Dark Arts: Daniel Clowes on Obsession and Regret

From cover of ‘Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories’ by Daniel Clowes

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There’s a Tumblr called “Fuck Yeah, Daniel Clowes” that reads like a shrine to black humour. Made up of panels culled from the award-winning cartoonist’s career, it includes a silhouette of a man on an empty street, saying to himself, “You are alone and you will always be alone, another miserable slob in a world teeming with your wretched ilk. That’s just the way it is.” Another strip has a private investigator calling a town “just another shithole filled with worthless pigs,” and a third shows a Clowes’ best-known character, Enid Coleslaw, reading a magazine and saying, “God, look at all these stupid cunts!” If you like bleak jokes and dissatisfaction, Daniel Clowes is probably your idol.

It was the mid-Eighties when Clowes started putting out his first series Lloyd Llewellyn, a frenzied mash-up of 50s noir and pulp fiction, with stories called things like “The Crazy Hot-Rod Drop-Outs From Beyond Jupiter” and “Murder, Martians and Wild, Wild Women.” Since then, he’s filled shelves with Harvey and Eisner awards – the comics industry’s major prizes – picked up Oscar nomination for the Ghost World screenplay, and has been commissioned to design the New Yorker’s cover half a dozen times. This month a coffee table book full of loving close-ups of his original artwork hits shops around the world, and it’s being celebrated with a retrospective of Clowes’ art at the Oakland Museum of California.

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To the relief of Fuck Yeah, Daniel Clowes subscribers everywhere, all this acclaim hasn’t made the artist’s outlook any sunnier. Over the phone from Oakland, California, he tells Wonderland that he sometimes wishes he hadn’t gotten into the comic-book game at all. “I sort of feel like it’s too late now to switch to mountain climbing or whatever,” he sighs, but “there’s a sense when you’re pledging your life to sitting at a drawing board for eight to ten hours a day of really just letting life slip through your fingers. Months go by when you feel like you’ve done nothing. You’ve just sat at this board and your only accomplishment is on paper.”

Maybe all those long days painstakingly drawing panel borders, lettering and inking are the reason why so many of his characters are so troubled by the passing of time.

“My life is fading away,” says the amateur poet Random Wilder in Ice Haven. “The days speed by in a blur.” In Mr Wonderful, which was serialized by the New York Times a few years ago, the protagonist laments, “I let so many years slip away.” The title character of Wilson, Clowes’ first standalone graphic novel, shouts at a stranger: “You’re going to be lying on your death bed in 30 years thinking: ‘Where did it all go? What did I do with those precious days?’”

In the books, what stops this all from being unbearable is the humour that’s always mixed in with the despair, and the idea that life is so stuffed with fascinating weirdness that you’d be a sucker not to make the most of it. While the older characters worry about wasting their lives, the stories about teens and twenty-somethings (Ghost World, David Boring, The Darlington Sundays) read like a guide to filling oceans of time with fantasies, obsessions and amateur detective work. The narrator of Art School Confidential marvels about how his MFA gives him as unparalleled chance to “scrutinize such an array of losers in an environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations.” The mundane becomes precious.

It’s why it’s impossible to hate Clowes; even if he’s still as neurotic as ever. He describes his new book, The Art of Daniel Clowes, as “a violation of my privacy,” and explains that it is the culmination of many years of the comic-book publisher Alvin Buenaventura “digging through stuff that I hadn’t looked at in decades and scanning it all behind my back.” His reaction on seeing the finished product was: “Why did I ever let anybody do that?”

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There’s really not too much to worry about. His crisp comic-book art looks even better in close-up, as do the satirical New Yorker covers and portraits he’s done of Bill Murray, Barack Obama and Hunter S. Thompson. A series of essays on his work included in the book are uniformly glowing, and include a testimonial by Chris Ware, the graphic novelist behind Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, who is a long-time friend of Clowes and one of the few who can rival his status as the king of highbrow comics.

Ware offers a glimpse of the private Clowes, telling stories about them getting together in Chicago’s Myopic Earwax café in the early 90s to make filthy mini-comics and Xerox then at the CopyMax across the street. He also remembers Clowes drunkenly reciting Sixties superhero-cartoon theme songs (Hercules: “softness in his eyes, iron in his thighs!”); inviting friends over to watch weird old films, like the Bollywood dance number that became the beginning of the Ghost World movie; and mailing around videos and cassettes in the pre-internet days. “Back then, Dan Clowes was the internet,” Ware says.

While all that makes him cringe, the target of most of Clowes’ embarrassment in the book is a revealing interview in which he talks about his chaotic childhood (his parents divorced when he was two, and his stepfather died in a car accident when he was five), the heart surgery he had five years ago, and his love of Nabokov. That and a series of drawings he did when he was a kid, including meticulous copies of Spider-Man and a parody of MAD magazine done at the age of 13, called SAD. A cover line reads “the comic of sad humour,” which is a pretty good description of everything he’s done since.

Being a “deeply introverted person,” Clowes says now, was something that marred his childhood, but it also gave him the focus to start drawing comics. “I was one of those kids who’s in your class who never says a word, who you think is tuned out but is actually paying close attention to everything everybody says and obsessively fixated on everything, overwhelmed and unable to participate,” he says. “I felt like I could pick up these minute details that other people were too busy participating in life to observe.”

Now, at the age of 50, he has critical acclaim, commercial success, a wife he adores and a young son, but there’s a sense he’s still writing about being that troubled outsider. “You never get over your feelings that you had when you were an adolescent,” he says, comparing himself to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. “He was the most successful cartoonist in history, and he was deeply fixated on kids who were mean to him when he was in third grade. You read interviews with him and he’s shocked that we can’t relate to his pain over being snubbed by some girl in, like, 1940.”

When asked what’s the crisis he keeps coming back to, he laughs and says it’s his entire adolescence. There were “crazy things” going on at home – later he explains that his weeks were divided between three houses: his mother’s, father’s and grandmother’s – and the ambition to be a comic-book artist didn’t help. “On one hand I had these delusions of grandeur and on the other hand feelings of total failure. Going into comics at that time was just about the lowest thing you could do. It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to tell the neighbours what I did for a living.”

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It was the same story studying Fine Art at Pratt (“I was really hoping for something more substantial from you,” a professor sighs over a comic-book page in Art School Confidential), and a couple of depressing years were spent failing to make it as an illustrator before Lloyd Llewellyn was eventually picked up by Fantagraphics. After that came Eightball, the series that ran for fifteen years and saw the evolution of Clowes’ style from off-colour gags to eloquent studies in urban malaise. Many of its stories, including Ice Haven and David Boring, were later published as books, and two – Ghost World and Art School Confidential – were made into films. Its follow-ups, Mr Wonderful and the standalone graphic novel Wilson, have seen Clowes make new stylistic leaps, and the latter is currently being adapted for the big screen, with The Descendants’ director Alexander Payne “very likely” to direct.

Clowes will admit that things are better for cartoonists than they were when he started out, when “the most beautiful work would be banished to a cardboard box in the back of a comics store,” although he won’t take credit for it. It’s widely accepted now that comics are capable of artistic and literary greatness and Clowes is one of its brightest stars, but he won’t call himself an insider. “It’s not like the neighbours that I now tell that I am a cartoonist will actually go out and buy my books,” he says. “I still don’t know a single normal person who reads comics.” His fans wouldn’t want it any other way.

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