I will begin by discussing a golden classic from the good old days: "MCMLXVI" (or "1966"), from Eightball #16 (Nov. 1995). A six-page color short, its story concerns the preferences of an unnamed narrator who places "the peak of American culture" at 1966, the year of his birth. He gripes at some length about the difficulties of his chosen path; to avoid the poverty of contemporary culture is to maintain a certain obliviousness to changing times. "You've got to be able to go in your own direction or you just get trampled by the flow of history," he remarks, rejecting ideas of nostalgia and retro fashion in favor of absolute unquestioning dedication to the faded moment, the Golden Age. This culminates in a heroic panel I have posted at least once to every social media platform I have ever used, in which the narrator dismisses all the snickering ironists surrounding 'schlock' culture in those salad days of alternative comics.
Throughout, Clowes shows us how this isolates the narrator. With a girlfriend, he visits a beloved author of 1960s spicy men's novels; but when the writer begins showing them some later work, just-shy-of-actionable '70s sex novels about children and parents, the narrator's soon-to-be-ex is overcome with disgust. The narrator cannot see a moral component, only the supreme merit of the author's unstudied prose. Interpreters surround the narrator - a friend tries to reason with him about the merits of rap on an elemental level, similarities to garage rock, etc. No dice. He is never going to listen to rap. To him, "the most grueling night of my fucking life" was sitting through his brother's performance as Madonna at a drag show. His brother, the narrator says, was a repressed homosexual until around that time, and his blithering idiot mother still cannot figure out that he is gay. That his mother might be exercising some social grace in supporting his brother without explicitly discussing his life is something the narrator genuinely cannot imagine. That too is interpretation, and he is against interpretation.
Clowes is not against interpretation, but he's been known to complicate it. In a 1999 interview with Austin English for Indy Magazine, Clowes describes "MCMLXVI" as "false autobiographical," giving the appearance of his sincere opinions while actually remaining "very distant." This is fitting. If the narrator is not Clowes, he is nonetheless the Clowesian Loner: an alienated individual in the process of constructing some sense of self. The heart of his passion for the art of 1966 is to design a fitting persona from materials at hand.
On first glance, Monica, Clowes' new book, is a set of nine short stories, all but one of which are narrated by characters therein. Comparisons can easily be drawn to Caricature, Clowes' 1998 collection, which is set up in almost exactly the same manner. Most of those stories, "MCMLXVI" included, came from the pages of Eightball. The stories in Monica, however, are completely new, and tightly linked; read in order, front of the book to the back, they form a roughly chronological account of the U.S. experience from the time of the Vietnam War through an unspecified point in the near future. The title character is not born until the second story, and is not always a participant in every plot, but she figures indirectly into all of them. Throughout, characters encounter uncanny situations ranging from radio communication with the dead to animal transformation; more than once, an entire town becomes saturated with weird, paranormal, occult, conspiratorial intrigues. Importantly, while the stories are in a basically consecutive order, their details do not easily line up, and at times seem contradictory.
We must therefore look between the panels: figuratively, in that I will argue that not all of the events depicted in Monica actually occur in the 'reality' of the book, and also literally.
The pages of Monica—and I mean the actual pages of the book, which you touch with your fingers—are tinted in several shades from white to brown, as if to indicate a degree of comic book aging. The tint does not seem to vary much (if at all) within any of the nine stories; rather, it changes from story to story. The stories with the brownest pages depict the most fabulous and sensational events: stories 3, 5 and 8. They are also the only 'narrated' stories that are not narrated by Monica, the title character. Although, I would argue that they are, in a way, because they depict stories being written by Monica, that exist in the world of the book as stories rather than literal events. There are also three stories with very white pages: 2, 7 and 9, and three stories with off-white pages: 1, 4 and 6. Story 1 doesn't have a narrator, but the others are all narrated by Monica, and can be read as things that happen to Monica - although there is a degree of subjectivity to these stories as well, so that we might see the tinting as a sliding scale, with off-white pages containing a greater degree of supposition or fantasy than the white pages.
Crucially, at no point does Clowes tell you what is 'real' or 'fiction' on the page; you can simply read Monica as an account of 100% literal events happening in a strange world, or you can read it as totally disconnected and individually fictive pieces. In one story, Monica states that she never saw her mother again after she was a child, and in another, she meets her mother as an adult. Is Monica narrating each chapter at a different point in her life? You don't even have to accept that every Monica is the same Monica.
But I accept it. I see Monica in everything, and I see meaning in the rather simple organizing principle I have just described, because Monica is a book about the construction of meaning. The divination of purpose by the Clowesian Loner.
