Ghost World is Ghostly

Ghost World has a backdrop of death. The characters are surrounded by the ghosts of people and places that have passed on and changed. Enid and Becky do their best to ignore the fact that we’re all going to die.ghost world, daniel clowes, fantagraphics books, tombstone

The visual representations of death begin with the copyright page. Slightly younger versions of Enid and Becky look sadly down at a tombstone, but it isn’t made clear whose grave it is. The most likely candidate is Enid’s mom or either of Becky’s parents, as none of these appear or are mentioned through the entire book. Whether or not they have each passed on, they are absent from their families and not even their names are spoken out loud. They have become part of a void, they are unknown, and are therefore avoided. These are young women with their entire lives ahead of them, and they do not discuss death or transformation.

It’s appropriate that the next image, shown below the table of contents, depicts the girls at their high school graduation. They are looking to the side while Enid flips the bird, but her eyes don’t communicate humor or aggression. The arch of her eyebrow communicates fear. They are entering a stage of metamorphosis and she is scared.

ghost world, daniel clowes, fantagraphics books, johnny apeshitThroughout the summer, their conversations and activities are limited to cheap entertainment and superficial socializing. Enid can barely bring herself to discuss the possibility of college with either her dad or her best friend. They do not discuss their recent high school graduation or future prospects. The girls are both at the end of one phase of life (teenagers in school) and at the start of the next phase (experimental young adults) but they are stuck in limbo. They encourage each other to stay in that state until reality forces through the cracks. When Johnny Apeshit implies that Enid “must be in college by now,” her reflex is to claim she’s going to Strathmore the following year. There had been no mention of this beforehand, and her saying she’s going to Strathmore functions as a breaking point in their relationship. From this point forward there is a rift between the friends. Becky doesn’t understand Enid’s secrecy over the Strathmore, and Enid continues to avoid the topic for the remainder of the story. Going to college requires a transformation from high school graduate to college freshman, and Enid avoids speaking of it just as she avoids speaking about death. It’s like Voldemort. Say it out loud and it might come to get you.

This avoidance of discussing the future explains their aversion to Melorra. It’s clear that, regardless of how annoyed they seem by her, the girls consider her a friend. They do engage in conversation when she comes into Angel’s and they act threatened when she brings other friends to the diner. The friendship isn’t healthy but it is a bonafide friendship. What triggers the girls to dig into Melorra is when she discusses her career. Melorra wants to be an actress, and she’s actually doing it.

ghost world, daniel clowes, fantagraphics books, melorraThe first time they bump into each other, Melorra tells them that she’s been going to auditions, working for Greenpeace, and had recently done commercial work. Becky tells her they’ve been doing “nothing.” The next time they see her she says she’s taking classes with Helen Morgenthal and has auditioned for a play. Enid says they’ve been doing “nothing. Worshipping Satan.” Even if Melorra is a little on the braggy side, she is polite and takes a sincere interest in what the girls are up to. But she is taking initiative and this makes them uncomfortable, and that discomfort manifests as mockery. When she leaves they call her a bitch, ridicule her auditions and the commercial, say she has a lesbo haircut (said in a homophobic way), call her friends creepy, a date-rapist, and a whore. They are being meanies because her progress is making them feel inadequate. Melorra is comfortable with her transition to adulthood and she is shedding her teenage persona to make it happen. The girls are living in a prolonged teenagehood, with a tight hold on who they used to be. For them, growing up is as taboo a topic as death. Neither (are they different?) is to be spoken about.

ghost world, daniel clowes, fantagraphics books, screamMelorra is a walking example of the steps they should be taking with their lives, and she has a double role as a messenger of death. She tells them about Carrie Vandenburg’s cancer, news that they completely ignore. They don’t react with any degree of concern or interest for their classmate, and Enid angrily says “Like I’m gonna be nice to Carrie Vandeburg after her stupid boyfriend called me a dyke!” which Becky backs up with “I would, but I’m too busy going on ‘auditions’!” They snark when they should empathize. When Carrie later says hello to them they register who she is with horror, actually yelling “AIEEEE!!!” It’s really not the best reaction. It’s possible that they privately reflect on Carrie’s disease, but at no point do they demonstrate compassion. She is a visual representation of the process of dying and must be avoided at all costs. She could force them to focus on death.

