by Spring Warren
An Interview with Daniel Clowes
Oakland artist and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago. He launched his career with the comic series Lloyd Llewellyn, about the adventures of a private detective, then went on to create the comic series Eightball, which included such seminal works as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and Death Ray. Ghost World, the 2001 movie based on Clowes’ screenplay, was nominated for an Academy Award. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek, and in 2011 he was awarded a PEN Literary Award for Graphic Literature. His most recent book is Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly), the story of a lonely, middle-aged malcontent. In April the Oakland Museum of California opened the exhibition Daniel Clowes: A First Survey, on view through 12 August of this year.
Spring Warren: You were born in Chicago, but you’ve been in California now for going on twenty years. What brought you here?
Daniel Clowes: I came to Berkeley for a reading on a particularly nice day in February. It was 80 degrees and I wound up meeting my future wife at a signing.
Warren: Wow. Love and weather.
Clowes: Yeah. We had a long-distance relationship and then she said why don’t you come out to Berkeley and I couldn’t think of any reason not to, you know? The first time I went back to Chicago, there was freezing rain and I had to walk to a bookstore to do a signing where I knew nobody would be because it was the worst weather in the world. I just wondered how people ever settled there.
Warren: Now you’re living in paradise.
Clowes: That’s right.
Warren: You once said that when you close your eyes, you see Chicago. Not California?
Clowes: I saw Chicago for a very long time. I’m not usually dealing directly from experience in my work, but dealing with my own inner life. My stories tend to be based in emotions that have been with me for a long time. But now I feel like California is seeping in or some version of California is multiplying with images of Chicago, so there are palm trees mixed in with the urban blight and my vision of the landscape is now much more Oakland than Chicago.
It took a very long time to tap into the California thing, a self-satisfaction that we have in California—and I’m as guilty of it as anyone—that comes from living in a place like this where the weather is nice and there’s a certain beauty to the landscape that you don’t have anywhere else. I found that sort of off-putting at first and then came to see California, like the East Coast, as one of the two places that you go in America to be as far away from where you come from as possible.
Warren: Which might contribute to a certain colorful eccentricity of characters that show up in your work?
Clowes: I feel like that’s certainly true in this area. I spent many years living right in Berkeley and they’re almost intolerant of non-eccentrics. . . . Like you wouldn’t be welcome if you wanted to sell insurance. But even though I live in a real pocket here where the values are really liberal and you know, everything is very sort of progressive and artsy, all you have to do is drive through the Caldecott Tunnel into the suburbs and then immediately you’ll start seeing Romney stickers and stuff like that.
Warren: Do you sketch in Oakland public spaces—for instance, are the coffee houses in Wilson actual places?
Clowes: All of the locations in Wilson and Mr. Wonderful are based on actual places in and around Oakland, but rather than draw them accurately, taking photos, or doing location sketches, I’m more interested in drawing my memories or impressions of those places, expressing how it feels for me to be in those spaces rather than to transcribe their exact particulars.
Warren: Is there anything about Wilson, the character, that is particular to California? That is, if Wilson the book was set in New York, would he still be the same guy or was there something about Oakland or California that spawned him?
Clowes: He strikes me as uniquely Californian in some way. In New York, for instance, his personality would be easily explained by the anxiety of living in such a dense high-pressure environment, but in the context of Oakland, his peculiarities seem much more self-generated.
Warren: Does the current, rather dismal state of the State of California show up in your narrative line? Like the Bush era being reflected in Death Ray?
Clowes: I am certainly very interested in what’s going in California but I’m not consciously trying to deal with that in my work, though I think anything you immerse yourself in will come out in your fiction; I am sure you know.
Warren: It would seem so with the art world here—your work seems in keeping with the experimentation in narrative form that California is known for.
Clowes: Maybe in a general, zeitgeisty kind of sense, because I really have no connection at all to that world here. I feel kind of purposely out of touch with that stuff.
