Express Night Out interviews DANIEL CLOWES

Stick Figure: Daniel Clowes, 'Wilson'

Express Night Out    |    Stephen M. Deusner    |    May 12, 2010

SHORT, SCHLUBBY WILSON sports a beard that's more slovenly than stylish and walks through the panels of Daniel Clowes' new book, "Wilson," with casual self-regard.

He loves his dog and nobody else, and he torments strangers with rambling philosophical ponderings. He mails a box of dog feces to his sister, and can't understand why she doesn't laugh. He is smart, yet cynical and mostly disagreeable, with an academic understanding of how the world works but with no practical insight into other human beings.

To Wilson, happiness is a delusion suffered by the dumb, and to Wilson, most people are dumb. He can be mean, selfish, oblivious, confounding and obnoxious.

He can also be funny as hell.

That contradiction between frustrating and funny makes Wilson perhaps the quintessential Daniel Clowes character.

The Oakland-based cartoonist, who began his career in the 1980s contributing to "Cracked," specializes in introverts and misanthropes rendered in thick lines and bold colors. The first and most well-known is Enid Coleslaw, the caustically witty anti-heroine he introduced in "Ghost World." Nearly 20 years after she first rolled her eyes and introduced angsty underground comics to the mainstream, Enid remains a patron saint to anyone — teenage or otherwise — you just doesn't get the world.

Serialized in Clowes' "Eightball" magazine and released as a book in 1997, "Ghost World" sealed Clowes' reputation as one of the most popular and influential cartoonists of the era. Since then, he has introduced a parade of creeps and clowns, all bound together by their shared misanthropy: the bumbling artist in "Pussey," the blank protagonist of "David Boring," the boorish private detective of "Ice Haven."

Wilson is Clowes' purest creation, a distillation of every antisocial urge we all feel but so rarely indulge, perhaps because he is so intrinsically a comic strip character. Rather than the long-form narratives that comprise most of his previous books, "Wilson" features small vignettes, each only six panels occupying one page. They resemble the darkest, strangest Sunday comic strip every imagined.

The drawing style for each vignette changes constantly as well. In one strip, Wilson appears to belong to "Ghost World," but turn the page and he becomes ovoid and squat. Some strips depict his world in bright colors, others in squalid sepia. Some are strikingly realistic, others playfully cartoonish.

Together, these episodes comprise a larger story that follows Wilson from lonely adulthood through lonely middle age, aging him with gray hair and new lines on his face. His is both an epic journey and an epic fail, but the vivid, inventive artwork heightens the character's direly existential angst, giving the sense of a living, breathing character rather than an assemblage of ink lines and color stains.

» EXPRESS: How did the idea for Wilson originate?
» CLOWES: My dad was in the hospital on his last legs, not dissimilar to how Wilson's dad is in the strip. I just had nothing to do. I bought a book but finished it, and I had another week of sitting there all day. I had my sketchpad and I thought, I'd better do something to cheer myself up a little bit. So I started drawing these goofy comic strips in pencil, and somehow this character just emerged out of nowhere. The first strip I drew as the one where he's waiting for the airplane and he's drilling the guy on what he does for a living. From that moment on, I knew who this guy was and wound up filling an entire sketchbook with hundreds of strips. Literally every idea that came into my head, I could turn into a strip with Wilson. Changing a light bulb or reading the newspaper or anything could lead this guy to do something unpredictable. But I actually hadn't drawn him. I just had little stick figures. So when I came home, I sat down and he just came out exactly as is the very first time I drew him.

» EXPRESS: He appears in various forms throughout the novel. Why did you opt to depict him in so many different styles?
» CLOWES: Originally I wanted to come up with an overall style for the book, and I toyed around with the idea that Wilson would be a lost comic strip and that these were the remaining strips. But that just seemed unrelated to who the guy was, so I abandoned that. In the process, though, I had drawn him in all these different styles, and I kept going back and forth over what I could maintain over the course of 80 pages that wouldn't be stultifyingly boring after drawing it over and over. It finally hit me that I had found a way to do it, which was to keep this variety of styles. That said more about the character than keeping it all in one style. I was trying to replicate this day-after-day-after-day progression. To change the style everyday to me made more sense in the way real life works — how we have a different view of ourselves each day, and how each day is approached with a different mindset. I thought that helped in separating the strips from each other. I didn't want them to read as connected as much as points along a route.

» EXPRESS: So that short strip format was built into the concept?
» CLOWES: I didn't realize it as I was beginning to work on it, but I found it to be a great thing. It allows you to eliminate all the boring parts, as Elmore Leonard says. You're able to jump over all the exposition and it didn't seem unnatural for there to be huge leaps. In the story there are a few leaps that are about four or five years from one strip to the next, whereas several of them are maybe ten minutes apart. In a regular narrative it would have been very difficult to do that without it being jarring, but somehow in this form, you accept the leaps. I was very influenced by reading collections of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," the ones that Fantagraphics has put out that has every strip in a row. There is an overall narrative, not an intended or an imposed narrative, but all the characters go through the seasons each year, and the strips relate to what's going on during that time of year. It has the feel of a narrative even thought here's no real continuity and there's these huge jumps between strips. I thought there was something there that was worth looking at.

» EXPRESS: When you started, did you know where the story was going?
» CLOWES: I did. I worked the narrative out very carefully in advance. I had some ideas of the basic plot line, and as I said, I had all these strips — about 99 percent of which I ended up throwing away. They gave me an overall basis of where the story was going. I tried to keep surprising myself as I was putting it together.

» EXPRESS: "Wilson" strikes me as a story that's intrinsic to its form. How important is that to you?
» CLOWES: It's certainly more interesting to do that, because I always feel that if you can explain what you're doing or if you could just as easily write it as a screenplay or a short story, you're probably better off doing that — it's much easier than drawing a comic and much less time consuming. There's got to be a reason you're hunched over a drawing board eight hours a day. But I felt Wilson could only work as a comic character. It'd be very hard to imagine an actor playing him. It's possible that it could work as a weekly sitcom, but something where you're with him for a long time, like a movie, I think it would be unbearable to some degree. In a comic you can go at your own pace, and you can stop if you're feeling [laughs] oppressed.

» EXPRESS: Do you take inspiration from other visual forms, like sitcoms or art?
» CLOWES: In terms of Wilson, I was intrigued by theater. I felt like this was the kind of thing that could work on the stage as a series of little blackout sketches. You cut to black after each little episode, and when the lights come on, he's in a different part of the stage. I had that in mind a little bit, which is very different from writing a movie — you'd never be able to make a movie like that. I was thinking of it almost like a series of vaudeville sketches that would last two minutes each and would comprise this hour-and-a-half production. I wonder if anyone would ever do that. I'd like to see them try to get the funding for that, although it would be very low budget. Maybe some college kids will do it.

» EXPRESS: Is there a temptation to revisit this character?
» CLOWES: There's a great temptation. I immediately missed him the day I finished the book. I actually wound up doing a two-page strip with him for the "New Yorker." He's just one of those characters that can give you stuff all day long. Any subject I can think of, he can make something out of it. That's what you really look for as a cartoonist. I would guess he'll be back in some form, although I feel like I've told his story. Maybe I'll do the early years of Wilson. That would be very ... unpleasant.

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