I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the profound effect that art can have on a person, on the deep, complex, life-changing effects that a creation can have on the way we view the world. Daniel Clowes’s astonishing Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron is all about that idea. With a new edition of this book now available from Fantagraphics, it was a good time to reread this outstanding graphic novel.
Clay Davenport’s entire world is profoundly upset when he happens to catch a very odd and bizarre film called Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron at a seedy movie theatre. We don’t know much about Clay before he wanders into the unnamed theatre, but we can judge Clay by his appearance. Clay is reasonably well-dressed, but he looks to be carrying the troubles of the world on his shoulders. As he wanders into the theatre, Clay has massive bags under his eyes, his shoulders are slumped, and he looks thoroughly beaten down by his world.
The theatre is as run-down as can be — it smells like a urinal mint, Clay’s shoes stick to the floor, and the place is inhabited by mindless tough guys and ten-dollar whores. Slumping in his seat, Clay sits through one movie, a desultory porno featuring flabby, unfashionably mustached men and glassy-eyed women with sagging breasts. Then the second movie comes on the screen, and it’s a surreal masterpiece that would make David Lynch proud. As Clay states, “This is incredible — I didn’t know they made movies like this… these people are real sickos… There’s no sex… There’s not even any nudity…” What the movie offers is an unbelievably compelling look into an alternate world, a place where behavior and gender and personalities and even plot are felt on an emotional level rather than a surface level.
Clay goes from slump-shouldered and baggy-eyed to wide eyed and excited. He quickly sits erect in his seat as the movie plays. The movie plays through and Clay is deeply fascinated, hypnotized by the events on the screen. After the film ends, he wanders into the lobby in a daze and soon meets a turbaned sage in the theatre bathroom who informs Clay that the movie was made in an obscure theatre “about 65 miles north of here in Blackjack County.“
Clay knows immediately that he must go to Blackjack County to uncover the secret of this movie. His soul has been changed by the movie that he has seen, and the effect of that movie has completely changed his life.
From there, Clay has a series of adventures that are as dreamlike, surreal and terrifying as any ever presented in comics. This graphic novel presents one horrific, upsetting moment after the next. In Chapter 1, Clay sees a friend who has fish in his eyes (they clean out his eye sockets), has a hideous woman vomit into his mouth, is harassed and beaten by the police and is forced to watch the police rape a bizarre, three-eyed alien woman. And the whole book pulses with moments like that; fantastic, horrific, thoroughly dreamlike images that repulse and terrify the reader at the same time that they fascinate.
The film that Clay has seen has completely changed his life. His world is profoundly changed and he sees the world in a completely different way than he has before. This graphic novel is so dreamlike, with so many images and moments that seem to come right out of nighttime vistas, that a case can be made that Clay never actually wakes up from the dream-sleep that he falls into when he sees the movie. He literally can’t pull his mind out of the deeply upsetting film that he has seen. He is living a dissociative experience, an experience when he literally has no control over his body or over the events that happen to him. He no longer seems to live inside his own head; instead, he is the passive victim of events that happen to him.
This explains why Clay’s narration disappears after page 9: he’s completely lost himself inside his own experiences. He’s lost his mooring with reality. The world has changed in the most intense, complex and significant ways. He finds himself out of control of his life, compelled to take the actions that are proscribed to him by others more as the passenger in his body than the driver. This whole experience brings horrific events to Clay’s life, all the way up to the unbelievably shocking final page.
Clay almost never takes direct action to make a change in his life in this book. Again and again, he takes commands from others that lead him to have even more experiences. From the moment he has with the turbaned man in the men’s bathroom to the moment in part nine when a government man gives Clay clothes and orders him to act, Clay is as passive a protagonist as we have ever seen in comics. He’s a complete cipher, a mirror that reflects everything that happens to him rather than an active participant at the breathtaking incidents that happen to him. He has become disassociated with everything that happens to him.
Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron can thus be seen as the way that an encounter with great art can really fuck up your life. It’s a thoroughly upsetting love letter for the power of art, for the way that we can all change at the moment that we encounter something that deeply bothers us.
The biggest problem with this book is, paradoxically, the same thing that makes it great: a lack of context. We never get a sense of who Clay was before he saw the movie and never have any sort of feeling for what is happening inside his head. Clowes seems much more fascinated with creating mysteries than resolving those mysteries. We get a lot of grotesquerie without a lot of calm. There’s just not a lot of contrast with the horror in this book; the endless parade of horrors gets to be a bit exhausting for readers.
This is a great graphic novel, but it’s still a flawed work. Like a Velvet Glove is an early work by a creator who will later become one of the artform’s greatest creators. There are themes and moments in this book that will be revisited in Clowes’s later works, and revisited in smarter and more focused ways in some of his newer and greater works. Daniel Clowes is clearly building his skillset in this book, as he works on his art style, story progression and thematic obsessions. But it’s still an incredible work of art that shifted my perceptions of the world a bit as well.