Daniel Clowes

Rightly named among those responsible for making comics such a vibrant, growing medium over the past few decades, Daniel Clowes proved his ambition with his first significant work, Lloyd Llewellyn. The noir-inspired series mixed acerbic humor with a free approach to genre and storytelling style, and it foreshadowed Clowes’ next major project, Eightball. A one-man anthology combining serialized narratives, short stories, short humor pieces, and whatever else Clowes wanted to include, Eightball ran for 23 issues between 1989 and 2004 and included long-form works such as Ghost World, Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, David Boring, Ice Haven, and The Death-Ray, all subsequently reprinted as independent volumes. Since the end of Eightball, Clowes has published Mister Wonderful, a surprisingly sweet middle-aged love story originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine, and Wilson, a stylistic tour-de-force in which one difficult character confronts his own mortality.

During the same stretch, Clowes had his own brush with mortality in the form of a heart problem, since corrected through surgery. He’s also stayed busy working on screenplays, adapting Ghost World and the art-school satire Art School Confidential, both with director Terry Zwigoff. Now he’s the subject of the fine, career-spanning monograph The Art Of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, edited by Alvin Buenaventura. The book coincides with a traveling retrospective of Clowes’ art, which can currently be seen in his adopted home of Oakland at the Oakland Museum Of California. While in Chicago, Clowes spoke to The A.V. Club about his long, varied career and the ways the Internet has made obscurity less mysterious.

The A.V. Club: Did you ever foresee this kind of retrospective attention coming your way?

Daniel Clowes: Oh, God no. Not in a million years. It wasn’t even on the radar. I had delusional fantasies of grandeur that went as far as I thought they could go, and they wouldn’t have included that. I would have thought, “Maybe I’ll get in The New Yorker someday,” that would be as far as I ever would have gone. The world has changed a lot since I began. [Laughs.] There wouldn’t have been a monograph behind any cartoonist at that time. Maybe that Winsor McCay book would have been the kind of thing, someone who’s been dead for 80 years. But that’s about it.

AVC: We last spoke in the late ’90s, and at least part of that conversation was about comics gaining respectability. That seems like a conversation you don’t have to have anymore.

DC: No, and it seems like a subject that’s been beaten into the ground at this point. Though to the average person that you’ll meet on an airplane, if you tell them you draw comics, they’ll still have sort of the same response—not like that’s seeped into the culture at large, that comics are not just for kids. They might have seen some of the superhero movies, so they’re a little less resistant to superhero comics as inherently stupid, but that’s about it. They still don’t know quite what to make of it.

AVC: You no doubt had to revisit a lot of your work for this project. What surprised you about looking back?

DC: There’s a lot more stuff than I thought. I tend to only look at the covers, and I have my books on my shelf in my office, and I look at them if I have to get a page number for something, or am sending something to a foreign publisher. But I never read them, and I never take in the totality of the experience. Just to go through the files, I haven’t gone through my flat files ever, really. I just keep adding stuff to them. To go through and see what was at the bottom of those was unbelievable.

AVC: That’s your original artwork?

DC: Yeah, just all the artwork. One of the main reasons I agreed to do this book is, I’ve wanted to organize all my artwork and get an inventory of it, because I really have no idea what I have anymore. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for that. I would have guessed that I had somewhere in the range of 300-400 pages, and it was closer to 900, I think. It was a lot of stuff. It felt much more like I hadn’t wasted my life, or that I had wasted my life doing a lot of comics, at least. [Laughs.]

AVC: So you hang on to your original artwork now?

DC: You know, I used to sell it. That used to be my main source of income back in the old days.

AVC: I remember the old catalogue.

DC: When I look back at those and see what I sold things for, it makes me cry, because I was giving them away. But you know, I needed the money at the time. I haven’t sold anything since around the time I talked to you. That was pretty much the last time, around 1998, 1999. And I’ve sold 20 things since then, maybe, but that’s about it.

AVC: Would you have always have hung on to your artwork if you could have afforded to?

DC: I didn’t care about it that much. It was kind of exciting for me to see people willing to pay, oh, a hundred dollars for a cover or whatever. [Laughs.] But now in retrospect, I definitely wish I had had it all. It would have made putting this, both the book and the museum show together a lot easier if we had the stuff.

AVC: Looking at your old pieces, what changed the most in your assessment of it from the time you made it?

