Ghost World’s Daniel Clowes cracks the sci-fi code

Ghost World’s Daniel Clowes cracks the sci-fi code

Best known to the public as the idiosyncratic author of Ghost World, Daniel Clowes stands as one of the most storied authors—of comic books or any other medium—working today. With books like Ghost World, Ice Haven, and The Death-Ray, Clowes has consistently demonstrated an ability to craft funny and touching comics, illustrated in his signature style, balancing realism with cartoonish exaggeration. Movies like Ghost World and Art School Confidential have been adapted from his work, with the former even earning Clowes an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The singularity of his aesthetic has led Clowes to illustrate work for clients like The New Yorker and the Criterion Collection.

Patience, Clowes’ latest work and his first since 2010, is a time-travel story about the lengths people will go to in order to protect the person they love. Mr. Clowes talked to The A.V. Club about the new book, his career, and getting older.

The A.V. Club: Science fiction isn’t a genre that you’ve really worked in that much. You’ve approached itlike in The Death-Raybut for the most part it’s been a genre that you’ve kind of stayed away from. Where did that choice to work in sci-fi come from?

Daniel Clowes: I think there are elements of that kind of stuff in a lot of my comics. I like the visuals of… hokey science fiction? I grew up with my brother’s stack of science-fiction digests from the ’50s—he sort of bequeathed those to me when he discovered drugs and girls. [Laughs.] And I remember looking at the images and illustrations when I was a kid and they just seemed so filled with this primal intensity. They were designed to elicit some kind of weird emotion that… almost nothing else has that same quality. So it’s an aesthetic that’s always stuck with me; I always liked that crazy, psychedelic, ’70s science-fiction look—and [Patience] is the kind of story I’ve wanted to do for more than 20 years. I finally figured out a way to do it. [The science-fiction influence] is maybe not as remote as it seems.

AVC: What was the trouble you were having in creating this more overt science-fiction story?

DC: I felt like I wanted to do this very short thing that was just focused on these over-the-top graphics, to do something that was almost a more poetic story where it’s all about these emotional visions that you get into very quickly and then get out of. I just could never quite make that work; I could never figure out something that was satisfying.

When I started this story, I wanted it to be much more compact than it was, and it was never quite working for me. And then once I decided to let it go on as long as it wanted to, that’s when it started to turn into a real storywhen I said, “I’m just gonna give everything as much space as it needs and not try to constantly chop everything down to its essentials,” which is my usual technique. [Patience] was very different for me, in that regard.

AVC: Patience is obviously much longer than your other work. Do you see yourself working in this longer format on future projects, or do you really prefer the shorter format?

DC: You know, it depends on the project. With a book like Wilson, which was the book I did before this—that was all about compressing it down to the absolute, bare essentials, so there’s just nothing in there that’s not an essential, crystallized moment. Patience is really kind of the opposite, where everything is breathing and moving in a much different way. It just depends on what the story is.

I obviously don’t like to set out to spend five years on something. [Laughs.] Like even with Patience, I was constantly fooling myself, saying, “I’ll be done in six months,” and then of course it’d be another two, three years.

So the thing I’m thinking about now, which is just barely in the fetal stages, I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’ll be done in two years.” And I sort of, on some level, know that’s unlikely, but it’s possible. I haven’t started yet! [Laughs.] I could start going much faster, and it could be shorter than I think. But I’m not afraid to make things longer. In the past, I used to really fear getting burnt-out and hating the process by the end, if the process went on too long. Now I know myself well enough to know that I can get through that.

AVC: That fear of getting burnt outwas that why you chose, for the bulk of your career, to work in the one-man anthology mode, or in these serialized formats as opposed to what you did with Wilson and with Patience?

DC: That [fear] was part of the appeal of that format, but really I was just going with the format that was predominant in comics at the time I started. No one thought of doing stuff just as graphic novels, that was, like, a weird idea back then. [Laughs.] Or it seemed like every time someone tried it, nobody would buy it. So I sort of wanted to be in the middle of whatever people were actually looking at.

AVC: And what kind of stuff were you looking at? Looking at Eightball, and even your work now, there’s an aesthetic to it that’s recognizable and distinct.

DC: The stuff I was interested in when I was first starting was like the early Harvey Kurtzman MAD [magazines], drawn by Kurtzman and [Will] Elder and [Wally] Wood and those guys. That seemed to me to be the pinnacle of comics. I wasn’t necessarily trying to draw like those guys, but [I wanted] to bring that same level of superhuman effort into it, and I was into the aesthetic of a lot of the terrible comics I read when I was a kid. Like, Curt Swan Superman comics from the early 60s, Kurt Schaffenberger and guys like that who drew Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen [comics], and things like that. They had this really flat, dull, prosaic style about them that seemed to me like they were drawing actual reality untainted by any stylistic choice. [They] just seemed like a diagram of life, rather than some artist showing off how well he could draw trees or something.

AVC: People who are familiar with your work will notice that you feature women prominently and you do a much better job of fleshing them out as people and as characters than some of your peers do. Was Patience intended as being critical of the way that other male cartoonists or writers will treat women like props for the arc of male characters?

