ONE OF THE goals of postmodern literary theory is to examine the ever-blurring line between "high" and "low" art, between art produced solely for entertainment and art produced to stimulate the intellect. In the contemporary book game, graphic novels get a bad rap, caught in a literary limbo between the high-art novel and the low-art comic book. It is perhaps this postmodern high/low gap that has prevented graphic novels from being considered real literature by mainstream literary critics (how often do you see graphic novels in the New York Times Book Review?).
To be fair to these culturally elite critics, many graphic novels seem perfectly happy to be considered low art, displaying little interest in reaching for the kind of larger themes that serve as the foundation for good literature (which can also unfortunately be said for much of what now passes for contemporary high-art fiction).
But Daniel Clowes, one of our premiere underground cartoonists and the creator of the cult comic book series Eight Ball, has quietly been expanding the literary boundaries of graphic novels for years, packing the art form with depth, pathos and even (gasp!) BIG THEMES! Proving the point, Clowes' lastest graphic novel, David Boring, is an intelligent, artistically illustrated epic that manages to slyly mimick Goethe's literary masterpiece of obsession and ennui, The Sorrows of Young Werther, while simultaneously serving up a darkly comedic statement on being young, lost and sexually frustrated at the dawn of the 21st century.
David Boring, the eponymous sadsack at the center of the novel, slumps through a noirish, black-and-white cityscape full of deep shadows and tortured denizens. A classic loser, Boring sees his life take a nasty (but exciting) turn for the worse when he becomes obsessed with a mysterious, self-absorbed cult member named Wanda, who is prone to dropping lines like, "When I look at all the stars in the sky, it's hard to believe that I'm the center of the universe." Thanks to his unhealthy fascination, Boring is subsequently shot in the head, trapped on a remote island with his murderous family while civilization is destroyed by clouds of nerve gas, embroiled in a Vertigo-like affair with Wanda's married twin sister, haunted by a cherubic apparition dubbed The Eerie Boy, and forced to confront his own shaky belief in God and free will. Oh, yeah, it's also all very funny ... in a deliriously downbeat sort of way.
Throughout, Clowes favors sparse dialog and subdued emotions, and each panel in Boring is infused with a strangely lugubrious poetry. Clowes' drawing style, unique and instantly recognizable (he also inked the hilariously queasy movie poster for Todd Solondz's Happiness), features bleakly minimalist landscapes and characters whose stoic faces primarily reflect either boredom or stomach upset (as well as a propensity to sprout ominous beads of stress-induced sweat on their foreheads).
Clowes has also, since his Eight Ball heyday, toned down the overt weirdness in his work and developed the more dreamily surreal tone on display in this new novel--Wanda the cultist inexplicably sports a dread-inducing, "apocalyptic" beehive hairdo; Boring stumbles into a cryptic vaudeville stage show featuring Uncle Sam and a downcast audience straight out of Dawn of the Dead; the creepy, blank-faced Eerie Boy likes to spy on Boring in the bathroom, etc.
The ultimate irony is, of course, that the lethargically self-absorbed Boring never even notices how strange and un-boring his life has become. Luckily, readers will not have the same problem; Boring's misadventures are as consistently entertaining as they are unsettling. With David Boring, Daniel Clowes has not only made being Boring a cause for celebration, he has also thrown down the postmodern gauntlet for other graphic novelists by expertly twisting high and low art into a vividly original creation.
David Boring, by Daniel Clowes. Pantheon, $25.