DC: I can look at my early work and see what a pained struggle it was to draw what I was drawing. I was trying so hard to get this specific look that was in my head, and always falling short. I could see the frustration in the lines, and I remember my hand being tensed and redrawing things a thousand times until I finally inked it, and just having this general tense anxiety about every drawing. I think that comes through in the artwork, and gives it this certain kind of manic energy, this kind of repressed energy, so you feel like it’s sort of bursting at the seams or something. For a long time, I’d look at artwork from that era, and I would have to squint my eyes to not really look at it clearly, because it was so far from what I wanted it to be. But now I can appreciate it in retrospect as an artifact of that time, and what I was going through.

AVC: Is that energy anything you’ve ever felt the need to reclaim with your current artwork?

DC: I’m trying to find it in any parts of the comic. I’m trying to really not obsess over the kinds of things I was obsessing over, and I’m trying to focus on getting this very specific look exactly right, and on making the stories come alive. That’s been my main interest for the last 15 years, is to really make sure the story and the characters take precedence over everything else, and that I give them everything I can to make them exist as actual people.

AVC: Is there a point where that shifted for you?

DC: I think there was a point that I realized I could do what I wanted to do in terms of the drawing. I used to run around a lot of things. I would shy away from certain things that I realized would be horrible for me to draw, and just wouldn’t be fun. At a certain point, I realized that I could draw anything, and there was nothing I should avoid—I could make it work. That’s opened me up to being able to be much more comfortable telling any kind of story.

AVC: What was something you would avoid then that you don’t avoid now?

DC: I had sort of a moment of revelation when my son was about 2 years old and he was obsessed with trains, and so every day, he wanted me to draw trains, and I had never drawn trains. That’s the exact kind of thing that I would have never tried to draw. I got all these books and learned how to draw a train, and then he’d have all these inventive stories about the train coming at you, so I had to draw the train in perspective, which that’s the kind of thing that seems very difficult when you’re sitting down to write a story. “I’m not going to draw a train with horses running out of the way” and all that stuff, and the next thing I knew, I was doing 20 of these a day and could draw any variation of any kind of train. I knew how to draw all of the different smokestacks on the old trains and all that stuff, and then I realized that if I can draw trains, which is the thing I was probably the least interested in in the world at the time, I can do anything and find a way into it that will be interesting.

AVC: And you picked up a new collaborator on the way, too.

DC: I very much did. Now he looks back at those and says, “Why did I like trains? I don’t get it.” He’s totally not into trains anymore. One day, it’s like one kid says “Trains are stupid,” and “Okay. He’s right.”

AVC: I wonder when that changes, and when your obsessions calcify.

DC: Yeah. I can look at his obsessions, and they’re all weirdly related. Now he’s really into electronic circuitry, and the thing he liked about trains was making the tracks where they all connect and have little things along the way, and that’s very similar to electronic circuits, where they have switches and transformers. So he’s into some kind of circuitry in some ways. I’m not sure where that goes. Probably into horse-racing or something.

AVC: What was the first thing you remember being obsessed with like that as a kid?

DC: I had an older brother who bequeathed me his stack of comics when he moved on to Playboy and Zap and all that stuff. So I was very much obsessed with that. I had like a two-foot stack of old Marvel and DC and Archie Comics and Mad magazine, stuff like that. It was this very finite group of comics. Ones that I just read over and over and over and studied. I remember I read them before I could actually read, and trying to figure out the stories just based on the pictures, and that’s a really great thing for kids to have to do. To try and learn that language. I feel like I understood the language of comics. I had a real fluidity with that medium at a very early age.

AVC: It’s funny, because comics from that era are so packed with words, but if you look at them, they don’t really have to be.

DC: I just found a bunch of my early Jack Kirby Marvel comics, and I cannot believe how many words Stan Lee would write in. There’s like 10 people talking in every panel—violates every rule of comics I know. You try not to have more than one or two balloons in a panel. That sort of represents a moment where people are talking, and in those Fantastic Fours, there’s like 15 people talking and a caption and it covers things up, and you think, “Wow, what did he draw under there?”

AVC: And Avengers’ last pages, where there’s almost nothing but text. It’s like, “We gotta wind this up, so here you go.”

DC: There’s a Belgian strip, Blake And Mortimer, about British adventurers, and there’s many, many panels like that, where it’s a little head in the bottom, talking, but just paragraphs of text. It has the weird effect of just a guy frozen in space, blathering without moving at all. There’s something very disconcerting about it, but I like that. [Laughs.]

