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Daniel Clowes / Modern Cartoonist

The modern cartoonist makes a triumphant return to the city that raised him.

Interview By John Dugan, June 26, 2013

All images by Daniel Clowes, courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California.

If there’s an artist one doesn’t associate with triumphant returns, it is Daniel Clowes. The comic book artist and graphic novelist’s career has been characterized by wry humor, a darkly underground viewpoint, and dramas that are far from life-affirming in groundbreaking comics such as Eightball, Ghost World, and Mister Wonderful. The Chicago-raised Clowes broke into the mainstream with 2001’s Terry Zwigoff-directed film adaptation of Ghost World. But he’s not known for writing Hollywood endings. This week, however, he returns to Chicago a much bigger deal than he ever thought with a new exhibit, "Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" at the MCA, looking back on his career in more than 150 works dating from 1989. 

Organized by the OMCA in Oakland, "Modernist Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" opens at Chicago’s MCA this Saturday and features two commissioned works resembling windows on a Chicago frozen in the 1970s of Clowes's youth.

Clowes and curator Susan Miller give an artist talk Saturday, June 29 at 1pm; tickets are $10.

We called up the cartoonist, now residing in Oakland, to talk about his early days, keeping the inspiration flame burning, and underground culture pre-Internet.

Nothing Major: This show has been touring for a little while. It started in Oakland, right?
Daniel Clowes: Yeah, I don’t know if it counts as a tour when it’s only in two places. It’s like two points make a line rather than a pattern or something.

I guess if you have to go sleep somewhere else that’s not your house it’s a tour.
I had to get on a plane to attend it, so I guess that’s a tour. 

Your work has been very much about sending up pretension, and now you’re the guy having the retrospective; you’re the one with your name on the marquee. Are you able to have a healthy appreciation for that success or does it make you uncomfortable at all?
I mean, I guess sort of the thesis of my early work was: Why aren’t these comics in the museum instead of this other stuff?—never actually imagining that would happen. Now that it’s happened, you get that weird feeling of like ‘Uh oh, can I make anything happen? Did I sign a pact with the devil and then have him erase my memory or something?’ It just seems so unlikely. I have no real response. I can’t accept it as anything other than just some weird quirk.

 Eightball No. 8. 1992.

Right, it’s like your worldview was shaped at a certain point, and even if the world’s completely changed you still have the same worldview.
Yeah, I just can’t even grasp the reality that something I would have imagined, this ludicrous possibility, could ever take place. 

Photo: Abigail Huller 

You went to Pratt, right?

You were probably around some people that were more ambitious to make it in the art world.
Yeah, everybody. I never thought of ever being in a museum or gallery, none of that. It never appealed to me in the slightest, I never ... the idea of being seen by only a few people in a gallery rather than dozens in print somehow didn’t appeal to me at all.

Was it a kind of a populism in that you wanted your work to be wildly available, or was it more like your image of yourself? They wouldn’t be interested in you, therefore you have to find a different audience that would be?
I mean, that wasn’t even a self-image. It was a world I never thought of as an outlet for what I was doing. I like the idea of ‘Here’s my comic; have one.’ It’s just something that anybody can read. You know, it would be out there in the world. This was certainly before we had the ability to send photographs of our genitals to strangers in other countries. You know, it seemed like having a pen pal or something. I just thought of having a comic that some kid in Omaha, Nebraska could read really felt like you were reaching out to the world

New Yorker cover. 2010.

In the ‘90s, whether one was a fan of indie comics or underground music, you really had to hustle to find it especially if you weren’t in a major city, and you'd form these connections, these bonds with these people because you’d actually have to write letters to get something.
Yeah yeah. I mean, I always think of the ‘90s as the golden age of that because there were certain worlds and places to aggregate that sort of stuff. When I was growing up in the ‘70s, we were all just alone. There would be you and one of your friends trying to find something about Sam Fuller movies or something and it was just so difficult and you’d never be able to see them. You’d just wait until they were on TV or you’d find some film book that listed them or something. You just had no idea. Then years later, you’d meet the other five guys who were like you, who were living in their cities and it just felt like ‘Oh my god, how did we ever figure anything out?’ It’s all stuff you can find in 30 seconds now.

