The Chicago Tribune on DANIEL CLOWES and the Chicago comics scene

A cartoonist's Chicago — warts and all

Chicago Tribune    |    Christopher Borrelli    |    June 8, 2010

The first time Daniel Clowes says he thinks about Chicago every time he has to draw a face, you feel warm inside. Then a second or two pass, and the meaning of what he said begins to settle in. You remember what a Daniel Clowes face looks like and you start to feel less cozy. You glance at a reflective surface, down at one of his lumpish creations, back up at that reflective surface. Then you sigh and wish you were never born.

Daniel Clowes grew up in Hyde Park, and became one of the most important contemporary authors of alternative comics. Along with Chicago cartoonists Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti, he left a key mark on the acerbic, dour tone of the underground comic (and a literal mark on Wicker Park ). And yet if you have ever read one of his comics or seen "Ghost World," the acclaimed 2001 adaptation of his work (which earned him an Academy Award nomination for screenwriting, and co-starred the Clowesian Steve Buscemi), you will feel bad about yourself. And bad about others, as well.

And society, and …

Oh, why bother getting out of bed?

"I saw Dan give a talk in New York recently," said Adrian Tomine, another influential alternative cartoonist and illustrator, and a long-time friend of Clowes. "This woman stands up and says, ‘Daniel, where do you get the ideas for such ugly faces?' And Dan goes, ‘Well, look, have you ever been to Chicago?'"

And so, the next time Clowes mentions his love of Chicago, and its profound influence on his comics, on his famously sweaty, pimply faces, full of desperation and worry lines and thinning hair — a portrait of everything you have ever feared you'd see in a photo of yourself — you get a little defensive: You tell him he's lived in California for a while (because he has). You add (sucking in your gut) that perhaps Chicago is more toned than he remembers.

He pauses.

"I don't mean that in an insulting way," he said. "I say that feeling out of place where I am." He lives in Oakland, Ca.; he's lived on the West Coast almost 20 years now. "But I still feel unattractive here, very schlubby. You get used to everyone being perfect and in shape, so when I get off a plane in Chicago, it just feels more … specific. When I close my eyes to draw I always think Chicago in 1975. My formative years. Those faces, that architecture. Every building in my background is a version of the John Hancock. Remember, when I was a kid, downtown was dead. The Financial District was like being in a zombie movie. I would make Super 8 films with friends and we would shoot in the middle of State because there was literally no one around to bother us."

Clowes is 49 now.

He's appearing this weekend at the Printers Row Lit Fest — 25 years after selling his first work to then-fledgling graphic novel publisher Fantagraphics, then creating the iconic alt-comic "Eightball," then seminal graphic novels such as "Ghost World" and "David Boring," which led to a frequent gig illustrating the cover of The New Yorker.

 However, before this story makes him sound like a lapsed Midwesterner, understand that as misanthropic as his work is often mistakenly judged, the need for warts and all is empathy — an empathy so deep that "Wilson," his latest book, tells the story of a schlubby, middle-aged misanthrope who grew up in Chicago and now lives in Oakland and pines for the way things were and the people he knew. It's not autobiographical, Clowes said. But not entirely without autobiography.

"I wanted the (title) character to feel about things much the way I feel about things," he said. "He's just hopelessly inept at getting it across, the kind of person who doesn't want to be dishonest in any way. He wants people to like him in his worst possible state, and he's gotten so used to that, so used to expecting the world to tag along, he has no sense of what an off-putting creep he's become.

"The thing is, I look for commonality no matter how objectionable a character. Still, it's not reality. Compared with reality, I barely scratch the surface."

About five years ago, Liz Mason, the manager of Quimby's on North Avenue, was poking around in the bookstore's basement when she found a sizable stash of tiny, hastily stapled comics, scrawled in a variety of pens and markers, then photocopied. Each showcased a different style, and the names signed at the bottom were remarkable: Clowes; Ware; Archer Prewitt, who created "Sof' Boy" and co-founded Chicago bands the Coctails and Sea and Cake; illustrator Gary Leib; Doug Allen, who created another iconic underground comic, "Steven"; and Terry LaBan, who draws the nationally syndicated comic strip "Edge City" — a who's who of early ‘90s Chicago comic book talent, or rather something of a "Superfriends" of hip alt-comic reference points.

"(The comics) were small, cute and folded, and I remember thinking that it looked like these guys had been involved in a kind of comics jam," she said.

She's spot on.

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