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January 9, 2011


CR Holiday Interview #19 -- Daniel Clowes

imageBy any measure employed, Daniel Clowes is one of the best, most significant cartoonists working today. Through collections like Ghost World, David Boring and Ice Haven, Clowes became a figure of importance in helping to garner widespread acceptance of comics work aimed at a literate, adult audience. Works like Pussey! and Orgy Bound remind that he may also be its best living practitioner of filthy, blunt satire. Clowes' series Eightball, from which those books sprung, remains one of the foundational alternative comic book titles years after its most recent issue. He has published with Fantagraphics and Pantheon, through the New York Times Magazine and in Cracked.

In 2010, the cartoonist, designer (the forthcoming Barnaby series) and screenwriter (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) unleashed Wilson, a savagely hilarious story of a monstrously hard-to-deal-with man seeking human contact, told in single-page units in a dizzying array of styles. It was a critical darling in wider comics reading circles and something of a Rorschach test for hardcore comics fans who read a variety of insults, hidden motivations and outright storytelling miscalculations into its pages. Wilson was a grand debut in the original graphic novel arena for Clowes, and the sturdy volume from publisher Drawn and Quarterly is one of a tiny handful in serious consideration for book of the year. I very much appreciate his time, and anxiously await the imminent re-release for bookstore audiences of his Mister Wonderful and The Death-Ray. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Let me ask you something that Peggy Burns pointed out to me: this is an incredibly busy period for you, isn't it? You have multiple books coming out in addition to a number of other writing and design projects. Earlier in 2010 you even drew a pair of New Yorker covers.

DANIEL CLOWES: I haven't done any New Yorker covers recently. I've had to turn them down for a while. Six months or so ago, we bought a house, a new house, and I went into that panic mode where I was saying "yes" to everything that came along. "Yeah, yeah, that sounds great!" [Spurgeon laughs] "Let's get that going." There were a couple of things already in the pipeline like the Mister Wonderful book. I knew I wanted to do a Death-Ray book sometime soon. All of the sudden all that stuff came together, and now I somehow find myself doing five or six major projects all at once.

SPURGEON: Is there any part of you that prefers to have a bunch of stuff to do at once?

CLOWES: I like to have two or three things at the most. It's a little much. Every week I alternate; I pretend I'm not doing something for that week. And then go to the next thing and then shift back a week after that.

imageSPURGEON: Wilson... Wilson is a book. That cover stock is like armor plating.

CLOWES: Yeah, I decided that was the way to go. There's no sense in being sort of embarrassed that it's a book. I think that's how we're all feeling on some level. "We're doing this prehistoric item; let's pretend that it's just a stop-gap until we can figure out how to do it on the iPad" or whatever. That's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to say, "This is it. This is the book." I had to have this huge book that could only exist like this as a book.

SPURGEON: There's always some guy on a message board, every time you do something that's not a comic, that asks, "Does this mean that there's no more Eightball?" I assume that the series is completely done?

CLOWES: I think as what it was, it's certainly done. I can't say that I would never do another comic and call it Eightball. I say there's actually a very high probability that I would do that some day. Kind of for old time's sake, or something. Or just to kind of rethink what a comic book means at some point. But right now it sure doesn't feel like the thing to do. After David Boring I really should have stopped doing comic books. It made no sense to do Ice Haven and The Death-Ray as comic books. I was just so married to that format for so long, that I couldn't have the first iterations of those work in anything but a comic book. In retrospect that seems crazy. To this day I can't explain to people who aren't enmeshed in the world of comics what The Death-Ray is. They're like, "I have your book Eightball."

SPURGEON: [laughs] Right.

CLOWES: "No, that was a comic book, and it was a story that appeared..." It's just so nonsensical to anybody once you kind of step back and see it through the eyes of someone who's not initiated in all this stuff. It seems quite crazy to do it that way.

imageSPURGEON: Did that make the transition easier, that you were almost not doing comics?

CLOWES: [laughs] Yeah, I really wasn't doing comics. I just couldn't let it die. "I created Eightball." You don't want to let that go. I know we all felt when the Hernandez Brothers quit Love and Rockets the first time, it was like, "How can you do that? That's the flagship title of alternative comics. You can't just walk away from that." When Pete [Bagge] left... I'm still mad at him for stopping Neat Stuff, you know, then Hate. There was that sense of, "That's not a great idea. Don't stop your great title." I was very uncomfortable with letting it go and moving away from Eightball. At a certain point it seemed like an affectation, really, to do it as a comic book, as a pamphlet comic. There's no real reason to do that other than to show your allegiance to your childhood love of that particular form.