Yeah, or you could watch the complete movie. 
Right, get bored with it.

Eightball 17 (cover), 1996. 

Eightball, if it came out now, people would find out about it on blogs. I’m wondering, does the way the discovery process has changed, does that pose challenges for you as someone who’s in publishing, just in terms of how you think about the final product of what people are going to get?
You know, to me, when I was growing up, the way I learned about everything was I would go to a used bookstore and I’d just look at all the spines and you’d have no idea what any of them were. You’d go to the humor section, which is where they put all the cartooning stuff, and you’d see this one kind of weird spine and something made you take it down and every once in a while, couple times a year, you’d find something that was ‘Oh my God what is this, I know nothing about this, this is something I’ve got to figure out what this is.’ That was always such a profound moment for me and I’ve realized that that’s not gonna happen anymore. That’s what I was always kind of hoping for was that my stuff would just wind up in used bookstores and some 16-year-old in 2018 would find it, and I realized that’s not going to happen. It’s hard to connect with some version of myself out there in the world. I don’t imagine myself actually going to used bookstores in 2013 if I was 16 years old. I can’t really envision the final aspect of the process of the reader picking up the book and reading it. 

Does the idea of presenting your work on the iPad or anything like that have any appeal? I know it sounds terrible but also, you’re also probably a realistic person on some level. This person that’s discovering stuff might be looking at it on an iPad.
I guess I don’t like the idea of it being too easy somehow. I don’t feel like I need everybody to read this stuff, I need people that are actually going to connect with it and really pay attention to it to read this stuff; that’s all I’m really interested in. I don’t like the idea of it being just like ‘Oh I’m going to try this. Oh I’ll read a couple pages and now I’m going to check my email and now I’m going to read this other thing.’ I’d rather, I don’t know, if there’s a way to make it so people who read stuff on an iPad really sit down and read the whole book at once... I don’t know. I’ve never read anything on an iPad. 

I haven’t read more than a page or two.            
Yeah, I'll read like my email or something.

The Death Ray (cover), 2011.  

Right. When I got into Eightball, one of the things, now that I'm a little more socialized is...
Good for you.

...there’s kind of an element of loneliness and alienation being kind of the raw materials in those stories that I related to. Now that you’re in a different part of your life, do you find that you’re writing different things and what are the sort of themes that have replaced those for you?
I’m not sure anything has replaced them. I’m still spending eight hours a day in a room by myself looking at a piece of paper trying to make sense of something. As you get older your anxieties expand to all different areas of your life, but I think the same kind of core emotions are there in some ways. I have a family, so that’s somewhat different than being an isolated guy in his little one-bedroom apartment in Wicker Park, twenty-some odd years ago.

Eightball 18, 1997. 

I was looking at some of the Mister Wonderful stuff and it’s a more grown up version of being very isolated.
Oh yeah, which is far worse too. When you’re young and isolated there’s always that hope, but when you’re middle-aged it’s not going to get much better 

Basically ‘This is what it’s all going to be like?’
Yeah, that Mister Wonderful story. I think young people read that as like ‘Oh what’s the big deal? If that date doesn’t work out he’ll try somebody else,’ and I think people, my age or older, who read that, it’s really almost like a horror comic where it’s like ‘Oh man, if this one doesn’t work out he’ll never be able to summon the energy to ever try that again.' You know what it’s like. 

A lot of what you’ve done is completely invert what DC comics or old Marvel comics were about, which was an all-powerful, gifted superhuman, dealing with things of major consequence to the world like the existence of the world.

Wilson, 2010. 

If you flip that around, it’s like barely acceptable guy on the fringe who’s just trying to get one lucky break in his life, right? That’s the complete inverse of it.
I certainly see that as occasionally a criticism of my work. ‘His work is just about the most downbeat losers and who wants to read about that?’ I often think that my charactersI think of them as just average normal people. And I’ve got to assume that more than half the people who make that accusation are probably far worse off than the character they’re talking about.

Right, right.
It’s like they’d love to be that guy. 

