just because I wanted to shake Enid and tell her to get out of her own ass and actually do something, but also because Teenage Me probably did and said many of these same things. Let me amend that, I probably said the same things, I would have never called a personal ad guy and set him up for a fake date. That level of meanness has always bothered me and it makes me dislike Enid pretty strongly.
But I think that’s the point. I’m not very familiar with Clowes’ work, but from what I gather he enjoys presenting unlikable or hard-to-like characters and giving the reader an idea of what their lives are like. You definitely get that with Enid and Rebecca. This book doesn’t go deep into the hows and whys of their relationship or psyches, but you do get to form your own opinions of such things as they talk. And, as things progress throughout the story, you do come to realize that things are going to change for these women. Enid’s dad wants her to go to college, the mere idea of which winds up creating a rift between Enid and Rebecca, one that gets them both to reevaluate their relationship and what they’re doing with their lives.
At the end of the day, I don’t think I need to read Ghost World again. It’s not a bad book by any means. Clowes knows how to tell a story, expertly combining dialog, pacing and cartooning skills to get you into the story, but also keep you involved even when you might not like the people you’re reading about. After returning to this book, though, I’m left feeling like I did about some of those indie movies I mentioned: regardless of how I felt about the people, I respect the artistry involved, but I don’t think I need to revisit any time soon. Then again, Clowes is one of the most well respected cartoonists around so it might be worth keeping around for a while…