Ghost World: An Uncensored Version of Teenage Angst.

Daniel Clowes. Ghost World. Seattle: Thompson and Groth, 1993.

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Ghost World by comic book writer Daniel Clowes was originally serialized in the indie comic Eightball from 1993 to 1997. The graphic novel is composed of eight chapters that are plotless episodes in the girls lives. Ghost World is the story of two recently graduated high school girls, Enid and Rebecca, who are now faced with the prospect of adulthood. Enid and Rebecca are the 90’s version of hipsters; trendy, witty, cynical to the point of cruelty, and self-loathing. We follow them through a bunch of disjointed adventures, where they wander Anywhere USA, meeting and insulting a host of miscreants and misfits, all the while not so much growing up as growing apart.
Clowes writes two of the most believable teenage girls on the cusp of adulthood. Enid the dynamic, dare-to-be-different personality, and Rebecca her more conventional, keep her in check pretty friend. We have all known these two girls and loved or hated them. Clowes also does justice to the rest of the cast making them outlandish in a real way, then dropping them from the story never to appear in another panel, but coming up as the inside joke that friends always share. The dialogue is real in choice and tone. Often things are hinted at or have the double meaning that conversations sometimes have when ideas are being floated or true feelings felt out, and its littered with dirty words that teens often use to feel more adult. It’s easy to tell from the writing why Ghost World won 1998 Ignatz Award for, Outstanding Graphic Novel or Collection and has been on many “best of” lists.
The art of the book is perfect, as with the majority of indie comics, Ghost World is a black and white comic, but Clowes has added a pale blue wash to art. The color gives two distinct impressions; the first is a melancholy moodiness that is reflective of the characters. The second feel that the blue gives off is that of dusk or fall, which ties it directly to the theme of change throughout the novel. It’s a very effective minimalist use of color that really brings something to the comic. There was a recent fad of coloring indie comics, with the notion that comic fans wanted color. Real indie fans want story and if color added to the story “so be it”. In most cases, it was not “so be it”, but a useless price raising exercise (for example Peter Bagge’s Hate B&W, Color). Clowes distinctive art style also lends a lot of weight to Ghost World. Enid and Rebecca are almost the only characters throughout the episodes that are drawn to look “normal”. Meanwhile, the zany dorks, geeks and losers that they come across are drawn in Clowes more usual “deformed” style, possibly representing the way the two main characters are seeing the world?
Ghost World is interesting in many respects. First off, comics are a male dominated medium filled with male characters. While women are normally plot devices never allowed to rise higher than their male counterparts (a phenomenon referred to as Women in Refrigerators), but in Ghost World the main female character and often the male character are the plot devices. This alone does a lot to elevate Ghost World above the fray, giving girls and women interested in comics something to relate to. The book also deals with the idea of youth getting older and the time when someone becomes an adult being pushed back (just ask any 24 year old undergrad if they are an adult). We see this happening in many places as Enid and Rebecca resist growing up, this is especially true with Enid. Enid desperately tries to hold on to her childhood by clinging to objects from her past like Goofie Gus and her records. In a very short space sex, relationships, to go or not go to college, the hardships of divorce, and the father/daughter relationship are covered very effectively in just a few panels or pages. There are many things that are open to deeper thinking questions, for example, are Enid and Rebecca just making fun of the things they want to be or don’t have? The ending is left open for some interpretation. There is a lot of stuff that teens can relate to in Ghost World, the issues the characters face are not ones of super villainy, but real world pains and pressures that have probably haunted kids since the dawn of the modern day, and Ghost World haunts long after the last page is read.

About the Author

Daniel Clowes: Picture from
Daniel Clowes: Picture from
Daniel Gillespie Clowes, was born in Chicago on April 14th, 1961. Clowes has had a successful career as a comic book author, cartoonist and screenwriter. His professional career began as a cartoonist for various magazines. In the early nineties he started writing the book Ghost World, which he initially never planned on finishing. Once published, Ghost World became Clowes’ breakthrough hit, and even was adapted into a Hollywood film of the same name, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Most of Clowes’ work takes place in the late 80s and early 90s, and some of it based on his own experiences growing up.

Recommendations for Teachers

Warning: This book contains graphic material such as explicit language, sexual content, and racial and religious slurs.
However, for a more mature high school audience, Ghost World offers an in-depth look at teenage angst. Teachers looking to challenge their students in a new way could offer this graphic novel as a supplement or an alternative to other books such as Catcher in the Rye. While Ghost World is quite racy for the classroom, it does cover topics that teenagers deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Ghost World can be especially effective for students who have trouble reading a full-length novel or seem disinterested in reading. Not only is the subject material relatable, the format also works well with students who read below grade level. The recent surge in popularity of the graphic novel genre has altered how a text can be taught in the classroom; Ghost World is another example of how pictures and text can work in conjunction to create a deeper understanding of a story.
The book is divided into chapters, which themselves are self-containing stories. This allows teachers to teach the book better in the classroom. Sections of the story, those deemed unfit for the classroom, can be omitted. Each story within the book addresses different styles and periods of the young adult life. Avoiding a chapter or just using one or two chapters from the book will not entirely hinder the message that the author is trying to convey.

Film Adaptation

In 2001, Terry Zwigoff brought Ghost World to the big screen, using stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi to portray the novel's characters. Both Clowes and Zwigoff worked in collaboration to write the screen play, which resulted in strongly positive reviews from and Rotten Tomatoes. The movie runs for 111 minutes and was filmed in various locations, which include the USA, UK, and Germany. It is rated R, due to the strong language and some sexual content. The film does the book justice, but due to the rating it is not recommended for the classroom.
An official movie trailer

Additional Resources:

-- Jake Cagle, Don Ivers, Derek Ochodnicky, and Blaine Sparling (Rumble Fish).