Willamette Weekly interviews DANIEL CLOWES

The man behind Ghost World talks movies, aging and why his dad wasn’t so bad.

Willamette Weekly    |    Casey Jarman    |    August 31, 2010

It’s hard to introduce Daniel Clowes without upsetting the delicate natural order of the comic-book world. To give him his full due, you have to use sweeping, clichéd phrases: Clowes is “the voice of his generation” or, at the very least, “among the greatest living graphic novelists.” All of this is true, but in an artistic field that studiously avoids the caste system, it’s best just to call Clowes a really great cartoonist.

Whether he’s capturing surrealist freak shows (Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron), youthful isolation (David Boring) or middle-aged romance (Mister Wonderful), Clowes’ work consistently transcends its medium and lingers in the minds of its readers. The stylized detail in the 49-year-old San Franciscan’s effortless-looking lines is topped only by his mastery of dialogue both internal and external—skills he has translated into screenplays for two movies based on his books (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) as well as a new animated collaboration with French director Michel Gondry and Gondry’s son, Paul.

Clowes’ latest book, Wilson, follows its titular grumpy, middle-aged protagonist who, in the wake of his father’s death, makes a last-ditch effort to connect with the world and start a family. It is among Clowes’ most lyrical and reflective works, and it’s also funny as hell. WW spoke to the author via telephone before his Sunday visit to Powell’s.

WW: What’s the worst thing about your job?

Daniel Clowes: I have to live by my wits at all times. I have no health insurance, retirement fund, any of that stuff. I have no idea what’s going to pay the bills next year. I really do wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “What the fuck am I going to do?” And you have to do it by yourself, you can’t be hanging out with people while you do it. You gotta recognize that and find ways to get out of the house and deal with other people. That was like the main reason I wanted to work in movies; it would give me an excuse to actually talk to other human beings.

Is that something that gets tougher as you get older, too?

When you’re 25 years old you have friends you can call at 11 at night and say, “Hey, let’s get a beer.” I’ve got a 6-year-old in day care. I can’t really take off from the wife and leave at a moment’s notice.

Speaking of that, there’s a lot of bad fathers and distant fathers in your work.

Which is kind of unfair, because my dad was actually a really good dad.

Where does that come from then?

Everybody wants to be closer to their dad. My dad was the least emotional human being I’ve ever met, but now that I have a child I sort of realize that that was just his make-up as a human being. He did the best he could.

There’s a scene in Wilson where he tries, unsuccessfully, to get some nugget of wisdom from his dad on his deathbed.

That was certainly based on when my dad was in the hospital, on his last legs. I sort of thought my whole life that when it got down to the final clock ticking down that he would say all the stuff I kinda hoped for him to say at some point…. That’s not what was on his mind at all. He’s thinking about much, much more cosmic things, sort of really contemplating the void there. It was like in the comic, pretty much.

But I assume you’re not like Wilson in too many other ways?

No. In some ways I think he’s like my avatar, he’s like the uncensored version, the unfiltered version of my worst moments.

Do you talk to yourself the way Wilson does?

I do talk to my dog occasionally. “Isn’t it a great day today?”

Is that what you ask her? Questions that a dog might understand?

Yeah. “What am I gonna do, Ella? What am I gonna do?” “Help me Ella.” I want my dog to tell me, “Here’s what you have to do…”

Do you ever get bored with making comics, or is it more fun now than when you were younger?

I have to say, it gets much, much more fun. When I was younger, it was such a struggle to get what I was trying to achieve, I would work and work and work to just get one page right, but then you’ve got to do the next page. I had to do that with Velvet Glove, I had to keep that style going for 150 pages, and that got really tiresome. And I was constantly just going, “That looks horrible!” and feeling terrible about it. In the last 10 years, I like the way the drawing looks, and it feels sort of effortless.

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