SPURGEON: There are so many of you guys that worked in that format; did you accrue any advantages working in that form, turning your comics over to an audience that frequently? And are there differences now? Jaime Hernandez says he thinks he works differently these days, that he might even be tighter than when he worked in this more disposable, frequently-published format.

CLOWES: I never had that thing where I felt like, "Okay, I've gotta get it out." Kim Thompson used to always make up these crazy deadlines."We've gotta have it for APE." [Spurgeon laughs] You'd kill yourself and you'd get it done for APE and you'd show up and 12 people would buy it. "So I drew this panel really shitty just so I could sell it to these 12 guys at APE... why did I do that?" At a certain point, I stopped worrying about the deadline. I would tell Kim, "It's done when it's done." It would come out three months after I finished it. So that wasn't a big thing for me.

I think getting it out kind of frequently, doing the comics every, whatever it was, four or five months when I was younger, that was really helpful. You were working in such a vacuum back then. We had almost like a slow motion Internet at the time. We'd get our comics out, and then we'd start to get mail. We'd write back to everybody who wrote us letters. We had these kind of networks of fans. I'd get together with the Hernandez Brothers or Pete or somebody and we'd know all the fans each of us had, and we'd be jealous if one of us had a fan that the other guy didn't have. [laughter] Every once in a while I'll meet one of those old guys, they'll come up to me at a signing and go, "I used to write you letters in 1989. My name is so-and-so." And I always remember them. Because back then, you were reading every word they wrote to you. That was the only thing you were getting, the only response at all.

imageSPURGEON: I may not characterize this totally accurately, but I read somewhere that the single-page approach you used with Wilson was in part to facilitate your editing it, being able to self-edit?

CLOWES: It was very good for that.

SPURGEON: Was that out of a desire that because you're doing this longer work, you wanted to have that capability? You don't work with an editor in a more formal sense.

CLOWES: Never. Nobody every reads it before it goes to press, really. Well, with Wilson it was almost like editing was part of the process. I started out, actually, drawing a whole bunch of strips that didn't necessarily have a through-line to them, have a plot. They were just about this guy: he's sort of plodding through his week. A story started to emerge from that. And so I wound up kind of editing out all this stuff that didn't conform to that story. It kind of began with editing. And then as I was working on it, I had more and more material. It's a very elliptical story, there are a lot of missing moments you're left to imagine. I had all that stuff. I had something in mind what was happening. But unless I really loved the moment, or really felt strongly about each page, I would chop it out. I wanted to trust the audience to fill that in. That was really what was drawing me to this story. I wanted to be very, very simple on a certain level, but I wanted it to have a certain depth to it that I thought could only be created if the reader is filling in part of it for himself.

SPURGEON: Were you as ruthless eliminating material within the strips? The individual pages strike me as very precise: there doesn't seem to me to be anything wasted.

CLOWES: I was very, very ruthless. I like editing. Writing the movies, you always hear that writers are very touchy about having their lines edited. And I just love it when people chop out everything. I'd love to be able to write a script that's like 71 pages. Pared down to nothing. That's when it really feels like something. With Wilson, I felt like I got it down to where there was nothing that I could bear to chop after I got it down to those 72 pages.

SPURGEON: When you talked about people not seeing a comic until it's done, I imagine that brings with it some anxiety about how it might be received. In one of the interviews you did this year, you said something to the effect that a worst-case scenario was that people would think Wilson was funny but empty: a trifle.

CLOWES: As I was working on it, that's probably what I would have thought as sort of the most likely bad result of the book. [laughs] I thought there were going to be certain people that will find this funny. I can tell from the people that stumble through the studio and read a strip here or there if it's working. I have to trust my own instincts that I'm not so deranged that I can't sense whether something is working or not. I have to assume that there's going to be a few people like me out there that will respond to it the way I'm responding. Beyond that, I try not to think about that too much. I try not to worry about it. I worry about it when it's at the printer. That's when I start to worry.

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SPURGEON: Your worst-case scenario also suggests the bottom-line confidence you have in your ability to tell a joke, to be funny. How confident are you as a cartoonist to be able to nail that aspect of it, the gag work?

CLOWES: I think I sort of understand the mechanics of it. There are subtle tricks that you pick up over the years. You learn mostly to do things that won't kill the joke. You learn to not do things that would kill the joke.