Warren: Certainly the zeitgeist of comics changed in the nineties—they became more about social commentary than ever before, and graphic novels shifted to being okay for grownups to read. What was going on in the Bay Area then, and were there particular artists in California you were influenced by?
Clowes: Certainly Robert Crumb and some of the other Underground Cartoonists of the sixties were based in the Bay Area, and they had a great impact on what we were and are doing. Among California artists, my favorites are the architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and above all, Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo, The Birds, and Shadow of a Doubt are three of the greatest Northern California films, along with Coppola’s The Conversation.
Warren: I heard from one of the curators that there was great excitement over your upcoming show at the Oakland Museum of California. That artists like Alicia McCarthy and Barry McGee and Ruby Neri are all great admirers of your work. Do you interact with these artists?
© Daniel Clowes
Clowes: I don’t know them personally. I actually know who those three artists are, but that’s because they’re like the biggest of the big.
Warren: Maybe at this moment they’re having a conversation along the lines of “I’ve never met Daniel Clowes but I know who he is, ’cause he’s one of the greats.”
Clowes: No, I doubt it. I doubt it extremely.
Warren: You lived in Berkeley for a while. Were you relieved to move to Oakland because of a certain second-tierism you’ve mentioned?
Clowes: Yeah. Oakland feels like the weak sister to San Francisco, and you know, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is really the neglected half of the city compared to the north side. When I lived in New York, I lived in Brooklyn, which at that time, was not cool. And it was certainly the lesser part of the city when compared to Manhattan, so I’ve always found myself in those sorts of neighborhoods and I often wonder if I actually feel more comfortable there and that’s why I wind up there, or if it’s just sheer coincidence.
© Daniel Clowes
Warren: You also worked for Cracked magazine.
Clowes: Yeah. The sad little brother of Mad.
Warren: I saw a photograph of you, perhaps around that time, posing with some fans in a comic shop, and you wrote about how uncomfortable it was, that you didn’t really know these people and they had your comics in a box in the adult section.
Clowes: Always. Even as a teenager I was interested in comics and wound up being sort of pen pals with some other guys who did comics in that area. You know, you see somebody’s address who’d written a letter to a comic and you’d write them a letter. That’s how you’d meet people back before the Internet days. And you wind up going over to their house for some party or something. We’d all like comics, but I had nothing else at all in common, you know. Even the stuff they liked about comics was the stuff that I actively disliked about it, and it made me even more alienated. You can talk to somebody for a few minutes, however, and the way they respond to the work, you can surmise a lot about them. You see the parts of the work that they respond to and you do feel connected to them in a way that’s much more profound that you’d imagine.
Warren: In all the interviews and public appearances that I’ve read and seen, you’re just fantastically popular, scads of people in the audience, very erudite, self-possessed. I imagine you being put up in the poshest digs with chocolates on the pillow. That hasn’t always been the case?
Clowes: Back before there were graphic novels, when they were just comic books, I would be invited to a comic store in another city and I’d drive fifteen hours to get there and wind up staying on the guy’s floor. Then you’d go to the signing, and you’d realize it’s just the comic shop owner and his five friends. When you’d go out to dinner afterward, you’re like held hostage until three in the morning. I remember one time staying at somebody’s house, sleeping on their couch, and to get to the bathroom, they said you have to go through this door and our roommate’s asleep in there. So I enter this room where this guy was asleep and he woke up yelling, “Who the hell are you?!”
Warren: That’s all changed?
Clowes: Even recently I agreed to do a little slide show for one of my books, and at every single venue they didn’t have the right adapter for my computer and the audience had to just look at my back while we’re trying to figure out the computer. I figured they hated me by the time I could do anything. It rarely goes well.
Warren: You said at readings that people are sometimes disappointed that you are not Enid from Ghost World?
Clowes: Yeah. I mean, I’ve certainly had that feeling of meeting an artist of some kind and you feel like you’re going to connect with some character that you really respond to and you realize it’s just a guy who made that up and spent hours and hours revising it to get it to feel the way it did and it didn’t just spring straight from their id onto the page. It’s something that takes a lot of effort and solitude to come up with.
