Since 1989, Daniel Clowes has been writing and drawing Eightball, an erratically published but always inventive comics anthology that has been home to both short works and extended projects as varied as a satire on the comics industry (Dan Pussey) and an inexplicable, unrepentantly bizarre mystery (Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron). Clowes recently completed Ghost World, a bittersweet coming-of-age tale that follows the course of a friendship between two girls, Enid and Becky, during the summer following their high-school graduation. Ghost World is due to be published as a paperback, and to be adapted into a movie by Crumb director Terry Zwigoff. Clowes recently spoke to The Onionabout the forthcoming movie and other aspects of his craft.
The Onion: What do you want to talk about?
Daniel Clowes: [Laughs.] That's your problem.
O: Well, I thought the first thing we'd talk about is Ghost World, both generally and in terms of the movie adaptation. How's the adaptation going?
DC: Well, we completed the final draft of the script after almost two years, and it is being read this week, actually, so we're sort of sitting around… Every time the phone rings, I get panicked. So we're just sort of waiting to hear what this studio is going to say about it. If they agree to make it, then everything's okay, and if they don't, then we have to shop around some more and find somebody to make it.
O: You co-wrote the screenplay with Terry Zwigoff. How did that process go?
DC: It went pretty well. I mean, basically, I wrote all the parts with the girl characters, and then we've sort of expanded a character from the comic. [Zwigoff] kind of focused on that one, so we took our own little elements and merged them together. Then I wound up rewriting it about 20 times until it had some kind of semblance of unity.
O: I was sort of surprised that you were going through with the movie, seeing as how you've always been a big proponent of comics being a good art form in and of itself. And you had some problems with Like A Velvet Glove, right? [Clowes once wrote a story involving a bastardized movie treatment of Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron.]
DC: No, that was just a story.
O: Really? I thought there was some truth to that.
DC: Nope. I've had probably 20 people try to buy the rights to that, and just nobody who I ever thought would be any good. I have no problems making movies; I've just never been approached by anybody who I thought would make a good movie. It was just all Hollywood schlockmeisters, so when someone like Terry got involved, I was really excited. I'd love to make a good movie.
O: What is the process of adapting it like? How did you visualize it differently for the screen?
DC: Basically, you have to throw away everything you have and start over again, and just sort of start with the same framework. 'Cause it's a completely different process, and it took me about a year before I figured that out. I tried to transcribe it into script form, and it wasn't working at all. So I pretty much just started over. Then you have to really learn the mechanics of film storytelling, so I just watched a million films and read a million screenplays and sort of got the rudiments of it. I started from scratch with the same basic idea I had in the comics, but the characters are fairly true to what they were in the comics. But the story is much more fleshed out, much more… You see a lot more of the world.
O: I was surprised to hear you refer to the characters as elements of yourself. I didn't really get that when I was reading Ghost World.
DC: Yeah, it's not like a puzzle to be figured out. It's just that it was a starting place for me more, just a reference point for myself.
O: When you were working on the story, what did you bring to it in terms of personal reminiscences?
DC: I really didn't have that situation at all, because right after high school, I went straight to New York, where I was going to go to art school. I always knew exactly what I wanted to do; I never really had that indecision. I always sort of wanted to be a cartoonist. [Ghost World is] more based on people I'd observed, and talking to other people, and hanging out with 18-year-old girls when I was 21 or so, and just sort of understanding the whole thing. But it wasn't really based on me in that regard at all.
O: It seems like in many ways, it's brought together the two elements that have been most prominent in Eightball over the last couple of years: childhood and the pop-culture past.
O: Why do you think those have been the predominant elements lately?
DC: Well, that's a concern of mine. It's just that the general versus the personal is something with which I'm very concerned. I mean, that's what I'm trying to do in my storytelling: finding these personal things that somehow say something about people's general situation. So you have this sort of general nostalgia that everybody can share in, versus the personal nostalgia that no one else can really relate to—and that's sort of Enid's dilemma, trying to make people understand her personal world.