SPURGEON: Is there a specific something that springs to mind, maybe something that beginning cartoonists do?

CLOWES: The obvious thing is to never have any kind of response to a joke, unless that is the joke itself, the character's response. The famous example is the comic strip Sally Forth, which I think is now drawn by somebody else, but back in the old days she would deliver some wry observation about the foibles of man and she had this little smirk on her face in the last panel. It was so off-putting and killed every ounce of alleged humor in the strip. I thought that was Cartooning 101 right there, that you would not ever want to do that. But the guy who drew that did that for years and years. You don't want to have Wilson laughing at his own joke, aware of what he's doing, unless really that's what you're pinpointing as a joke. That can be funny in and of itself, that the character is so unaware that they're responding to strip as it happens.

SPURGEON: Do you think people believe that kind of thing to be a visual flourish?

CLOWES: I think they think it's selling it. It's like a little oomph. "I want you to get that she's a little cooler than these other characters."

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SPURGEON: I asked a few people if they had questions for you, and one question sifted its way through to the surface in all of the responses. It's kind of a blunt question. [Clowes laughs] There was talk when the book came out -- and I suspect this may have been more true of the comics community than among the readers more likely to pick up your work in a bookstore -- that people kind of fundamentally found the character of Wilson unappealing, and that this was somehow a failure of the book that you didn't get them "on board" with this guy.

CLOWES: Actually, I didn't read much of the comics stuff because I knew it would not be a productive way to spend my time. I got that from friends. Not good friends, but acquaintances. People didn't like the character and didn't understand why you'd want to read a book about an unlikable character. I don't even know how to respond to that. [laughs]

SPURGEON: I actually thought the character was appealing in a lot of ways.

CLOWES: My intent in the beginning was to create this character that was a bull in a china shop, that had all these dramatic possibilities because of his out-sized personality. I certainly by the end of the book ended up won over by him. He had certainly warmed up by the end of the book. It didn't even occur to me that that would be the response, really. I felt like I'd had much more obnoxious characters in the past that nobody had ever commented on in that way. [Spurgeon laughs] I always figure any character that's funny, that's not going to be an issue. But apparently that's not true. I don't know.

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SPURGEON: Do you think your comics work best when you can dig in and focus on a single character like Wilson?

CLOWES: I don't know that I think it works best. It's something I like to do. I always think you can tell a lot about the way people grew up and the way they kind of feel about themselves by looking at their comics. You look at the Hernandez Brothers' comics and every panel is filled with people. Those guys grew up with a big family in a small house and they were around each other all of the time. Their view of the world is a crowded world. I grew up much more isolated. I think you look at my comics and you can see panel after panel of the back of a guy's head staring off into a city. That's kind of how I felt growing up, walking around Chicago by myself as a kid. I think having that solitary character fits into that.

SPURGEON: You grew up in the decade of the bombed-out American city, where you could walk around places like Denver, Indianapolis, St. Louis -- St. Louis may still be like that, I don't know -- where right at the center of the city was street after street of no one being there except for the people you might step over.

CLOWES: I tell people I used to go to downtown Chicago on a Sunday when everything was closed. You could walk in the middle of Michigan Avenue, take a piss on State Street and nobody would notice you. It was a total ghost town. We used to go downtown when I was in high school and shoot movies in the middle of Michigan Avenue and a cab would come by every five minutes and give us a wave.

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SPURGEON: So you enjoyed that.

CLOWES: Yeah. It's not even a matter of enjoyed or disliked. It's just that's part of my visual DNA, that '70s American city, that sense that the world was going to hell [laughs] -- that Taxi Driver feeling of urban America in the '70s. Crime rates were through the roof. Movies like Death Wish had a real visceral power at the time. It felt like it was going crazy. I remember when that movie Escape From New York came out, we all thought, "Yeah, this will happen some day." There was no way Manhattan was ever going to be nice again.

SPURGEON: You live in a nicer place now, I believe, and Chicago is much more lovable than it used to be. Does that have an effect on how you approach setting?

CLOWES: Certainly Wilson's world is the world of Oakland, around where I live. But I think I tend to be attracted to the elements that remind me of my childhood. The thing I like about Oakland is that kind of looks like Chicago in the '70s. A sort of uncrowded version of Chicago. Oakland is such a great microcosm of a city. You go to New York and you could find yourself on a block with 20 unbelievable Art Deco buildings, where you look up and you can't believe the architecture, one after another, and you can't even absorb it. Whereas Oakland has one fancy Art Deco building. [laughter] You can really apprehend that. I've been in the building many, many times. I sort of know all about it. If there were ten of them, I probably wouldn't care about any of them. It'd be too much.