Warren: Speaking of solitude—when you were thirteen, you idolized Wally Wood [one of Mad magazine’s founding artists] and said at that age you wanted to be a cartoonist even more than you wanted to draw cartoons. That you loved the idea of obsessively drawing all night when no one else was awake, with a cigarette dangling from your lip and a jar of pencils at hand.
Warren: Do you now like being a cartoonist more than you like to draw?
Clowes: Back when I was sort of looking to be like Wally Wood, the actual act of sitting down and drawing was often a struggle. I was really trying to learn how to do this stuff and had a vision of how I wanted it to look, a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then to achieve that was much more difficult than I ever imagined it, so I was just constantly frustrated and I was always throwing my pencils on the ground and storming off. I never would finish the day feeling like I did a great job. I would always think Goddammit, I’ve gotta fix this tomorrow. It really was very unsatisfying. It’s only been in the last ten or fifteen years that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do or what I set out to do, or at least I don’t put the pressure on myself to do something that I know is impossible. I kind of know what I’m capable of and so it’s much more fun. Your brain gets acclimated to doing this thing and now I feel utterly at ease when I sit down to draw. It’s tremendously challenging still and there’s still frustrations, but it’s something I can’t not do at this point.
Warren: You’ve talked about how a lot of your projects took off when you thought that your career was over. For instance, Eightball happened because you couldn’t bear to do any more Lloyd Llewellyn, and Wilson came at a time when you were struggling with this weighty tome of a book and really didn’t want to keep waking up in the morning to work on it.
© Daniel Clowes
Warren: So now that you are a celebrity, maybe even a commodity in some way, does this create expectations that could interfere with your work—like you’re being asked to create the millionth Deborah Butterfield horse?
Clowes: (laughs) You know, I certainly don’t, there’s nothing of that in my daily life. Nobody ever calls me and nobody ever recognizes me on the street, so that there’s no sense of that at all. I mean, really, I feel more anonymous than I ever did. Back when people actually wrote letters and stuff, I used to get thirty–forty letters a week from people and anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night. Now there’s no response at all. So while I’m very self-conscious in many ways, I’m not at all in terms of the work I do. I don’t really think about how anybody’s going to receive it until it’s basically done and it’s too late, and then I start to agonize over it. When I’m working, it’s a very personal thing, not for anybody else, and I’m only thinking about myself. I mean, the one exception to that would have been Mr. Wonderful, that I was doing for the New York Times Magazine. I was actually thinking about an audience, but that very quickly changed.
Warren: You’ve been very free in terms of shifting styles. Wilson, in particular, is noteworthy, as within the comic itself the work goes from more naturalistic illustrations to highly stylized ones in the turn of a page. It seems a sort of lens in which one views the exact same things happening to the same characters in a totally different way. And even when you sort of go more, maybe, classically cartoony, it reads even more tragically, you know, in a really intriguing way.
Warren: How did you arrive at this collection of styles?
Clowes: When I first started, I did all these little strips while I was with my dad in the hospital, stick figures. The work was all just about the writing and the rhythm of the comic strips that had nothing to do with the drawing. When I got home and it finally dawned on me that I was gonna have to do this as a book, I set out to come up with a style that would work for all of these strips. And I found that a certain style would work well for some of them and not for others, and vice versa. I was getting very frustrated by that and I just couldn’t figure out if I was just gonna do some sort of middle-ground style that worked fairly well for everything. . . . Finally, I started looking at all my drawings and trying to figure out what style I was gonna pick, and I realized that all of them together were what I needed to do and that my brain had kind of solved the problem already and I just hadn’t noticed it.
You know, the result was really what the book was about and what I was trying to get across. [It] was something you can really only do in comics, where you can shift a style like that and all of a sudden it shifts the perceptions of the reader, but not to the degree that they get lost. They still follow the story, and after a few of these shifts, they’re used to that and it’s not jarring at all. The shifts become a way that colors the events that are going on. I found you could play with emotion to such subtle degrees by shifting the style; it was endlessly enthralling to work on that every day.