O: It seems like pop-culture nostalgia has become increasingly commercial over the past few years. What are your feelings on that?
DC: I think nostalgia has been commercial for as long as I can remember. It sort of started in the hippie days: There was the whole '30s revival—the '20s and '30s, really—when everyone was going back to the silent movies and every hippie had a big poster of W.C. Fields on his dorm-room wall, and ever since then… You can really count on it; you can really predict that nostalgia for 1998 will occur pretty much exactly in 2009, or something. If you really sat down and tried to figure it out, I'm sure you could predict it to the month that it will finally occur. It's, you know, an easy way for people to make money, because it's inevitable.
O: Your work has sort of moved away from just using retro images into actually commenting on the use of retro images. With Lloyd Llewellyn, it was a little more straight-faced.
DC: Yeah, I suppose. That's not something I ever really think about; it's just that I'm drawing the way I like the artwork to look. I'm not consciously trying to make a comment about the way artwork used to work versus how it looks now, or anything like that.
O: Eightball itself seems to be moving away from what you used to do, more toward using the comics as short stories.
DC: I just go through phases. I get bored doing long stories, so I do short stories, and now I'm actually working on a long story that's going to take place over three issues. It's actually the most complex I've ever gotten in terms of writing something in advance.
O: Can you say anything about the story, or would you prefer to keep it to yourself for now?
DC: It's kind of hard to explain. It's basically about one character, this young man sort of beginning his adulthood, and he goes on this sort of Dickensian adventure that goes through different settings. There's a lot of different characters, and it's fairly complicated, but it's… I call it an erotic thriller. It's sort of my version of 9 1/2 Weeks, except it takes place over two years, and it's not directed by Zalman King.
O: The last issue of Eightball had a big manifesto about the state of comics, and one of the statements was that 1998 is the year when the next revolution is scheduled to happen. Have you seen any signs of that happening?
DC: No. [Laughs.] Not so far. I'm waiting for a miracle here.
O: What do you think about the state of comics right now?
DC: I think overall we're still in the midst of a real golden age. But I think we're in a low point of that golden age. Since the early '80s, some of the best comics in history have been created and gone largely unnoticed by the public, and I think a lot of those creators are finally getting fed up and doing less work, or doing other kinds of work, and nobody has really come along to take their place. So, I think we're in sort of a dead spot right now, but I still have hope.
O: Well, Love And Rockets ended, Hate is apparently ending with the next issue…
DC: Those guys are still at least going to be producing stuff, but I'm thinking of someone like Jim Woodring [Frank], who was really going great for awhile, and then he just got really discouraged, and now he does a comic every 18 months or so. You know, that's sad.
O: What sort of schedule are you on with Eightball now—every four months or so?
DC: Yeah, it's usually every four or five months, but after Ghost World was done, I took a few months off to try to figure out what sort of story I really wanted to do, and to focus more time on the screenplay for a month or two. So this one is considerably later than usual, but I've been working pretty much the entire time on it. I've got about 40 pages done already.
O: Because of the anthology form in which you work, did you see Ghost World changing as you developed it, or was it pretty much as you planned it from the beginning?
DC: Story-wise, it was pretty much as I planned it. I wasn't sure how many episodes there would be. I actually thought there would be maybe five episodes, originally, and it wound up being eight, and that was partly because I expanded some things. But in terms of the drawing, that's always the big problem, because I never like to do preliminary drawings. I like to just start out drawing the characters, and by the end, they didn't look in the beginning as I wanted them to. I finally got them down at the very end. And so, when I did the book collection, I actually went back and redrew them in the very beginning.
O: I didn't notice that.
DC: Nobody did. I spent like a month working on it, and not one person ever said a thing about it. If you put them side by side, it's fairly obvious.
O: I was told to ask you about Eightball being used in an all-girl high-school yearbook.
DC: [Laughs.] Yes, that's true. I've just heard about this.
O: What was used?