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SPURGEON: I sat down for about 20 minutes today and tried to figure out some cool questions to ask about the stylistic shifts in Wilson, and I failed. I felt bad even trying to formulate the questions, because it's not something I totally noticed on my initial reading the book.

CLOWES: I was sort of hoping that people didn't notice it, in a way. [laughs]

SPURGEON: That's my question, then. How did you want people to process those differences page to page? Did you even want them to perceive them? Maybe not perceive them but feel them?

CLOWES: I wanted you to read each strip as if it were a new experience, in a way. I was approaching each strip sort of with a clean slate. You do a story all in one style, and your brain starts to use these neural pathways that become very familiar. You find yourself doing these short cuts. You start turning into Gil Kane, where you're drawing the same guy lying on his back over and over. [laughter] You know Gil Kane wasn't quite aware how many times he drew those things over and over and over again.

I was really trying to start anew with each strip, to give each page its own presence, its own moment, its own sort of dignity. I would hope the reader kind of picked up on that. There are many formal things that are absolutely consistent throughout the book. There's no narration. It's all word balloons. It's all Wilson talking to himself. Six or seven panels to a page, the same tier height and all that stuff. I hoped it would have a certain comfortable familiarity from page to page, but also have its own presence in that way that we all, when we remember our lives, we remember ourselves in these different but familiar ways.

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SPURGEON: Do you think that it gave the book a kind of energy, that even if you're not picking up on the specific stylistic shifts that it keeps the reader actively engaged by making them constantly adjust to the changes?

CLOWES: When you flip through the book, at least for me -- as the least impartial reader there could possibly be -- when I flip through the book I'm always sort of cheered up by the surprise of the way the styles pop up on you as you look through the pages. If it were the same style over and over I think there'd be something dead about it. My original idea of the book was that I was going to do this whole fake thing, that this was a weekly comic strip and these were the existing 75 episodes and that the missing plot elements were the ones you couldn't find printed copies of. The missing places in the narrative were a joke about bad archiving. [pause] I can't remember how that relates to what I was saying. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Are you comfortable that some people have paired this work with Mister Wonderful, and was that work a presence when you were making this one? There are a number of surface similarities.

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CLOWES: They are very similar. I did Mister Wonderful in a certain way, and when I was done had that thought of, "What if I had done it this other way?" -- and then followed through with that. That's the kind of thing that keeps me going as an artist, to go with those things, where you think, "Well, I could have done it that way, and maybe that would have been more interesting and let's see how it goes." Mister Wonderful is a very different kind of character -- he's a similar character, but it's a different way of telling that character. You're completely trapped in his head in that story. You're not really even able to apprehend the outside world much, because he's blocking you from it with his inner monologue. Wilson is exactly the opposite. He all external. He's talking. He's not thinking. You see him acting. To approach these two sort of similar creatures from these two distinct vantage points is really interesting. They do very much go together.

SPURGEON: Are there other works you'd pair off that way, where a past work was a road not taken on another past work?

CLOWES: I would say that the Ghost World comic versus the movie was an example of that. There were certain tangents in the comic. I thought, "What if I turned here and took it on this other tangent just sort of implied in the comic?" That's really where the movie kind of got its initial oomph, its first thrust of being a new thing.

imageSPURGEON: Do you have that desire to play around with Wilson now, in terms of its movie iteration?

CLOWES: I don't know that I'm going to keep bouncing the ball until the bounces are only a millimeter high. I sort of feel like I did enough with that kind of a thing, that I got it out of my system. Whereas clearly after Mister Wonderful I didn't get that out of my system at all. I liked the idea at that point, "I'm going to do a middle-aged character, sort of a version of myself and my friends, in a kind of a real-life situation." And I kind of thought that would be the one time I would do that. I wound up finding I had a whole lot more to do with it.

SPURGEON: There was kind of a formal book tour with Wilson. I know you got out there, and went to TCAF.

CLOWES: Yeah, yeah. Peggy kicked me out on the road.

SPURGEON: What was that like? That has to be different than the old days.

