Graphic Novel Review: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes’ foul-mouthed teenage odyssey is widely considered a cult classic, and succeeds on most fronts. As with other Clowes works though, your enjoyment depends entirely on your capacity for unlikable characters.

Daniel ClowesWilson, which I’ve so thoroughly decimated, had one the worst protagonists ever written in graphic novel history. Clowes seems to have a penchant for writing unpleasant characters, because Ghost World‘s Enid and Becky are similarly distasteful. Mercifully, they’re fully realized characters this time around, so their quirks and flaws work in favour of the story. They’re bitter, cynical, and curse excessively, but it feels natural. Because the novel itself is fairly short it’s a huge help to be able to connect with the central characters within a matter of pages.

The story is actually fairly simple at its core: it’s a small town tale about the slowly deteriorating friendship between two teenage girls. Enid’s the jaded, frank outsider while Becky is a popular girl at heart who just happened to drift into Enid’s orbit. As the novel progresses Becky floats back into the realm of the mainstream, leaving Enid to deal with life on her own. It’s a story that’s been told a hundred times before and a hundred times since, but seen through the lens of harsh truth. As they grow older, Enid is too-self aware and Becky regresses into a more comfortable, safe life. Neither one is painted as being right or wrong though, which is a salient aspect of this novel.

The pair’s dialogue is quintessentially teenage, veering from pretentious to puerile. It deftly captures genuine adolescent moodiness, though at times their inner Clowes shines through and it’s pretty obviously not teenagers talking but vessels for the author.

There’s a fairly large cast of characters and each one is fleshed out pretty well. Some are reprehensible and others are sympathetic, but all carry a strange sadness that makes the title of the book all the more apt. It is a little surprising though that many of them don’t show any sort of resistance to the girls’ insufferable attitude, they just sort of put up with it.

The book is a compilation of comics released from 1993-1997, so the art does change over the course of the story, but it’s not jarring or distracting. In fact it benefits the story as the girls grow older and change their points of view. It’s very dynamic artwork as well; there’s little nuances and gestures scattered throughout it that aren’t obvious but add up to a realistic whole.

If there’s one thing that should be unanimously lauded about this book it’s the ending. It’s simultaneously vague and conclusive, open-ended but satisfying. A recurring motif is used effectively as a denouement but leaves room for interpretation; it’s the very definition of sticking the landing. It’s surprising sincere for a Clowes work, and despite the emotion is far from maudlin.

Final Grade: B+

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