Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review of Daniel Clowes’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron

This is the first “alternative” graphic novel I ever read. It was somewhere not long after Maus, and I was just learning the possibilities of the genre. I had to buy the individual issues at an alternative comics store on the near West Side in Chicago, which meant special trips and sometimes months between issues. As it is, I’m not sure I ever read the final issue. I may not have found it in time.

The “story” doesn’t make any more sense now than it did 28 years ago. Clay is a troubled everyman who stumbles into a screening of a bizarre art sex film called “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.” Haunted by its star, he proceeds to track down the filmmakers. Along the way he gets distracted by, among other things: a dog with no orifices that lives on a daily injection of water, a clingy teenage waitress who looks like a human potato, an advertising cartoon character who may represent a decades old gnostic plot, a pipe-smoking young girl whose reveries become the stuff of snuff films, and assorted other grotesques and caricatures.

The whole thing is less a narrative than a fever dream, and I think I forgave it even back then because so much of it is haunting at the deepest and best level. It’s been a quarter century since I read this – I have the originals buried in a closet, but I just bought a lot of Clowes books and had to start with this one – and I remember a surprising quantity of it. In fact, reading it again felt a lot like that deja-vu when you think you’ve had the same dream night after night. There’s a familiarity, but a troubling familiarity. You can’t look away even though you want to. You wake from dream into new dream.

This is finally a book that delves into strangeness in a way that reminds me of some of Grant Morrison’s work. I admire that as well, but Morrison feels more like a performer, more like someone gathering a crowd to admire his strangeness with him. Clowes is even more troubling. This is not a celebration of the strange and the freakish. It isn’t a sideshow with a barker drawing a crowd. Instead it’s a troubled figure talking to himself down an alley, and our looking at him feels a bit like voyeurism. Clowes doesn’t forgive his characters the way Morrison does. He delves more deeply and darkly into them, leaving us with a universe governed by a hybrid of indifference and malice. He makes us share Clay’s guilt, makes us feel the guilty pull of the film in the experience of reading this book that shares its title.

There is nothing comforting in this except for the fact of its execution, except for the fact that it’s a finished work of art. In the early days of this graphic novel genre, Clowes had a vision for a work that would be different from anything else. I’m not sure he could get away with it today – not when the rules (and the skill of its practitioners) have hardened – but it’s every bit as striking an experience now as it was then.

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