Eye Weekly interviews DANIEL CLOWES

Comic Timing

Eye Weekly    |    Chandler Levack    |    May 12, 2010

After six years, Daniel Clowes is returning to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival with Wilson, his first original graphic novel with Drawn & Quarterly. The only problem? He’s more afraid of success than ever

It’s a very rare thing to have someone say that your work has changed their life. Graphic novelist Daniel Clowes is tired of hearing it.

Consumed by Hollywood projects and parenthood, Clowes has made a concerted effort to disconnect himself from his fans — his website functions in domain name only. (Asked if he ever Googles himself, Clowes responds: “If I ever get close to looking at stuff like that, I stop myself. It’s always soul crushing to see what the average internet responder has to say.”) The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, or TCAF, marks his first public appearance in six years, serving as the Canadian leg of a nine-stop promotional tour for his new book, Wilson — an engagement he looks forward to with trepidation.

“In my daily life, I’m a father to a five-year-old and I don’t have a persona where I leave the house and people recognize me,” he says in a congenial but wry Midwestern accent. “I guess I went on a small book tour in 2005 when my book Ice Haven came out, but it’s not something I really enjoy doing. I’m a private person and a fairly shy person, so to all of a sudden put myself in the middle of all that, it’s going to be a very disassociative practice.”

Where has Daniel Clowes been all these years? A member of the veritable comic brat pack in the early ’90s that legitimized the medium alongside friends and colleagues like Chester Brown, Seth and Lynda Barry, Clowes worked his way up from the underground, publishing books and compilations (among them, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Caricature, David Boring) based on serialized comics from his Fantagraphics series Eightball, which ran from 1989 to 2004.

The aughts saw him consumed by two Hollywood projects, the first being a 2001 cinematic adaptation of his 1997 comic book Ghost World, which earned Clowes an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and made women of the world reconsider the sex appeal of Steve Buscemi. His 2006 follow-up, Art School Confidential, was a critical and box-office flop. Clowes says that both projects, directed by Crumb documentarian Terry Zwigoff, felt like “being in the eye of a hurricane,” a marked difference from the self-enclosed world of comics in which he says he writes like an actor, channelling different roles through illustration.

This is not to say he won’t sign your limited edition Big Enid Doll. It’s just that the price of graphic-novel superstardom can be a burden, now that university professors have put Ghost World on their syllabus. “When you’re doing this, you can’t imagine that anyone would care about it all, much less that it would get them through high school or something,” Clowes comments. He doesn’t get much fan mail these days, now that he’s consciously made his email and contact information private. At age 49 and at the height of his success (movie projects, New Yorker covers, fangirl journalists on the line), Daniel Clowes could very well be a character in one of his comics — the alienated illustrator making his first public appearance in six years.

The inspiration for Wilson, the titular protagonist of Daniel Clowes’ first original graphic novel (and the first on awesome Montreal comic press Drawn & Quarterly), came from two events that are the most dramatic in anyone’s life: the birth of a child and the death of a parent. Sitting by his father’s deathbed in Chicago, Clowes coped by drawing comics and reading the biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, inspired by the narrative stopgaps in the lives of Snoopy and the gang.

“When I first started drawing the strips, my dad was in the hospital and was very sick, on his last legs, really, and I was just sitting there in the hospital day after day after day… trying to work on this larger graphic novel that was this serious, big-deal thing,” recounts Clowes. “All of a sudden, that just seemed like the stupidest waste of time — and I started drawing these little funny comics with this guy who just literally popped out of my pencil without any thought at all. The next thing I knew, I had drawn 200 of these strips, with all the jokes that I could think of. I thought, ‘Well I’ll never look at these again,’ but I couldn’t get them out of my head. And then I realized that there was a story hidden in all these strips that I had drawn, and it just took on a life of its own.”

The result is the big-hearted blowhard Wilson, an unemployed bachelor who accosts anyone who will listen to him (and frequently those working on their laptops) in Clowes’ current hometown of Oakland, California. Written in a six-to-eight-panel/one-punch-line format, the book is the closest Clowes has ever come to emulating the funny pages. Think of it as a more misanthropic [email protected], if most gags involved calling strangers “shitheads” and mailing out packages of dog excrement to one’s former in-laws.

It’s possible that Wilson is the Dr. Jekyll to Clowes’ Mr. Hyde, a boorish middle-aged man desperate to make a connection in a lonely world. And while Clowes insists that the book is not autobiographical, Wilson also experiences the loss of a parent, the birth of a child and a return to humanity enforced by a sudden change of heart. (To be literal, Clowes underwent open-heart surgery in 2006.) His wife insists that Wilson is mirrored on the infantile demands of their five-year-old son, Charlie, based on the kind of childish importance kids have to make the world fit their point of view. But he might also be the writer’s nemesis, and consequently, his id.

