David BoringA column article, Panel Education by: Stacey Pavlick
Stacey Pavlick is a pop culture critic looking to expand her knowledge of comics. So she allowed herself to be submitted to an experiment at the hands of Comics Bulletin's Co-Managing Editors Danny Djeljosevic and Nick Hanover, wherein they've created a list of graphic novels for her to read and report back on, offering her unique perspective as a newcomer to the medium eager to receive a Panel Education.
“I need to talk to you about David Boring,” I said, “I’m not sure how I feel about it.”
“Well, David Boring is one of the best things ever in the world, and if you don’t know that, then I can’t help you.”
Let me make a confession: my friend is right, I don’t know jack about comics. I mean, I know stuff, but I don’t. For a while I collected action figures, I have a Jughead hat, I saw Ghost World, I even had a subscription to Sandman for a year or more. But it’s just so much. To me, the whole damn scene seems so *immersive*. In for a penny, in for a pound – and I’m pretty broke as it is. I feel like it literally is an alternate universe – one that is super-regimented and time sensitive and minutia-centric and ritualistic and intended for those lucky, nerdy souls who are blessed with the encyclopedic brain -– which is to say, all things that are not me. In the end, I guess I’ve always been a bit of a comics commitment-phobe.
So why would you want to read anything I have to say about David Boring? I ask myself the same question. But nevertheless, I am here, ready to get over myself and dive in. I will not be intimidated by your complicated cosmologies. I will learn your vocabulary and read your canon! So that gets me to today, which finds me stumbling my way through it. So if you ever wanted to read something about Daniel Clowes that is not written from a fanboy perspective (no offense) or with pre-conceived scenester baggage (have I offended you yet?), I’m your girl. Your nervous, earnest, dipping-my-toe-in and trying-very-hard girl.
But back to my friend for a second. This guy – who is actually a nice person though he sounds like a smarmy dickbag above – exhibits what I imagine to be the common philosophy on Daniel Clowes’ David Boring, which is that it’s unquestionably Great and numbers among the best of “Best Of”s. And he’s known David Boring for much longer than I have, this character having rattled around inside of his brain and heart and balls since the original Eightball issues that serialized the storyline between 1998 and 2000. But this is my first trip to Hulligan’s Wharf, and it’s all kind of strange and unnerving and I’m not 100% sure I’m understanding what the hell is going on (I did indeed refer back to the “You may want to refer back to this scene” scene); I suppose therein lies the greatness. Despite disorienting location changes and whiplash plot shifts, what unites the disparate tangents of David Boring is the unyielding cling of fetishistic determinism. We are moved by what obsesses us, and are obsessed with what moves us. David Boring likes a cushy ass, and from there, his destiny unfolds.
This destiny, reported in three acts, has everything to do with sex and death and rumors of apocalypse. It all starts with a lucky penny that turns out to be anything but: bequeathed to him by Whitey, a visiting childhood friend who is murdered under uncertain circumstances, the penny is made into a necklace that he gives to Wanda Kraml, a woman who possesses that particular posterior that David finds so spellbinding. But Wanda cuts and runs, leaving the necklace behind in a box along with a crushed soda can, a blister pack of birth control pills and some hieroglyphic scraps of paper. Later, the penny is found on the waterlogged body of his mother’s cousin, Mrs. Capon, who disappears shortly after she puts on the necklace and David fucks her, muddled though he may be from having taken a bullet to the brain from an unknown assailant days earlier. Returned by the police to Mrs. Capon’s daughter, Iris, as an item wrongly assumed of having sentimental value, it ends up in the hands of her lover and David’s best friend and roommate, Dot. David reclaims the necklace and gives it to Wanda’s married sister Judy, the new object of David’s transitive fixation (worried how she compares, he calls her “the original of Wanda”). Thrown back in his face by Judy’s properly jealous husband, the necklace lands again (and finally) with Dot, who will do just about anything to protect David, who finds himself staring down the barrel of a detective’s gun at the very same moment he’s about to throw himself off of a bridge. Lucky penny, indeed.
Yeah, so there’s a lot going on here. David confronts all of this murder, attempted murder and episodic sexual kinkiness with near-expressionless self-involvement. Clowes draws all kinds of complexities in his characters’ faces – the offense and rage of a spurned wife, the perma-scowl of a dissatisfied girlfriend, the grim delight of a mother pronouncing long-withheld tragic secrets to her son – but perhaps the most complicated emotion for pen and paper and human talent to convey is the absence of one. Existential exhaustion. What people with undergrad psych degrees call “flat affect.” Panel after panel, David’s comportment is downcast, his face displaying micro-expressions of depressed cloudiness. It’s as if his own life is no big surprise. Because even though there’s death this is not a murder mystery and even though there’s sex this is not a love story: these are only plot points that delay and distract from his real objective. What occupies David Boring is biographical code breaking, an ongoing cryptanalysis in which he labors over finding meaning in the abandoned detritus of others.