AVC: Come to think of it, though, your comics have gotten less packed with words over the years as well.

DC: More and more, I tried to make comics in the way I like to read comics, and I found that when I read comics that are really densely packed with text, it may be rewarding when I finally do sit down and read it, but it never is going to be the first I’m going to read, and I never am fully excited to just sit down and read that comic. It takes a little bit of effort to get to it. There are certain comics that just seem like they have this perfect balance between dialogue and image that I can’t not read. I’ll want to save it for later, and the next thing I know, I’m reading it. That’s what I’m kind of trying to do with my comics.

AVC: What’s an example of that?

DC: Oh, Love And Rockets. You know, Jaime [Hernandez] is sort of the master at that.

AVC: And seems to be getting better at it over the years. “Love Bunglers” is such an amazing story.

DC: That’s how it is when you’ve got that kind of talent. It doesn’t go away.

AVC: You finished art school in…?

DC: ’84.

AVC: You had five years between that and the first issue of Eightball. Were you ever worried that it wasn’t going to happen for you?

DC: Oh yeah, I had my comic Lloyd Llewellyn very quickly out of art school, really. It seemed like the longest time in the world between graduating and that happening, but it was about a year and a half. That was sort of this huge opportunity just thrown in my lap. “Here, do your own comic. It’s all yours. Let’s see what you can do.” When that was cancelled, with sales that would now be decent for a Dark Horse comic—it was, I think, 6,000 or 7,000 when it was cancelled. I still don’t understand why they cancelled it, exactly, but back then I guess they just expected all comics to sell 12,000 or 15,000.

AVC: Well, it was kind of the black-and-white boom.

DC: It was on the tail end of that, and everyone was getting a little scared, but I remember the day that ended, I just thought, “Well, that was my big chance. Now I really have to figure out what the hell I’m going to do.” I really thought, “I’ll just do one more comic.” I thought “I’ll do one or two issues and just want to do exactly what I want to do, just to have it out there, just so I can get that stuff into print, and then I’ll move on from there.” Then, by some miracle, that was what people wanted all along.

AVC: Was there a conscious attempt to showcase everything you could do in Eightball? There’s such a plethora of styles in those.

DC: It was really just more that I had all of these ideas. When I first began Lloyd Llewellyn, I wanted it to be more like Eightball, more just an anthology. [Fantagraphics’ publisher] Gary Groth—and this was the conventional wisdom of the time—said that you had to have a character, and that’s the only thing that people would buy, and no one was interested in something that had a bunch of different characters. So I stuck with Lloyd Llewellyn, who I had no real ideas about. I didn’t have any thoughts about him other than the one story that I did, so I had to kind of pull all of my ideas in and make them work around this character, and it was impossible. I had all of these other things I wanted to do that had nothing to do with Lloyd Llewellyn, so I kept saving them for somewhere down the road, and those were all the things that went into Eightball. All of those first stories were things I’d been thinking about for years.

AVC: When did you realize you had a following for it? I think in the monograph, you mentioned that there was no feedback for Lloyd Llewellyn at all.

DC: You know, there was a bit. I had my own little base of fans who really liked it. I’d get 20 letters per issue, and that was life-changingly big for me. But I finally got the sense that it was a very limited crowd of people who were really specifically into that kind of comic, and I would go to conventions and stuff and people would be nice—“Oh, I like your comic.” But I never got the sense people were really into it, except for one or two exceptions. Then when Eightball came out, I remember sitting there and person after person coming by that just had that look on their face, like, “This is great!” the way I had seen people talk to the Hernandez brothers and other people around me. All of a sudden I could just feel that, “Okay, this has connected with people in a much different way.”

AVC: Have you kept up with any of the people you’ve met through the letters section?

DC: A lot of those people went on to do big things, go on to be in comics themselves. A lot of them turned out to be more important than I would have imagined at the time. I used to get letters from Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show and guys like that. A lot of them, I’ll be at a signing, and they’ll show up 20 years later and say their name and say “I wrote you,” and I’ll remember everything about them because I used to read those letters over and over again, because that was the only feedback you got. You’d get reviewed in two places. You’d get in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, which would always hate it, and Amazing Heroes, which would also hate whatever I did. They used to give letter grades in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, and I remember Eightball #1 got a D+. [Laughs.] Which is really about the worst grade you can get. It’s worse than D-, it’s worse than F. It’s really bad.

