Daniel Clowes


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Caricature Summary

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Caricature is a collection of nine short graphic stories by award-winning cartoonist Daniel Clowes. Published in 1997, the work comprises both full-color and black and white tales that demonstrate Clowes’s trademark complexity of emotion, ambiguity of action, and dark sense of humor. The nine stories break down into three genres: two are coming of age stories that explore the influences that shape young adults, two are somewhat surreal phantasmagorias that take place in a heightened version of reality, and the rest are observationally realist stories that depict the vagaries of human nature.

The collection’s title story, “Caricature,” portrays several days in the life of Mal Rosen, an itinerant caricature artist, who has set up shop at a fair. Usually, he can cope with his job, but sometimes the horror of having to make ugly people look appealing gets to him and he makes deeply insulting drawings. He encounters Theda, a mysterious young woman who works as a party promoter and claims that her father is a famous artist. Theda flatters Mal, has sex with him, and then takes off without a second thought. A depressed Mal has to accept that he has only been a bit of fun for her, returning to his depressing life.

In “Green Eyeliner,” we meet Mona Beadle, a woman who has never gotten over the horror of having been overweight in high school. Now grown into a beautiful woman with vaguely artistic aspirations, Mona craves others to acknowledge her as glamorous, stylish, and poised. Increasingly sociopathic, Mona dumps her accepting group of gay male friends in favor of Robert, a man she views as fundamentally a loser so that she can feel even more superior. She spends her days obsessing about and plotting revenge against Gavin, a classmate who has become a soap opera actor.

“MCMLXVI” is about a disaffected, friendless 30-year-old man who is obsessed with the year 1966—the year when he was born. His apartment is a museum of this “golden age” in American culture, and the apotheosis of his odd snobbery is Adam West. The protagonist despises everything about his present, including his older brother’s drag performances, and his bisexual acquaintance who could potentially be a friend if the protagonist weren’t so repellent.

The story “Gold Mommy” is a nightmarish vision of mall culture. A man who looks a lot like Clowes himself goes to a mall in order to get a haircut. When he realizes that he has left his wallet at home, he leaves his shoes behind, walks out of the barbershop, and disappears into his past until he is killed.

“Glue Destiny” ratchets up the tension describing an ostensibly friendly weekend couples retreat. As the pairs hole up in a rustic cabin, hostilities flair.

The collection’s longest, the story “Gynecology” is the only one not seen from the perspective of one of the characters. Instead, we get a god’s-eye perspective on Epps, a hipster who is in the midst of an affair with the wife of a gynecologist. The situation goes haywire when one of the doctor’s patients, an obsessive and somewhat off-kilter woman, threatens to reveal Epps’s secrets.

“Immortal, Invisible” traces one day in the life of 14-year-old David, who calls himself “Carmichael” to seem more interesting. On Halloween, he roams his town in a ghoulish mask despite realizing that he is suddenly too old to go trick-or-treating. In a strange mood, David wants to feel a sense of community, but instead finds nothing but indifference, contempt, and mockery from the adults he encounters. A woman spoons a glob of peanut butter into his candy bag; later, an elderly couple invites him in to play a jigsaw puzzle and lecture him about how all religions are generally worthless. At the end of the evening, David has matured somewhat. He thinks of himself as having spent the evening immortal and invisible, on the threshold of adult life.

In the story “Blue Italian Shit,” Roger Young, a shiftless young man in his 20s, does his best to seem cool in early 1980s New York. He complains about the series of weird and off-putting roommates he has been forced to cohabit with, rants about his virginity, and never really realizes that he is a much more deeply unpleasant person than those he discusses.

The collection’s other coming of age story is “Like a Weed, Joe.” Teenage Joe spends summer vacation with his elderly grandparents in a lakeside cottage. A lonely and contemplative boy, he is driven to anti-social, skeevy peeping tom behavior when a family with a teenage daughter moves into a nearby cottage. After Joe takes up with the creepy neighbor, an older teenager named Bemis, Joe starts aping Bemis’s disturbing outlook. While his grandparents treat him like a child, taking him to puppet shows and the circus, Joe tries to mold himself into an adult using Bemis as a model.

Finally, the story “Black Nylon” retreats from reality into the world of superheroes. An aging caped crusader becomes unhappily obsessed with the younger, more powerful hero coming up the ranks of popularity. Using his deductive powers, the older man drives the younger one on a wild goose chase in a noir-tinged game of cat and mouse.