The Montreal Gazette | The Montreal Gazette | January 12, 2012
Daniel Clowes on the Montreal Gazette on the graphic novel
“It’s a really difficult thing to do.” Daniel Clowes is trying to describe the hard-to-name form – we’ll call it the graphic novel for the sake of convenience – of which he is one of the undisputed masters.
“You have to be able to do so many different things well, and yet the actual storytelling of cartoons is something that you can’t get from being good at any of the other fields, like drawing and writing and graphic design. It’s got to be a specific cartooning gene that you have.”
The 50-year-old Chicago native, now living in Oakland, is probably best known beyond the comics subculture for the much-loved screen adaptation of his graphic novel Ghost World. Visually, his work is on the rarely attained plain where cartooning meets fine art; thematically, his stories and characters pinpoint a certain Gen-X anomie with delicacy and dry, dark humour.
His newest book, the realist fantasy The Death-Ray, features a middle-aged man looking back on his adolescence, when he discovered smoking gave him the kind of supernatural powers that many a disaffected teen has dreamed of having. The book marks the first widely available release of a story Clowes first published in 2004 in his limited-edition Eightball comic.
“It was an obscure way to release something,” he says. “So I thought, ‘I’ve got to redo this in book form and try to get it out to people who don’t go to a comics store every week.’ ”
Revisiting a 7-year-old work brought back a lot of memories for Clowes, personal and otherwise: “You actually remember things like what music you were listening to, what was going on in your life. I was reminded that I worked on that story during the buildup to the Iraq war. The story is not overtly political in any way, but you can see that the character, and the sort of hollow American jingoism that the character espouses, is informed by my frustration at watching that inevitable slide toward militarism.”
Like two of Clowes’s more recent protagonists – the socially hapless Marshall of Mister Wonderful and the misanthropic but somehow lovable title character of Wilson – The Death-Ray’s hero, Andy, bears a certain resemblance to his creator, and marks a gradual drift toward more sympathetic figures in Clowes’s work.
“I decided at a certain point that one of my goals is to find a way to connect with the characters no matter how awful they may seem or how hard they are to be around, to try to look at their humanity and find a way to love them by the end,” he says.
“In The Death-Ray I mostly focused on the teenage version of Andy, but I wound up liking the older version, too. I liked the idea of this frustrated middle-aged man who had this terrible power. That led me to do Mister Wonderful and Wilson, who were versions of that, of myself facing middle age. Now I feel like I don’t need to do that character anymore. I can move on to other things.”
For Clowes, who once felt part of a community of like-minded artists but finds that the old gang is breaking up, the tour that brings him to Montreal next week with fellow comics luminary Seth – whose new The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists is being launched along with The Death-Ray – is especially welcome.
“One of the main reasons I agreed to do this tour was to get to hang out with Seth for a couple of weeks. It’s the only way we get to see each other. It’s funny, I was just thinking of how The Death-Ray is a very American work, and how I really respond more to American artists than to international ones, and then it occurred to me how two of my five favourite cartoonists, Seth and Chester Brown, are Canadian.”
As for the ongoing issue of what to call what people like Clowes and Seth do, the man who’s on record as disliking the term “graphic novel” sounds ready to give in.
“I somehow can’t write that term without putting it in quotes,” Clowes says. “Often you’re talking about a ‘novel’ that’s actually a memoir; it’s non-fiction. When I say the term to people I know are well versed in literature, I can see that they’re rolling their eyes. But we cartoonists have had 10 or 15 years among us to come up with a better term and nobody has even proposed anything. So if ‘graphic novel’ works for the public, and clarifies a certain type of book, then we’ll just stick with that and stop worrying about it.”