I was thinking more like they’re kind of unexceptional.
They’re self-aware or sort of intentionally not self-aware in some way, or they have something that makes them controlling in some way.

Do you think that’s still what interests you as far as subject matter, that’s not going to ever change? 
No, no, it changes all the time. I mean, I’m interested in finding characters that sort of keep me attached to them for a long time. There’s certain characters, that youthat seem like they’ll yield something and after a couple pages you think ‘ah I’m not really connected to this person.’ I try to kind of start with a character that’s really kind of like a bull in a china shop, like someone who’s really either self-destructive or has some quality that’s compelling, like you want to see what’s this guy going to do. Not necessarily to like the guy starting out, but just to feel like he’s going to be interesting and that, sort of through the process of the story, try to figure out what his, a way to like this guy, a way to sort of connect with his humanity in some way. That’s why often the stories start off really kind of reckless and funny and wind up a little more, I wouldn’t want to say sad, but with a slightly different tone than the way they began.

Your background could be described as Mad Magazine and punk rock, which of those do you think is more important to you?
They’re almost the same thing but I mean, Mad Magazine is in my DNA. That was literally how I grew up. Probably the third image I saw after my parents was Alfred E. Neuman’s face everywhere in my home. I feel like I know those, you know like the same way you would know what it’s like to walk around your old neighborhood where you grew up or something. They’re just all in the pathways of my brain. And punk rock, the way I sort of experienced it, which was not as a sort of political thing the way it was in England. To me it just seemed like this ridiculous sort of expression of ‘We hate all this idiot crap we’re stuck with here in late '70s culture.’ A certain number of us just did not respond to all that, what was popular at the time, and it seems like this great rejection of it. It really sort of started and ended with The Ramones for me. I was always just trying to capture that feeling I had when I first saw them. All the other bands I was interested in, they never would approximate that in some way. Nobody ever captured that same feeling for me. In the long run, that was sort of all I took away from it.

The Christian Astronauts, 2009.

That’s as pure as you can get then. Start with the best and finish it out. When I was reading Eightball I remember trying to picture what life was like where the author was living that he would create these characters.

Were you really influenced by where you were living at the time? Were the characters in Eightball drawn from people you would see on the sidewalk?
I’ve always tried to drawI don’t like to say draw from life or I don’t want to use sketches and photographs, although I used to back in those days sometimes. I want the world to look the way it looks when I’m just recalling something or thinking about something. I want it to have that slightly filtered quality where it’s as much of my own vision as possible because that’s what I like to see in other artists. So I’d spend all day walking around Chicago over in Hyde Park growing up or Wicker Park where I lived when I was in my 20s. That was absolutely the way I saw the world. When I look at those old comics, it’s just pure Chicago; it just hits me. They almost smell like Chicago.

Right, right.
It’s clearly what it’s all about. 

Photo: Terry Lorant

I've read about you being hyper-tense and almost hyper-anxious about the drawing you’re working on, and how that translates into the feeling that would come from the image at the end of the day. That would be hard to do all the time over the long run. Do you have to summon that feeling of anxietyor does it just kind of depend on the project?
It’s sort of the part of the process the anxiety gets placed on. It smooths down a line. It started out where just figuring out how to tell the story in panels produced the anxiety. How in the world do you do that? And then once I got comfortable with that it was how do I get these characters to look perfect and these lines to look perfect, and I was really struggling to achieve something that was in my head that was beyond my capabilities. And so there’s this tension between what I wanted it to be and what I was able to achieve, and then at a certain point I was able to hit that more times than not and then the tension becomes on all of these, like you’re trying to make it not look sort of comfortable. You want the images to always be exciting so you feel some kind of electricity when you’re looking on the pages, and that became sort of the focus. So there’s always some level of anxiety; it just sort of shits places. The thing I’ll say that makes me less anxious now is when I screw something up I know I can fix it. I don’t freak out about it because I’d be like 90 percent done with a page and I’d screw something up and I just couldn’t look at it and I would throw it away and start it all over. That’s a terrible use of your creative energy because you just dissipate all of your energy and you can’t get it back.