To summarize the plot in its entirety, with this interpretation in mind: Monica is born to Penny, a restless young woman, sometime in the back half of the 1960s, while Penny's boyfriend is nearly two years deep into the U.S. ground war in Vietnam. Monica does not know her father; Penny is frequently in and out of relationships with a rogues' gallery of counterculture boobs, among them a pompous artist, a narcissistic revolutionary, and a macho knave into partner-swapping. Finally, Monica is left with her grandparents as Penny flees a pending marriage to her returned boyfriend. As a young woman, following the death of her grandparents, Monica isolates herself in a lakeside cottage where, to her surprise, she is able to communicate with her dead grandfather via a transistor radio; Monica detonates much of what remains of her life as the signal gradually fades from the radio. She crashes a car, falls into a coma, and is told upon waking that the radio episode was hallucinatory. Living with wastrel acquaintances, Monica falls into the orbit of a wealthy woman who persuades her to revive a candle-making company founded by Penny: Monica's Candles. After 15 years, Monica tires of the anxieties of success and sets out to trace her family background. Her mother, it emerges, was involved with a now-fragmented cult, which Monica joins, though the experience is disillusioning. She nonetheless obtains enough information to locate her mother, who disabuses her of any fantasies about her unknown father: "a real asshole - an angry drug addict." Monica then retires to a resort town in California some years after "the first pandemic," where a chance meeting with a man who quite resembles Daniel Clowes but is not, evidently, Daniel Clowes, sparks in her a desire to meet her father. She feels no connection to the dying old man, and ventures back to her grandparents' lakeside cottage, where she retrieves the transistor radio abandoned decades ago. It now picks up a chorus of ghosts. At their direction, she digs up a certain object and cracks its shell, which releases a wave of fire that engulfs the Earth.
During these events, Monica references writing various stories, without any explanation of what they are about. If we accept the brown-page sequences as these stories, they might be read as reflections or fantasies of people in Monica's life, or allegories of her own situation. They are narrated by: a young man, William Avis, who returns to his hometown only to find it in the grip of pagan ecstatics, to which he is inducted and made preeminent, "the focal center of all human existence, the one true religion"; Penny's Vietnam veteran boyfriend, now a man of action busting up a radical group to rescue a boy at the behest of his mother, also named Avis, only to find himself an accessory to an incomprehensibly obscure conspiracy in some variation of the same town from the preceding pagan story; and the aforementioned pompous artist and lover of Penny, Krugg, a potential but mistaken father to Monica, who describes the paradoxical isolation of his Dionysian worldview.
The lone unnarrated story depicts a conversation between two American soldiers in Vietnam. Both of them, we will eventually discover when the context of the book is clearer, are or will be lovers of Monica's mother, representing diametrically opposed worldviews of upright patriotic Christian order vs. impassioned chaotic violence: "In my dream, the cloud finally comes in, turning the sky all red. There's a terrible rain of fire and blood and the world opens, like a wound in the soil." The Vietnam story, on off-white pages, is the first story in the book, and it alludes to the conclusion of the final, white-page story, in which Monica realizes the destiny of her grandfather's pet name for her: "Demonica."
But you are not going to read Monica in such a modular way at first. Probably you will read it straight through as a book, where Clowes reveals an expertise at harmonization. Despite the inherent contradictions of the stories, the book reads with an eerie smoothness so that flamboyant horror comic visions like a Burnsian heap of moaning monster faces lend credibility to more obviously subjective events, like Monica's possibly trauma-induced communication with the dead. The result, at first, is a giddy sense of the world as a place of profound adventure and danger that renders its inhabitants larger than life... but as Monica investigates the circumstances of her mother, the excitement fades for reader and protagonist alike, as life is revealed as a series of delusions and misdirection. Or, as the classic Eightball one-pager "Give It Up!" (#8, May 1992) concluded: "Our civilization is built upon an ARBITRARILY CONTRIVED value system which effectively encourages our basest human instincts. As such, it is wrongheaded and will produce nothing of true value."
There are a lot of resonances with earlier Clowes stories, especially from the twinned Caricature. One story in Monica is set amidst a local arts & crafts fair, like in the title story in the earlier book (Eightball #15, Apr. 1995). When Monica dives into a lake, it soothes the burning of her skin like in the oneiric "The Gold Mommy" (Eightball #14, Nov. 1994). Monica may have been born a bit late for 1966, but she is always looking back: to the words of her dead grandfather; to her mother's old candle company; to the mystery of her father; to the idealism of 1960s political and social radicals and midcentury vision questing in art and new religion. So too with Clowes.