CLOWES: [laughs] It was very different from the Hateball tour [1993, with Peter Bagge]. Show up in some small town and the comic shop owner would take us to his house and we'd sleep on his floor and wake up in the middle of the night while his friends were eating pizza two feet away from us. Those were the good old days.

SPURGEON: You said something interesting about current convention culture, that this might represent an unhealthy wallow [Clowes laughs] in terms of doing things you might not want to spend several days on end doing. Is that a fair assessment of where you were coming from?

CLOWES: You used to go to San Diego Comic-Con and it was the nerd crowd. It was all comics guys and sci-fi guys and guys who liked bad old TV shows that nobody remembered. It had this sort of quaintness about it [laughs] where it seemed harmless and amusing. It was for people that seemed sort of damaged, that needed this kind of a weekend to go look through back-issue boxes. I include myself among their number. Now when it's like cute actresses talking about the comic-con, there's something so unhealthy about it. [laughter] It seems wrong. "You don't need this, why are you going?" It doesn't seem sincere, in some ways. I think I'm going this year. Last time I vowed I would not only never ever step into the con again but in the city of San Diego again.

The thing I missed about the old Con -- any old con -- is that you'd go and you'd be one of 25 guests, and you'd find yourself at a dinner with Adam West, Steve Leialoha and guys you had nothing in common with at all. Then by Sunday you're like, "Hey, Adam" talking to Adam West in the elevator. Or just some totally random guy that turned out to be a nice guy. And then the next year it's like you've forgotten them all over again, like you don't know them anymore. There was something great about that, to be sort of forced together. Butch Patrick, I remember. You're sitting in a parking lot and you think there's so many things you wanted to ask him and there he is. Now you go to the Con and you hang out with the same people you'd hang out with anywhere else. It's like going to New York. Just because you're going to New York, you're not going to hang out with Mayor Bloomberg.

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SPURGEON: Can I ask you about the upcoming Crockett Johnson collection series?

CLOWES: I don't know much about it yet.

SPURGEON: Can you describe what your general approach to designing something like that might be?

CLOWES: Those characters are way too boring, so I'm going to make them really cool and airbrush them and stuff, muted tones. It's going to look really, really cool. [laughter]

SPURGEON: I should probably have a better way of pointing out that you are just kidding. In general, though, how much of you gets in there?

CLOWES: Obviously Crockett has such a strict, Germanic design sense there's not a lot of leeway. I don't want the book to look like I designed it. To do that with Barnaby would be a failure. I think that works with some old strips and old cartoonists. But for Crockett Johnson you just cannot inflict your own style onto that stuff or it will ruin it. I need to sort of hone in on what he's already done and probably just modify some designs that he's already put into place. I have not really sat down to figure it out, but I have kind of a vision of what it will look like. It will not be complicated, that's all I can say. I will try to make it simple and appealing.

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SPURGEON: One more thing I wanted to ask you about. You published a major work this year; a lot of guys in sort of your generation of cartoonists had major works out this year.

CLOWES: Yeah.

SPURGEON: Do you have a sense of being a part of this wider group of cartoonists?

CLOWES: I would hope. I sort of feel like it's those great guys and then there's me. [Spurgeon laughs]

I'm never surprised. I wasn't surprised when X'ed Out turned out to be great. When the new ACME is great, you just presume that's going to be the case at this point. That's hardly fair for an artist to have that on his shoulders. Yeah, it was interesting to have all that stuff kind of come out all at once. And next year, Chester Brown's thing.

SPURGEON: Is there a competitive streak that reveals itself in terms of you and your peers?

CLOWES: There used to be when we were younger. And in a good way. I think we were all just trying to show each other what we could do. "He did that; I can do that, too." I certainly don't feel it any more at all. I just feel a deep appreciation for the stuff and I love that it exists. I try not to take it for granted, the fact that it's out there in the world and it very easily could not be. These guys can all decide to do something else, or could have decided that a long time ago. To have more new stuff that makes life better, I don't want to feel anything but utterly appreciative of it.

*****

* Wilson
* The Death-Ray
* Mister Wonderful
* Barnaby

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* photo of the cartoonist supplied by Peggy Burns
* the Wilson cover image
* a pair of small Wilson panels
* six larger Wilson moments; the last two in particular show the radical stylistic shifts that Clowes employs in the book
* from Mister Wonderful
* another small Wilson panel
* the Barnaby cast
* Chris Ware, Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes in Portugal several years back (from Eric Reynolds)
* that strong Wilson promotional image (below)

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