DC: I didn’t think of it as criticism necessarily. I [just] always liked the idea of thinking about the other characters in an archetypal narrative, and thinking, “What are their lives?” And “What are they going through in this story?”

Every time I see a blockbuster movie, I find myself wondering about the guy in the background who got shot. [Laughs.] I think it’s that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall—where he does that thing we had all been waiting our whole lives to see, which is: There’s a shootout and Schwarzenegger just holds a random bystander in front of him to block the bullets. And that’s always the thing that everyone thought of as a kid, “Why wouldn’t somebody do that?” And then when he finally did it, it was such a mass relief to the audience. [Laughs.] But I remember days after thinking, “I would almost rather see the movie of that guy”; you know, that guy gets up and goes to work and gets on an escalator and then all of a sudden he gets killed. What a weird day for that guy! [Laughs.]

So when I originally started [Patience], I wanted it to be about this one character who knows what he’s going through—this crazy adventure—and another character who’s seeing it through the eyes of a normal person trying to deal with what’s going on. I often think about what it would be like if you were confronted with something that was just unexplainable. And I think you wouldn’t automatically believe the magical solution—that’s not the way our brains work. You would think you were crazy. You know? That would be your first thought: that you were imagining things.

AVC: What’s your process of writing that story, of developing that idea? Some cartoonists will just sit down and just start drawing page after page almost improvisationally, the way maybe a novelist would—

DC: The thing is, if you’re a novelist, you can do that and then rewrite everything very easily in Word. You start drawing comics and you’re kind of stuck. I’ve found that it’s a hard balance.

If you do too much preparation, then you get kind of bogged down. You’re bored before you even start, and your drawing feels uninspired, and the story feels all worked out and you’re just going through the motions. But if you don’t do any preparation, some of it will be good, but you’ll wish you could redo half of it. So I’ve found over the years that I need a solid idea of what each page needs to do, and I need to know the characters really, really well before I start drawing. Once I feel comfortable with that, that’s when I start drawing.

AVC: Do you have any rule you like to follow when you’re designing a page?

DC: My rules kind of come spontaneously in each book. With something like Wilson, I had rules like: The pages are all drawn in different styles, but they’ve all got a certain rhythmic pacing to them; there’s no narration; there are no inner thoughts of the characters. Whereas with Patience, you hear the characters’ thoughts; scenes change a lot on a page, or they don’t change for several pages; it’s much looser than [Wilson], but there are certainly rules—just matters of consistency.

AVC: Patience takes place in different time periods, all with different page layouts. How did you develop the rhythm of the different time periods?

DC: I can’t remember. [Laughs.] It was like four years ago. It was just a matter of trying different things.

I had a vision for the [future scenes] before I even really started drawing the book. I had an idea for how I wanted that part to feel open and clean. I didn’t want it to be a dystopia at all; I wanted it to be just sort of how I imagine the future to be.

AVC: This is only your second book-length work that hasn’t been previously serialized. Do you think you’ll go back to the serialized format?

DC: No, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the serialized format. Nobody reads comic books, alternative comics anyway. All the publishers, if you say, “Oh, I’d like to go back to doing a comic book,” they would say “Okay, but we’re not gonna do any advertising, we’ll release it as a sort of vanity project, but that’s it. We only wanna do the books.” Who will stock it nowadays? There are very few comic stores that will actually stock that kind of thing, and it does seem like a vanity project.

AVC: Are there creative reasons you’d prefer working in this longer format?

DC: If I had a strong idea for an Eightball-type comic, something that would really work in [serialized] format? I would do it, because that would be the way to do it. But I feel like I exhausted that route back in the Eightball days; I felt like I put everything into that that I could, and now I’m much more interested in longer narratives. Back then I would separate out my ideas, like, “Oh that’s a funny idea,” and “That’s a more serious idea,” and “That’s whatever,” and I would separate them out and put them in very different stories. Now my thought would be to figure out a way to incorporate all those into one story. And that is, in many ways, much more satisfying.

AVC: Do you think that’s a natural consequence of getting older? You know, when you’re young you want to try everything and spread yourself really thin, but as you get older you get more focused. Do you think that has anything to do with that change in attitude?

DC: [Laughs.] I feel less focused. I feel like I have way more interests and know a lot more things than back then.

AVC: Do you ever feel tempted to remake some of those older comics?

DC: That’s a hoooooooorrible idea. [Laughs.] I mean, of course I do. Every time I look at one of my old books, I think, “Oh man, if I redid this now, I could make this so perfect.” But man, if you start doing stuff like that… you’re done.

It’s funny, ’cause back when I was doing my early stuff, I just assumed it’d be printed, a bunch of weirdos would buy the comic, and it’d never be seen again. We had no idea that anybody would be able to scan the stuff and every little thing that you drew would live forever—to haunt you! [Laughs.]

It was such a luxury to be able to hide, to have your early work not be seen except by the people you wanted to see it. So now, I think you have to just develop a thick skin and to not look back with regret. That’s the hard thing; that’s the thing I’ve had to develop over the years, to say, “Okay, I did my best,” and then move on. But the key is: do your best—always. Don’t let anything you’re embarrassed by—at the timeout into the world.