In the New Yorker, at some length, he explains to Françoise Mouly the many reference points in Monica, from Life magazine science illustrations to Basil Wolverton's drawings of Armageddon. The pompous artist Krugg is a renamed character from a Bernard Krigstein comic, and the story of William Avis and the pagan town is a very loose 'cover' version of a Joe Orlando horror story from EC. In an earlier time, in Eightball #22 (2001, later expanded as Ice Haven), Clowes would distinguish a series of linked vignettes by flitting from style to style, grasping at the totality of comics history from an age when it was starting to become easy to read so much of it, as U.S. culture appeared to open to comics as an advanced artistic idea. Recalling this, I get a sense of vanquished idealism. Monica is subtler in its drawing, so that Clowes' evocations of war, horror, romance comics are like gradations of how Monica sees a world she can only understand in retrospect, astride half a century of U.S. history marked by a gradual undermining of purpose.
Luckily, Clowes also drops some of his funniest character drawings in a long while, guiding the eye as if to say look at this stupid asshole:
This particular asshole factors into maybe the most affecting story in the book, "$U¢¢E$$" (number 6, off-white), in which Monica's Candles takes off in a big way, putting a distance between Monica and everybody else. First come her broke and miserable friends, whom she does not relate to anymore; she narrates that success first makes you "the most authentic version of your true self," in that you are no longer encumbered with affliction - but over time this becomes a sort of paranoia, where you suspect you are blind to unbridgeable differences between you and them, searching every wrinkle of every face for signs of resentment. You start to gravitate toward people in your own social and economic position, to whom you better relate in the day-to-day, but because you arrived there, because you were not born there, you are perpetually aware of "this creepy ranking instinct" that occupies every interaction - so you pretend you belong. "Soon," Monica muses, "your greatest horror would be to go back there, to the way you were."
It's one of several unsatisfying systems of meaning observed by Monica in the book, and I suspect one personal to Clowes, who was an alt-comics hero that became an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. If you look to the comic of Ghost World, the very first chapter (Eightball #11, June 1993), you see the most beloved of all Clowesian Loners, Enid Coleslaw, not only offering acerbic commentary on the wider culture, but confronted by a very subcultural grotesque in the form of John Ellis, who runs an edgy zine with articles showcasing simulated child pornography. This might seem like just a gruesome counterpoint to readers of now, but edgy zine types of that general sort were on the alt scene in the early '90s. They were part of the locale with Eightball then, while now Monica is reviewed in publications that don't know horror comics are still being published. But Enid had to get on the bus too, in the end, though it may take her nowhere.
You might say Monica ends up nowhere too; for a book that ends with a Biblical extinction event, hers is not the sizzling genre trajectory of dead-eyed superhero Andy from Eightball #23 (2004, later The Death Ray) or Jack from Patience (2016), though you could at first be fooled. An earlier 'superhero' story of Clowes', "Black Nylon" (Eightball #18, 1997), which brought Caricature to a close, seemed to blend a variety of detective and spicy men's pulp stylings into a cruel and purposeless whole; yet when asked about it by Ken Parille in 2009 for Daniel Clowes: Conversations, Clowes insisted that he couldn't even remember his intent for the story, constructing it "to see how far I could push doing extremely personal imagery to see if it means anything to anybody else." One of the images, an eerie cave, also features in the brown paper "pagan horror" story in Monica, which is really as much a personal collection - but I would argue with a broader intent.
Monica is the story of Monica's attempts to divine purpose from her life: from financial success; from creativity; from religion; from parentage. Pulling back, we might be tempted to see it as Daniel Clowes' attempt to collage together purpose from old comics, art, dreams - but I see it as Clowes creating a simulation of purpose. You read the book and feel a pleasant sense of puzzlement at a man becoming a tree and a cool guy with bad politics shooting a gun and intimations of a secret world beyond the veil of reality, ready to be cast aside by a United States Navy deserter subject to spectacular revelations, and hell, even if he's a scam artist it's a lot more profound than grimacing over the Deep State, god is U.S. culture shit anymore. But then the cult leader is just some idiot in a bad haircut and people are willing to kill others over such bullshit, and you go over the pieces of the book to make sense of it as Monica goes over the pieces, and you are Monica and Clowes is Monica. Maybe the colors of the pages don't mean anything. Maybe my eyes are bad and I'm seeing them wrong; maybe there's two colors, four colors. Maybe there is no structure to anything in this book at all, yet it is nonetheless the best of Clowes' post-Eightball books, because it is the one where form best matches function, to absolutely convey the sense of becoming lost in the attribution of meaning, right up to the end.
Intimations of the apocalypse are not uncommon in Clowes' work. You'll find them in David Boring (Eightball #19-21, 1998-2000). You'll find them in "Green Eyeliner" (Esquire, July 1998), the Caricature story most like Monica. And, just as the heroine of that short plots several fake deadly panics to attribute meaning to herself, I don't think the seas truly boil at the end of Monica. In the way her earlier communication with a ghost is ostensibly a hallucination brought on by an accident, it seems likely her final such communication comes after she crashes her car or her heart just stops, as a final wish for absolute purpose in the face of noise. The destination of the Clowesian Loner's travels: the world ends with you.