Thursday, July 18, 2013

Books in 2013: #14 Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Next up is yet another graphic novel book club pick, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (which, considering my previous one was Marvel 1602, means I didn't read much between these two book clubs!) The mission for this particular meeting: read the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, and then watch the film starring Thora Birch and a young Scarlett Johansson. It's a brilliant way to experience both.

Graphic novels are a very visual medium. The text tells half the story, and the pictures the other half. Gunning through the book reading the words only will certainly give you the story, but the faces, the illustrations (whether well rounded or sketchy) provide the atmosphere, and the background often has as many clues and hints as to deeper meanings as a miss-en-scène on Lost. I tend to read graphic novels one of two ways: either reading the story first and then starting over, reading again and looking at the pictures more closely, or, more often, reading both simultaneously, looking at the artwork as soon as I read the bubble or caption, and staring at the different elements. If it's a long novel, does the style change by the end of the book? How does the writer use the illustrations to fill in gaps in the text?

And what about books where the illustrator and author are two different people (this is where a lot of superhero comics or anything by Neil Gaiman comes into play). I remember reading Sandman and it took me FOREVER because I was SO entranced by the drawings, and how Dream or Death looked different in the hands of various authors. One minute he looks like Neil Gaiman himself; the next Robert Smith of the Cure. (As opposed to Robert Smith? of Doctor Who fame.) So the artwork is essential.

Which is why reading the book and then watching the film — another visual art form — is a genius way to experience the story told in two different ways.

I actually loved the novel. You're not always supposed to like Becky and Enid (whose last name, Coleslaw, makes her name a perfect anagram of Daniel Clowes) but their wry observations are humorous at times, biting most of the time. They do stupid things and act cruelly, hurting the innocent people around them by laughing ironically at how unhip the world is. It's not just a study of cruelty, however, but how these girls realize at some point that the biting commentary isn't getting them anywhere, and they need to grow up. Enid is the richer character in some ways because we see a lot more of her home life, whereas Becky's role is more as Enid's friend, but we still see Becky doing some things on her own that Enid never knows about. Eventually the girls grow apart when Becky wants an apartment and a grown-up job, and Enid just wants things to continue on the way they are. The end of the book is vague, and open to interpretation (I loved the discussion at our graphic novel group, with so many different interpretations of what actually happens at the end).

The movie alters characters and pulls in new ones, and creates an entire new storyline with Steve Buscemi's character, who's just a minor drive-by in the book. I saw the movie years ago when it premiered at TIFF, so it was great to go back and revisit it, and wonder what happened to Thora Birch and see Scarlett before she was a jazz singer and running around in The Avengers. They both look PERFECT as Becky and Enid, and are so close to the look of the girls in the book it's uncanny. The cruelty they inflict seems to have greater repercussions in the movie than in the book, and in the movie it's more explicitly Enid's story (the Becky-only moments are gone).

I would highly recommend a book-and-movie experience with Ghost World, first reading Clowes's book (which has a laugh-out-loud bit where Clowes himself appears in the story) and then watching the excellent adaptation of it. I can't say I liked either one better than the other, because they're such different versions of the story. Terry Zwigoff, the director of Ghost World, seems a perfect fit in the role of adaptor, simply because he's well versed in comics and the artists who create them (he was the award-winning director of Crumb, another movie I highly recommend).


Colleen/redeem147 said...

My daughter and I saw the film at a preview screening. Those girls were so like her and her friend it was scary. Though they've never tormented Steve Buscemi.

yourblindspot said...

Ghost World is an alt-comic-staple blind spot for me. I've read a bunch of Clowes' book Eightball, but I never got around to Ghost World or the film adaptation (though I also bow at the altar of Crumb, which is just so very odd and extraordinary and a film I inevitably revisit every couple of years). I'm sure I'll get around to it eventually, but at this point I don't even own a copy.

Speaking of blind spots, my most recent read is Earth Abides, the seminal postapocalyptic novel by George R. Stewart. Published in the 1940s, Earth Abides is one of the earliest examples of postapocalyptic narrative and has been claimed as the primary literary inspiration for no less than Stephen King's The Stand, among others. I've been meaning to read it ever since high school but somehow never managed to do so until now. It's beautifully written, soft and measured considering the bleakness of the subject matter -- almost meditative in the way it breaks down the steady decline and eventual reemergence of humanity post-pandemic, reminiscent of Alan Weisman's superb nonfiction book The World Without Us from several years ago. Right now, it's the best thing I've read in 2013. Ironic, I suppose, considering it's 65 years old, but there it is.

Graeme said...

I love both the film and the graphic novel though they're very different beasts. I think the thing about the graphic novel is you start from the outside looking in, which is why Enid and Becky seem so unpleasant at first-- because honestly, teenagers can be really. But the great thing about it is the change up that happens around the point where Enid's playing the record she loved as a little girl. And suddenly you're no longer on the outside, you're inside it. And the later chapters become more and more poignant.

I love the ending-- Enid looking at Becky, now wearing glasses, through the diner window and saying "You've grown into a beautiful young woman". I know what happens to Enid next is ambiguous but for me that's perfunctory. The ending is in these two friends now on parallel courses and Enid saying something rather lovely rather than rather snarky showing her own growth.

The movie shares DNA but is so different not only because of Steve Buscemi but because of the found art storyline. But it also kind of puts us inside with Enid right from the start (I love the opening sequence where she dances along with the film Gumnaam) and the Buscemi character is there to do the rest of the fleshing out of her character in a way that Becky never can.

I think both are profound and wonderful but the graphic novel edges it out because it has that gorgeous last line. I never understood why the movie didn't adapt that.

Nikki Stafford said...

Graeme: Something that someone pointed out in our book club discussion was specifically on that last line. Enid is looking through a window and can see Becky, and she says it. But... is the line directed at Becky, or herself, whom she can see reflected in the window? Or both? I immediately assumed Becky, but when that person suggested that I thought wow, it could be any of those possibilities. :) It made me love the line even more.

Graeme said...

I always saw it as both but with an emphasis on Becky. I agree even that's ambiguous. I just think it's beautiful regardless

Chuck Power said...

I think I'll start Ghost World next. I'm finishing up Sandman now and it is so awesome. Not sure if you have read Preacher or Y the Last Man yet but they are a couple of my favourites (I added the u for you.)

Nikki Stafford said...

LOL! Y: The Last Man is probably my all-time favourite graphic novel series. Well, OK, tied with Sandman (which I've decided I'm going to read again).