AVC: “It’s bad, but I don’t feel strongly enough about it to give it an F.”

DC: [Laughs.] Exactly. It’s like, “It’s got a little promise enough to give it a plus, but it’s horrible.”

AVC: Where do you get that feedback now? You get reviewed everywhere, but do you have a lot of feedback from readers?

DC: Now I have cultivated a little crew of people whose opinions I understand. It’s like the way you’d follow certain film critics because you know what their criteria are, and you may not agree with them, but you can glean from their opinion how you will feel about a film. I have readers like that, who are people who I know are reading the stuff carefully and with a generous spirit. They’re looking for the best in it. I look to their response. But I’m not as interested in that kind of connection anymore as I was when I started. Now I’m more in my own head, trying to do things for myself and hoping others will go along with it. I used to be about really about connecting with people.

AVC: I don’t want to repeat too much from the monograph, but I was interested in what you said about how the old pop-culture ephemera you used to draw on is now so readily accessible, it’s changed how people relate to it. Is there an equivalent to that now, or has the Internet flattened things out and made the obscure easy to find?

DC: I don’t think so. That was a thing I noticed looking back on the old comics. I would do panels that were based on really obscure records and things from my collection. For one thing, it was charged with something that I got something out of, which was my main reason for doing that, but I also liked the idea that somewhere out there, there was some guy who also had that record and would see that image and connect to it in that way I was connecting to it. That is just gone now. Someone can just find all of those images in 10 minutes and post them on the Internet and then it just looks like, “Oh, this guy just found all those images on that Tumblr page.” It doesn’t have that same feeling of two weird guys finding these obscure things in the detritus of 20th-century culture and connecting on some other level.

AVC: Do you see a positive to that at all?

DC: Yeah, it’s one of those… There’s a net loss and a net gain. It’s hard to figure out which takes precedence. Certainly it’s great to be able to talk to your friends about something. They might mention a film, and you can find all about it, and you don’t have to wait months until you can find a book that might cover the subject and keep it in your head. You can have that kind of immediacy. But there’s also something about it, where all the knowledge seems kind of fleeting. All the stuff I learn about in that way, I can be interested in for a day and then it’s gone. It used to be that you had to go through such effort to find out about the things you were interested in that you would accumulate all this other stuff along the way, and it would became part of you in a way that it doesn’t anymore. At least I find that personally.

AVC: I’m sure you saw Shut Up, Little Man!

DC: Yeah.

AVC: It is fascinating to think that that would maybe live for a day on the Internet now, and people would move on and forget about it.

DC: It would be an obsession for millions of people for a week, and then be gone. But back then, it was this thing that we were all listening to for months and months at a time, and you didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. You would wait until someone came to your house and inflict it upon them. Ninety percent of the time, they would think you were out of your mind to listen to something like that.

AVC: I keep thinking about that Mr. Show sketch about the guy that would show up with the underground tapes. I don’t think people would understand that sketch anymore.

DC: No. The stuff in Ghost World is like that. They don’t have the Internet or cell phones. I think Enid even has a rotary phone in her room. [Laughs.] All the girls I knew had old-fashioned, weird phones.

AVC: Well, it seems like the Ghost World film came out at the last moment where that was still possible.

DC: Yeah, that is literally true.

AVC: Did you have any awareness of that at the time?

DC: It’s hard to put your finger on where things were going at the time. I know a lot of people who at the time, at least, that we wrote the script, were really resistant to ever getting involved in the Internet still. So I positioned Enid as one of those people, and Seymour definitely. By the time the film even came out, it seemed less likely that that would be true. I remember that Terry Zwigoff didn’t have a computer for years, and was very resistant to it. I think while we were making that film, he started going on eBay. Then he was just obsessed, 20 hours a day, buying old records and stuff. So I could see, “Well, that’s probably what would happen to the real Steve Buscemi character.”

AVC: With eBay, suddenly everything you dreamed about finding was out there.

DC: Especially back then. It had a feeling like anything could turn up.

AVC: You abandoned a graphic novel about Hollywood. Can you speak broadly about what sort of experiences that would draw on, or what you’ve taken away from your time working in Hollywood?