The scraps of paper snatched from Wanda’s deserted apartment seem to be some sort of rebus puzzle: there is the drawing of an eye on one, keys on another, a star, the number 2, a movie camera. Arranged and rearranged, there are infinite interpretations, none of them especially communicative. What’s depressing is that David is able to verify the meaning of these ciphers through another of Wanda’s ex-lovers. This was a game that they played, explaining that that car + keys, for example, signified “Karkes,” the surname of this competing suitor. Though David does not dwell, how crushing that feeling is: identifying coded messages which, hope against hope, were intended for someone else entirely. Which is to say, not you.
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David is more focused, however, on less accidental material – a one-off comic called “The Yellow Streak” that was penned by his late father. Absent from his life and rarely spoken of by his mother, David combs the panels for clues and absorbs what he can from the well-worn relic, as there are no photographs in frames to trace his fingers through ancestral dust, no old jacket in the closet from which he can inhale his scent. Individual frames of “The Yellow Streak,” colorful, pulpy and Ben-Day dotted, interrupt Clowes’ unforgiving black and white execution of depressive realism. They are flashing in David’s mind as his own story progresses; it’s up to us to draw the association. We see them as he does, in fragments, disordered, impulsively. The tail of a speech bubble but not the speech, the ripped corner from when his mother tore up the book. It’s a self-acknowledging regress as we are creating our own meanings through reading a comic about creating our own meanings through reading a comic.
And finally: that ass. Perhaps the most damning rune of all. But as for symbols that determine autobiographies, in David Boring it’s the motif at the bottom (ha) of it all. Fetishistic, sexualized, objectified: yes, yes, yes. This is the opportunity for elementary feminist criticism – which I do believe is worth mentioning – the fact that this storyline illustrates a reductive way of relating to – or, more, literally, “seeing” – women. Dot points out that he is behaving as a stalker would in his early reconnaissance of Wanda, and David reluctantly acquiesces to her assessment. This delta of fetish-obsession-stalking is not so much the surprise as is his resignation to it with a mumble and a shrug. That he succeeds in winning the object’s affection (time and again) is also problematic in terms of confusing romantic persistence with hard-wired dysfunction. Still, Clowes is acknowledging that not all obsessive behavior presents in wild-eyed, sweaty acts of desperation; David’s fever is low grade and long lasting. Its debilitating effects are nevertheless potent and probably more common than we like to think, rendering David, at the end of the day, at least a little bit sick.
But what is more interesting is to recognize these issues and then set them aside. David’s gaze is necessarily ours, so at some point we all become perverted by degrees without realizing it or feeling particularly dirty. I was fascinated by how fast I stopped being creeped out by the ass shots and the decidedly unsexy sex scenes. Clowes somehow has drawn dysthymia, and I have caught the disease – I see what David’s thinking and unfortunately, I know how he feels. By the third act I know his relationship with Naomi is doomed; she has a flat butt after all (I checked that shit out first thing!). What is the reason he is infatuated by this? Why does he pursue and pursue and pursue? The full circle conclusion of David Boring apologizes and then subverts its own apology. It’s not the body part itself that’s essential, it’s the feelings of peace and comfort and safety that came to be represented by it that matter – a fucked up and now involuntary association. But by latching back onto that original object of affection through reconnecting with cousin Pamela -– that first, most perfect ass – he literally is able to recreate and live out his fetishistic fantasies. Happy ending? I don’t know. Not for me. It’s a neatly literal epilogue, but the implication that our choices are just mad grabs for simulacra of imprinted urges kinda brings me down. What’s worse is, I think it might be true, and now I’m too depressed to fight it. I get you, David Boring; it’s just that I’m not sure I wanted to.
Next month: Stacey gets schooled in superheroes with All Star Superman...
Stacey Pavlick's day job has zero to do with her undergrad degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. A newcomer to comics, more of her writing can be found on Spectrum Culture, where she expounds on music and books and wields her influence as Managing Editor. She lives in a Philadelphia rowhouse with her longtime boyfriend, a handful of comedically spirited cats and a pit bull rescue, whom she frequently plays as if his body is a furry keyboard.