DC: I think they used some panels from one of the "I Hate You Deeply" stories. I haven't seen it yet. I've been trying to get a copy. I don't know if it's actually been printed yet.
O: I take it you're not planning on suing them.
DC: Oh, no. Any all-girl high schools out there that want to use my work are free to do it as long as they send me a copy.
O: Boys' high schools?
DC: Boys' high schools I'll sue to the fullest extent of the law.
O: Your letters columns are always interesting to read. Did you really work for Cracked, or was someone just insane?
DC: No, I worked for Cracked for several years.
O: How was that?
DC: Well, it kept me alive for three years in the early part of my career. I was sort of a starving artist, and, by some miracle, this ex-roommate of mine who owed me a lot of money got a job as the editor in chief of Cracked. He pretty much just walked in off the street and a month later was the editor of the thing.
O: Did you feel like you were in the minor leagues, being a Mad magazine fan?
DC: Yeah. I mean, I always knew Cracked was hopelessly inferior, but for a real short time there, when this guy took over, Cracked was actually a better magazine than Mad. Peter Bagge and I were doing stuff in every issue. He brought Don Martin over from Mad; he actually stole him away for a while.
O: He's back at Mad now, right?
DC: He's back at Mad now, after my friend got fired. He actually made it a very interesting magazine.
O: What did you work on there?
DC: I did a series called "The Ugly Family" that was sort of a rip-off of the Addams Family, except they were far more grotesque; they were like nuclear mutations. It was actually kind of a funny thing. I'd love to reprint that stuff, but I don't have any of the artwork. Cracked sort of stole all the artwork and put it in some warehouse, and now they claim they can't find it.
O: When you were working there, did you think, "At least it's not Crazy"?
DC: Oh, yeah, or Sick. I thought if I was really low, I'd be working for Sick.
O: And you worked on Lloyd Llewellyn on the side, and eventually were just given an offer, or how did that happen?
DC: For Eightball, you mean?
O: Lloyd Llewellyn was its own book first, right?
DC: Oh, yeah. I did Lloyd Llewellyn, and then they decided to cancel it, because of low sales. At that time, comics sales were so high that the low sales on Lloyd Llewellyn that caused it to get canceled would now make it one of the biggest hits in alternative comics. So they canceled it, and I sort of spent a year doing stuff for Cracked and other freelance stuff, and then decided I was going to do my own comic. I was shocked that they actually published it.
O: Do you ever feel like Woody Allen, in that people complain about your stuff not being as funny as it used to be?
DC: Yeah, all the time. I feel exactly like Woody Allen. And the minute I stopped doing as much funny stuff, I knew that was going to be the comparison. But, you know, you can't force it. You can't do funny stuff if you're just not in the mood to do funny stuff. It gets kind of tiresome after a while, to do that kind of thing, because it's all just based on this mechanism of humor. A lot of it isn't based on the actual writing—it's based on the way you present it—and that gets to be very mundane after a while, doing that mechanism.
O: Was there a point where you just made a conscious decision to move away from that?
DC: No. I don't really make conscious decisions too much. It's very difficult getting up every day to work on this thing if you're doing it for some loftier reason—I'm going to end world Communism by doing this comic—so I have to go with whatever interests me at the time. And since I have to plan these things out in advance to some extent, I have to try to imagine what kinds of things are going to hold my interest for five months. If I know doing a humor strip is going to be boring to me, I have no interest in even starting it.
O: Doing Eightball as an anthology gives you a lot more freedom. If you had to work on a one-story comic book, what would it be like?
DC: Probably something like… I can imagine something like Peanuts, or something where you create these 12 characters, or whatever, and each of them is broad enough that any idea you could get would apply to one of those characters. You could sort of go off with, you know, Linus for two weeks, if that was the kind of idea you had. That kind of thing always appeals to me, but my ideas are so disparate that I always figure I'd have to have like 400 characters or something. You know, no two would want to co-exist in the same panel. I'm not sure if Enid and Dan Pussey would want to live in the same area.