DC: The idea of the book was really a collection of just many experiences that I’ve had, both good and bad, in trying to relate them through characters and it’s still something I may do at some point, but it’s one of those books that felt like homework. At a certain point, I was getting up in the morning and thinking, “What else could I do besides work on that?” [Laughs.] And that’s sort of the exact opposite of what you need to have. You need to be, like, turning down high-paying illustration work because you want to work on your comic. That’s when you know you’re doing something good.

I’ve had a real lucky time working in Hollywood. I’ve talked to other screenwriters, and they’re all kind of beaten down and their spirits are crushed, because they work on these screenplays and these projects, and then directors either take them and change everything, rewrite them and make them worse, or they film them and they’re nothing like how they imagined it to be. And I don’t care about that stuff, really, because I have my comics, and that’s my thing that I’m putting into the world that’s my pure, undiluted vision, and I get absolute satisfaction out of that. So writing a screenplay, I’m like, “All I’m responsible for is that final script, and I take great effort and pride in that.” But once I give it to someone to make, I can disassociate with it entirely and not worry that my vision isn’t being represented, because I understand fully that that’s not how it works.

AVC: Do you ever worry about it cutting out of your time making comics?

DC: Not really, because I need something else to do besides comics. Doing comics full-time for over 30 years—I mean, really since I’ve been 14, I’ve been doing them full-time—you need to get a different perspective. I remember Robert Crumb suggesting I take up sculpture. He said that would be a good thing to do. But writing screenplays is very freeing from what you can do in comics in a lot of ways. You can change things around. I can take great delight in writing 40 pages, then just pressing delete and getting rid of it and not thinking about it ever again. Whereas in comics, if I had put that kind of effort into it, I couldn’t go on [Laughs.] if I had to get rid of 20 pages or something. So it can be a lot of fun, and I try to only work on the screenplays for a few hours a day when I’m in my most voluble mood, just sort of writing whatever comes into my head. It’s a very freeing thing. Then it feels great to go back to the comics and have that different kind of experience.

AVC: Why a retrospective now?

DC: It wasn’t my choice. Well, it was ultimately my choice, but the people that approached me, Alvin [Buenaventura] about doing the book and Susan Miller about doing the show, just happened at the same time. It was in a moment where I was looking for something. I was looking to start saying yes to things that I had always said no to. I’d had this heart surgery and had just gotten out of the hospital and was feeling better than I had in many, many years, and I realized there were all these things that I just always reflexively said no to, like museum shows or art galleries, and people were always wanting to do books about my sketch books and things like that. I just thought, “I’m going to agree to things for a while and see how that works.” [Laughs.] So it was right in the upswing of that. They came to me right at that moment and I said, “Yes, let’s do it.” [Pause.] Also thinking that it would never actually happen.

AVC: You’ve portrayed getting older in your work before. Had your work prepared you for the experience of looking down mortality in any way?

DC: No. And I feel like before that, I wouldn’t ever have written, at least as a main character, an older character, because I would have felt, “I don’t understand what that feels like,” and now I feel like I could do that. I feel like I could write an 80-year-old and get what that feels like.

AVC: How has that changed your way of approaching your work and how you look at things?

DC: Well, as I said, when I emerged out of the hospital, I all of a sudden realized that for the past couple of years, I’d been just physically feeling worse and worse and not really understanding why. It’s that kind of feeling that you tend to have at certain times in your life, and you’re like, “There’s got to be a reason…” and then you realize “Well, maybe it’s because I haven’t exercised in two years” or something. In this case, there really was an actual, physical reason, and when it was fixed, all of a sudden I felt like I should have felt. I felt sort of rejuvenated, but I also had a sense of what it feels like to get old and fade into the woodwork. I felt like I came out of it with more of an understanding of the mysteries of death than I would have had without it. I felt like I can sort of see how people deal with that, because I really had a few months there where this might be the end.

AVC: So many of the stories in the Caricature collection are about periods of transition, particularly from childhood to adulthood. Ghost World is about that, too. What surprised you most about entering other periods of transition? How have you seen your points of view change?

DC: I think that’s what I’m dealing with in my books. I think Wilson is certainly about that. And Mister Wonderful, to some degree. Even The Death-Ray has some of that. It’s an interesting process. Working on this book and this museum show, it feels like a demarcation point of some kind. It feels like this certain part of my life and career is in the past, and now I have to reinvent myself again, so I feel like I’m yet again on the cusp of some kind of transition in the way that I did, maybe when I was doing Ghost World or something like that. 

Photos from The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist
Edited by Alvin Buenaventura
Published by Abrams ComicArts