In the introduction to Daniel Clowes’ latest graphic novel, Pussey! (That’s “poo-SAY,” you barbarians!), Clowes writes about the inspiration for his eponymous character: “I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but from the vantage of middle age, I can say that the initial spark for many of the Pussey stories came from some misplaced, low-grade desire for ‘revenge.’ Spending years in a room working on stuff that nobody likes in a debased medium for no money can take its toll on your self-esteem.”
It may have taken a toll on his self-esteem, but it didn’t seem to do much damage to his creativity or knack for introspection. Pussey is an incredibly harsh satire, eviscerating both the comic artists and the people who abuse and exploit them.
Young Dan Pussey, who not coincidentally shares a first name with Clowes, struggles through his childhood as a social misfit, ignored by girls and mocked by his more popular male peers. Finding refuge where many boys in similar situations do, in the comic book world, Pussey starts off as a talented fan and then, at the cusp of adulthood, is plucked out of obscurity by the nefarious “Dr. Infinity,” who –
Okay, look. I’m not suggesting that the Dr. Infinity character is supposed to be Stan Lee or anything, and I haven’t seen Clowes suggesting it anywhere, either, but I have to point out that Dr. Infinity sure does look like Stan Lee. But I’m sure any resemblances between Lee and the Dr. Infinity character are purely coincidental. The Dr. is portrayed as a chauvinistic, patronizing megalomaniac whose life’s main ambition seems to be a toss up between making as much money as possible by taking credit for the hard work of others and simply crushing the already low self-esteem of those he makes “great.” And there’s definitely no rumors floating around about Stan Lee that sound anything like that, so….
Anyway: Pussey. As cruelly as Clowes mocks the stereotype of the comic book nerd as a hopeless fool that is unable to stand up for himself and can’t see past the end of his nose, he also manages to make you feel somewhat sorry for the guy as he plods his way through the all-too-familiar humiliating story of his life. Particularly moving is Pussey’s reaction to the trap he finds himself in, helplessly snared due to his love for that “debased medium working on stuff nobody likes.” Pussey believes, and rightly so, that cartooning is a highly creative medium worthy of the respect given to other artists. (Artists with gallery shows and questionable hygiene that Clowes also skewers). It’s crushing to watch Pussey’s formative years, where his attempts to branch out toward more mainstream approval are repeatedly betrayed and rejected, causing him to slink, disgraced, back to the nefarious clutches of Dr. Infinity, Pussey’s very own supervillain.
Like Pussey, Daniel Clowes managed to claw his way to the top outside the mainstream of both society in general and the insular worlds of both art school and comics. Unlike Pussey, he’s managed to gain the creative independence Pussey craved. Perhaps Clowes’ Pussey! is as much a voice of solidarity with the comic book nerd as much as it is a brutal beatdown. In a 2000 Salon interview, Clowes says, “It's hard to have any self-image when you do something like this, because I get no feedback for what I do until it's long finished. And then I don't really care. I'll work on something for six months just in this room, and I don't even let my wife read it. She has to read it when I'm not around and not talk about it or I get really angry…. So I don't have any feeling of my place in the world; it's just like I'm living with this blank slate. Of course, I grew up thinking of myself as an outsider because I wasn't in the in crowd in high school like everybody else, but now I don't know what I'm in."
first published at Journal for the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Buy the Book!
by Daniel Clowes
2006 Fantagraphics Books
Softcover, 54 pp
Thursday, August 03, 2006