Daniel Clowes Dreams of the Apocalypse

MONICA, by Daniel Clowes

In 1989, Daniel Clowes kicked off his comic series “Eightball” with an issue subtitled “An Orgy of Spite, Vengeance, Hopelessness, Despair and Sexual Perversion,” and dude was only half kidding. “Eightball” was like no other comic on the stands, a demented cornucopia that brought into sharp relief Clowes’s remarkable sweep of gifts: his spare, uncanny compositions; his parodic brilliance; his pitch-perfect captures of his alienated characters’ inner lives; his surrealistic flights and pulpish progressions; his inability to remain in any generic lane whatsoever; and his true superpower, a scabrously radiant honesty that had no equal in comics or “literature.”

To those of us reading “Eightball” at the time, it seemed impossible that such a protean one-of-a-kind talent could hold together for long, but hold together Clowes did. Over a 15-year run he unleashed banger after banger, from gags and genre sendups to teenage wasteland coming-of-age stories. He one-upped Alan Moore by describing what would actually happen if an unhappy orphaned teenager acquired a superhero’s enormous power (not enormous responsibility, I assure you) and pulled off the single most heartbreakingest panel in comic history (“You’ve grown into a very beautiful young woman”), all the while clowning everyone from Mick Jagger to your least favorite art-school poseur.

It was a creative irruption that established Clowes as one of the greatest talents in the independent comics game and also (in spite of his acerbic reputation) one of the most feeling. Chilly and remote his sympathies might be, they are nevertheless deep and affecting. It is precisely Clowes’s lower-frequency sensitivities toward the suffering of his characters that power what many consider his greatest works — “Ghost World,” for one — and elevate his latest graphic novel, “Monica,” to the status of a masterpiece.

On its face, “Monica” is a mother-daughter tale of the typically shattering kind. We first meet Penny, the elusive mother-to-be, at the moment of her unleashing: She is in bed with the cynical, “sort of beatnik” artist Krug while her straight-arrow fiancé, Johnny, is fighting in Vietnam. Penny is “an art major — pottery and textiles — just passing time until her fiancé got back from the war.” But it’s the 1960s and the Age of Aquarius is in full swing and some smothered unhappiness in Penny — or, as one of her former lovers describes it, “a darkness” — is exposed by Krug and the revolutionary zeitgeist he introduces.

In a fiery act of reinvention, Penny destroys all ties to her former life (bye-bye, Johnny) and throws herself headfirst into the counterculture. Before long, she has a daughter, Monica, with a mystery man she stubbornly refuses to identify. Monica, the narrator of this tale, spends her first years watching her mother bound from relationship to relationship, “an endless cascade of hirsute suitors and freaky flatmates.”

Penny starts a candle business, loses a candle business to a possible arson, struggles to make ends meet, tears into anyone who questions her parenting. Little Monica responds to the precarity by tidying the house and offering her mother her spare change, while praying to God for divine salvation. It ultimately arrives in the form of Penny’s old fiancé, Johnny, but in the end Penny can’t seem to stop herself from burning it all down; she leaves Johnny at the altar and abandons Monica on her parents’ stoop.

“From that moment on,” Monica says, “I lived a normal life, happy and safe from harm, but I never saw my mother again.”

A collage of several illustrations by Daniel Clowes, including an interplanetary collision, an early human, a nuclear explosion, a soldier smoking, a woman’s weeping eyes and several people looking over their shoulders.
Images courtesy of Daniel Clowes/Fantagraphics

No part of this declaration ends up being true. Monica’s life — which the graphic novel follows to its gray-haired end — is punctuated by calamities. Her beloved grandparents die when she’s in college; shortly after, a brutal, coma-inducing car crash makes all of Monica’s early memories suspect (including the weeks just before the crash, when she finds a radio that allows her to communicate with her dead grandfather). Post-recovery, Monica starts a wildly successful candle business but ends up burning it down (figuratively).

If, as the poet Nayyirah Waheed writes, our mothers are our first country, then for Monica it’s a country whose calamities she has never gotten over. Unwilling (or unable) to form real attachments, bereft of all past and without much of a future, a 40-something Monica finally resolves to locate her mother and uncover the truth of her abandonment — and, in the process, discover who her father was.

Because this is a Clowes story, Monica’s quest for origins — for a stable self — takes her on strange and twisting paths. She traces her mother through the decayed revenants of the counterculture, ending up at a bizarre cult whose leader might or might not be her father. There are oneiric interludes: In one, Johnny is a hard-boiled private detective in a city that’s being engulfed by a mysterious disaster; in another, a young man saves his hometown from a supernatural invasion only to be rewarded in the worst way possible. The Gothic, noir, war comics, even a glimpse of William Hogarth — all appear, and all are made very weird indeed.

A pervasive air of apocalypse hangs over all these diverse proceedings, and it speaks to Clowes’s talents that he never lets the eschatological side of things overwhelm the story, or Monica. Our narrator might have no idea who she really is, but Clowes doesn’t lose track of her or her dogged human longing for a mother bond to call her own.

Monica’s quest, for all of its outré swerves, achieves something like a conclusion; she gets some of the answers she seeks, just not the ones she would have liked. “It’s quite a blow to discover after a lifetime of fairy-tale fantasies that you’re not really special,” she says. “Just the unwanted fetus … caught in a confusing historical moment.”

The novel’s final chapter finds an aging Monica “in a state of near-contentment, living sexless and invisible … waiting for social security to kick in.” But near-contentment is not the same as contentment, and answers are not the same as healing. A newcomer offers up the possibility of the kind of romantic bond that has eluded Monica her entire life, but despite all the years and all the miles, Monica is still her mother’s daughter. She cannot break free of “the black emptiness that might (or might not) overtake me if/when I stopped moving.” Nor can she break free, it seems, from her mother’s appetite for destruction.

What happens next is the weirdest, wildest thing in this book — and that’s saying something.

In Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Paul D warns Sethe, who slew her eldest daughter to save her from slavery, that her motherlove “is too thick.” Clowes’s strange, luminous work demonstrates how thick daughterlove can be — and, equally, how apocalyptic.

Junot Díaz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a professor at M.I.T. He can be found online at junot.substack.com.

MONICA | By Daniel Clowes | 106 pp. | Fantagraphics Books | $30

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