Warren: Wilson, the character, didn’t occur to you first as an image, is that right?
Clowes: With Wilson, the character just emerged without me even knowing what he looked like. He just existed as this stick figure that had a fully formed personality from the very first couple of little thumb-nail drawings I did of him, and it was just a matter of note-taking, just like writing down everything he said. He became one of those very rare characters that can lead you rather than you leading them, and so I just let him go. I would give him a situation and think, what would he do with this? And then, next thing I knew, I’d have a six-panel strip. That was a very different experience from most projects, which are much more of a struggle to get it all to work and for the character to come alive.
Warren: Is starting out with stick figures a pretty typical way for you to work?
Clowes: No. No. I work differently every time.
© Daniel Clowes
Warren: When people have asked is Wilson really you, you said something along the lines of being more the person that would be victimized by Wilson.
Clowes: Yeah. I don’t think it was conscious, certainly, but if you look at the guys that Wilson victimizes throughout the course of the story, they’re all basically versions of me.
Warren: All tall, lanky guys.
Warren:Wilson follows a man through his middle years. Ghost World is about teenagers. I love the way that your work bounces back and forth between these two age categories and it seems there are a lot of similarities between them—facing big changes in your life that might be exciting and might be terrifying—and you’ve got all these big questions about why am I here and what should I be doing, and also some huge feelings of hating the rules of the world, just rejecting them. Is this just my imagination that you’re working back and forth between these two places?
Clowes: I think they’re both really interesting times. When you’re a late teenager it’s kind of your one opportunity to define yourself and so the pressure is on. And I think that’s a really interesting dilemma to have to face. Then in middle age, I feel like it’s very different than what I imagined it was gonna be. You think of yourself as not being so plagued with self-doubt when you hit a certain age.
Warren: That’s for sure.
Clowes: And if anything, if anything, it’s certainly, possibly, worse.
Warren: I have noticed that at two in the morning.
Warren: Wondering if that story line is going to work or not . . . Do you agonize over narrative? I mean, when people think of comics, they think about the visuals carrying the story.
Clowes: In comics, really, the writing is the drawing in a lot of ways.
Warren: But it’s not like the words don’t matter, that if you can draw a picture you can necessarily make a strip.
Clowes: Yet, when I’m writing I would never think in terms of blocks of text or, you know, in terms of dialogue or anything like that. I think in terms of how the images are going to go together and tell the story. And I would hope that in any of my books, if you couldn’t read English, you could still figure out what’s going on in the story. The visual component would let you know the basics of what’s happening. And that’s what’s really interesting to me.
Warren: You do all of your work from top to bottom, your own inking and coloring and lettering?
Clowes: Yeah, absolutely.
Warren: That’s unusual. Do you ever think, gosh, I just hate lettering. I’m sending it out to have it done.
Clowes: I love the lettering, but I hate, I hate doing the computer coloring. That’s the one thing that I think at some point, I could at least hire somebody else to do all the computer files and I could pick the colors, but I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. I have, like, separation anxiety. It’s hard to let go.
© Daniel Clowes
Warren: There’s something about seeing the forms and colors in place to know if it’s really right.
Clowes: Yeah. That’s true and you know, there’s something about getting a book back from a printer and knowing I did every mark on the page. There’s nothing at all that’s not mine except for the UPC code on the back—which if I could do it by hand, I would.
Warren: It must be interesting, then, to relinquish your work to a museum to present it to the public. How did the exhibit for the Oakland Museum come about and what’s it like to go from comic book to museum wall?
Clowes: A curator named Susan Miller first approached me around five years ago with the idea of putting together a museum show, and through her tireless efforts and some luck it wound up going to my favorite local museum. I’m very curious how it will feel to see people experiencing the work in such a different way. My hope, of course, is that they will see the original pages as artifacts of the process of making comics and will seek out the books, which are the actual final works.