Unlike all past issues the latest contains just one story, completely self-contained in the single issue. But just to mess with us a bit, the narrative has been divided into 29 vignettes that range in length from a single strip to several pages. Some of them continue a running narrative throughout the book and others are just "one-shots." This Altman-esque technique of weaving different story threads across each other forms a tapestry of lives rather than a straight narrative.
Several things hold all the pieces together. They all take place in Ice Haven, a burgh whose only distinguishing characteristic is a pustule-shaped rock outcrop known among the locals as "our friend." A central mystery also begins to take shape through many of the vignettes. With explicit overtones of the Leopold and Loeb murder case, the disappearance of a dopey-looking kid becomes the running theme of the book. Then, as if he didn't set enough of a challenge for himself, Clowes will often carry some event or object over from one vignette to the next. In one of the more goofball episodes, "Blue Bunny," a violent cartoon rabbit echoes a stuffed animal seen on the previous page.
A P.I. grills a comic book critic in Dan Clowes' 'Eightball' #22
In spite of this sophisticated structure, Clowes keeps the focus on characterization. The various inhabitants include Random Wilder, the eccentric would-be poet laureate; Violet Van der Platz, the insecure, love-lorn teenage girl; Charles, the hyper-articulate and aware sixth-grader; and Mr. Ames, the mono-maniacal private investigator. Each has their own story to tell, along with half a dozen other characters, including "Rocky" the town's inhabitant in 100,000 B.C. "There goes Ogg," he thinks, "'Mr. Sunshine' what's his secret? I'll kill him." Between them all Clowes builds another of his hilariously slightly off-center worlds that have a vague sense of dread about them. Kind of like where you live.
Though it sounds intimidating, newcomers should feel no trepidation about starting with this issue. In fact, it makes for an excellent primer of Clowes' art at a low price. Though it has a complex superstructure, it works because the basics are so sound. Clowes has a clean, sharp drawing style that varies from big-headed cartooniness to more straight-forward realism. The layouts are simple and easy to read, but varied enough to prevent eye-fatigue. He also continues his experimentation with color schemes. Sometimes opposing pages will switch from full color to monochrome. It can even be called pretty.
With Dan Clowes continually testing himself this way it is hard to say if he has reached the top of his game yet. I doubt it. Were it not for its late 2001 arrival, "Eightball" #22 would have been on my ten best list last year. It will certainly be in the running for next year's list.