Classic Books: Ghost World

Someone called Danny Fingeroth has done a list of ‘Top Ten Graphic Novels’ (i.e. comics).

The top two are Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Both are phenomenal and this is recognised by anyone with the slightest knowledge of the form. But where is Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World? 

It’s not exactly obscure – indeed, I suspect Fingeroth omitted the comic out of a contrarian reaction to its fame and success.

This story about two disaffected high school graduates is one of the best things I’ve read, in any media. Two young women throw their mortarboards in the air, v-sign the school building and walk away from the crowded ceremony. While Rebecca gets on with finding a house and a job in a practical if lacklustre way (”mostly I feel like poisoning everybody’ she says of her coffee shop customers) Enid seems to want more than life can give her. Clowes describes his remarkable protagonist in Salon:

She’s trapped in this world of very limited consumer choice. She doesn’t want to pick Pepsi or Coke; she wants some weird soda that she’s never heard of. She has a bigger imagination than what she’s offered.

We can see Ghost World as a commentary on modern capitalism and alienation from society, and the observational humour, in which Clowes delivers hard truths from a skewed angle, bares this out. He depicts a society in which politics is a form of sport and people will say anything to get attention. But as is generally the way, a straightforward political reading neglects the human dimension of the story. What motivates Enid is not nihlistic ennui but a genuine idealism.

The book was adapted into a film by Terry Zwigoff, who also did Robert Crumb’s biopic: there’s an in-joke in Ghost World where a quizzical Enid examines a CD of Crumb’s band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders; and Enid’s drawings are supplied by Sophie Crumb, Robert’s daughter. Casting is perfect – the opening sequence, where Enid hurls herself around an empty room to bhangra music, is a bang-on illustration of her personality. The movie and book have different storylines and complement each other.

In both, Clowes uses hope, sadness, wild humour and realism to hit, in an indefinable way, some hard and frightening truth of the human condition. There are lines in Ghost World that send a chill down your arms. Read the book, or watch the film. You’ll see.

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