“That bagel is “too WASPy,”
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s exhibit “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” (on view through October 13) ought to come with a parental advisory about its explicit content. Although the cover of one of the comic books that hangs in the show — “Eightball” No. 8 (1992) — is recommended “for mature readers,” on both occasions that I visited the exhibit, children thumbed through X-rated comics scattered throughout the show, apparently unbeknown to their parents.
Clowes, best known for his illustrated tale of teenage angst, “Ghost World,” which starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in the film adaptation, has an eye for the bizarre and the obscene. Many of his strips feature graphic sexual scenes, and Clowes romanticizes the unsightly in his storyline “Ugly Girls,” in which Enid of “Ghost World” makes her debut.
In the pieces at MCA and in Clowes’s larger body of work, Jews and anti-Semitism often hide in plain sight. The name of the “Ghost World” protagonist, Enid Coleslaw, is an anagram for Daniel Clowes, and Enid is Jewish.
She declines a bagel from her friend Rebecca (“Becky”) because the bagel is “too WASPy,” and she shares a joke with Becky: “Whaddya call a Japanese Jew? Sosumi.”
John Ellis, an annoying acquaintance of Enid’s and Becky’s, is anti-Semitic. “Shalom, Enid Cohn!” he greets her at one point, to which she responds, “Sieg Heil!” He later adds: “Listen to the little liberal Jewish girl.… You Jews are such an angry bunch!” Enid assures him: “We Jews are sick of you non-Jews f–king up the world!” Another Clowes work, “Ice Haven,” has quite a few Jewish characters, but as in “Ghost World,” those characters don’t seem to have deep senses of their Jewish identities.
A spokeswoman for MCA said the artist declined to respond to submitted questions about his Jewish identity because of both a lack of time and the demands of other projects. But Clowes, who was born in Chicago in 1961 to a Jewish mother and a lapsed-Episcopalian father, has discussed his religious upbringing in the past. In 1998, he told Jennifer Przybylski of San Francisco’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “One half of my family were Jewish immigrants who were kind of obnoxious, and the other half was this reserved WASPish Pennsylvania clan. The two girls [Enid and Becky] were a characterization of the two and hence myself.” Despite Enid’s name being an anagram of Clowes’s, the artist told Przybylski that he created two female, rather than male, characters so that they “could not be aligned with me whatsoever.”