“I’m like a target for the Wilsons of the world,” says Clowes. “My wife said that he’s my nemesis, because every day I’ll try to get out of the house and I’m always complaining about the guy who sat next to me and started blathering on about god knows what. But in a really profound way, I also really admire that kind of guy. I often feel the same need to [do what Wilson does], and yet I’m this reserved Midwesterner who’s not going to sit down at somebody’s table in an internet café. I can’t even imagine doing that. But I kind of wish I could.”

Drawn in several of his signature styles (such as the bobble heads of the early Eightball comics, the cinematic monochromatic silhouettes of Ghost World and the sharply rendered human close-ups of his New York Times’ series Mister Wonderful, which will be expanded into a full-length book next year), Clowes insists Wilson’s changing visual perspective is a roadmap for how you view the character.

“At some points, I wanted to draw back and take you out of the horror you’re witnessing, and at some points I want to put you right back in it. I’m hoping that maybe on a second or a third reading, people can start to find the book funny. Because I was laughing my head off when I was writing it.”

It’s then that Clowes stops to release something he does frequently in conversation — an infectious wholehearted guffaw. Learning how to laugh like that must be a talent he’s honed by spending late hours isolated in a studio, laughing uproariously at his own jokes.

Discouraged by art-school professors to pursue comics (“It was just thought of the lowest class — they just thought I was trying to be wilfully obnoxious or something”), Clowes was largely blazing a new path in the late ’80s and early ’90s when he first started contributing comics to Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets and for Cracked magazine. Today he finds the legitimization of the graphic novel “absolutely mind-boggling” having grown up on Archie comics and Heavy Metal magazine, influences you can see in the early counter-cultural issues of Eightball.

“Emerging comic artists today are lucky; they have a few role models,” says Clowes. “The guys in my generation… all we had was really Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, and you weren’t going to replicate Robert Crumb. And Spiegelman seemed like such an isolated case; it wasn’t like anybody else was going to have the good fortune to have a father in the Holocaust…” he says, pausing for comic effect. “So it’s very hard to navigate; what’s the next step? I was very lucky just to be able to do a little black-and-white comic for Fantagraphics that sold 1,000 copies. And I didn’t think that was going to lead to anything more than that. I thought, ‘Oh I’ll do this until I have a kid and then I’ll have to get a real job.’”

Today he’s a marquee draw for TCAF, with a body of work that has inspired everyone from Adrian Tomine to Jeffrey Brown. And while Ghost World only grossed $8 million worldwide (the film cost $7 million to make), the film’s cult status has solidified it as the best alienated-teen movie since Heathers — plus it launched Scarlett Johansson’s career.

Clowes brushes it all aside. He’s last penned the script for Megalomania, a futuristic teen animated feature to be directed by Michel Gondry, though he prefers the self-sufficient world of comics to the collaborative nature of a film. “The movies, to me, are just sort of a hobby I have,” says Clowes. “I work hard on them and I do my best, but it’s the comics that I’m most invested in.”

Trying to live in the world as an outsider is painful. Think of Enid and Rebecca building fantasy out of lame suburbia in Ghost World, the delusional heroine who stalks her high school classmate in Caricature’s “Green Eyeliner” and the basketball nets and batting equipment standing in for gooey privates in 20th Century Eightball’s “On Sports.” Encountering middle age, both Wilson and Clowes have come to a point of wondering why it’s impossible to connect with other people, even though technology has supposedly brought us closer than ever before.

“I actually can’t tell if we’re in a specific period of time where that is really pronounced, or everybody who is basically my age, or Wilson’s age, starts to feel that way,” he says. “The world today isn’t what I thought it was going to be, and it’s getting farther and farther away from what I hoped.”

In Ghost World’s most telling passage, Enid assures Steve Buscemi’s sad-sack blues aficionado that she “can’t relate to humanity either, but I don’t think it’s completely hopeless.” While he may be uncomfortable reaching out to the fans who he helped to get through high school (including yours truly), Wilson is Clowes’ message in a bottle, an explosive protagonist who demands that the world be better, more connected and more real. And while Wilson is certainly not Daniel, he might be closer to his creator than he thinks.

“Wilson is a real guy to me, I don’t have any control over him,” says Clowes. “I’m not telling him what to do; he exists and I just have to think of a situation and act it out…. I think that’s my way of communicating with the outside world, through the comic. It’s like I didn’t do it, Wilson did.”

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