It’s fitting that Enid would choose a hearse as the vehicle to drive her to college. Going to college represents growing up which equates with death, and this purchase is as close as she comes to expressing that anxiety. She tells her dad “You’ve tricked me into moving two thousand miles away and ruining my life… Can’t you let me have this morsel of fun?” It gives her a small thrill to acknowledge this as a funeral procession.

ghost world, daniel clowes, fantagraphics books, leaves falling

Death seeps into the imagery of the comic itself. The story spans across a seasonal change, from summer to fall. Multiple panels wordlessly show falling, dead leaves. Even Enid and Becky’s vacation to Cavetown, USA is to an attraction devoid of other signs of life. There are no other park-goers or workers present for their entire stay. It’s a poorly kept up theme park that peddles extinct animals, and Enid repeatedly comments on how it seemed so much bigger to her as a kid. Cavetown, USA revolves around dead animals and a dead era, which further lost its charm in Enid’s transition from child to young adult.

Theghost world, daniel clowes, fantagraphics books, graffiti crown jewel of the death imagery is the graffiti. Someone has been tagging the neighborhood with the words “Ghost World”. When Enid spots the artist down an alleyway, she tries to make contact but he(?) runs away. Whoever it is has been labeling her home and surroundings as ghostly, but she seems to have no idea why. For the reader the reason is clear: she and the graffiti artist are both local ghosts, haunting the same streets.

The characters are also influenced by dead ideas. Enid pulls inspiration for her appearance from past movements. The punk clothes and hair are a homage to “an old 1977 punk look.” She wishes she could wear an “entire matching 1930’s wardrobe.” Going beyond clothing, she gets a huge kick out of experiences related to the past. She took friends to Hubba Hubba, The Original ’50s Diner twice, throwing around bits of fifties slang while dining.  Another day she goes to two record stores looking for a record she enjoyed as a child, then asks both Josh and her dad if they remember what the name of the record was. She is drawn to nostalgia, and nostalgia is love for a time that has passed. In other words, it’s a fixation on a dead era.

Suicide and telling other people to die are topics that get casually tossed into conversations. When the driver picks up the supposed sex worker, Becky says he’s “obviously a serial killer.” After bumping into Johnny Apeshit, Enid says “Go die, asshole.” Enid says John Ellis’ friend Tom is “an utter scumbag who should be killed immediately.” Before calling Bob Skeetes, Enid says “We’ll kill ourselves if we never do this.” Her dad tells her that Carol is “dying to see” her. Josh is “the type of guy who always snaps at some point and becomes a mass murderer!” After seeing an old man with flowers, Enid says “It’s so cute, I’m dying.”

ghost world, daniel clowes, fantagraphics books, joey mccobb

Frequent morbidity takes place in the media as well. The first page shows Joey McCobb cracking a joke about living with his dead mother. Newsbreakers’ headline stories are about a “Double-suicide of a real life Romeo and Juliet” and “Our daughters and why they love the men who kill.” Dr. Death is listed on the Zine-O-Phobia events schedule. John Ellis’ store sells mass murderer trading cards. Enid is reading an article titled “Fifty Reasons Why I Want to Kill You” in an issue of DIE! magazine. A woman killer is featured on Orlando. It is a casual backdrop in most of the media they consume.

During the visit to Bagel Space, Becky says Enid is “all blurry” and that she’s “fading in and out.” Kind of like a ghost, amiright? Enid is coming closer to getting on the bus, which will close the circuit on her teenage era and begin her young adulthood: she’s in flux. She is “fading in and out” as she approaches making a major life change. Becky is speaking to her friend as her teenage self is passing on. She is half ghost, half real throughout that conversation.

Enid’s transformation from high school graduate to fresh-out-of-the-can adult is clouded with fear and hesitancy. Growing up means leaving who you think you are behind, and her transformation is made complete by boarding a bus to Another Place.

Romona Williams

Romona Williams

Romona Williams is an ex-librarian, current tutor, and constant writer. She can usually be found in antiquarian bookstores, curiosity shops, and carnivals after dark.

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