The Making of Daniel Clowes
and a golden age for comics
Daniel Clowes has been working on his latest book, Patience, for five years. At 180 pages, it’s his longest work to date, more than twice as long as Wilson, his graphic novel about an abrasive loner in Oakland who claims to be a people person but actually can’t stand most of them (nor they him), and Ghost World, the artist’s most popular work, about the disintegrating relationship between two teen girls in an unnamed American suburb. From the time Clowes began the book in 2010 until its completion last October, he didn’t show a single page of it to anyone, not to Erika, his wife of 20 years, nor to his publishers at Fantagraphics, who will release the book this March, nor to his closest friends.
Clowes is in an upstairs room of his Piedmont home, a lovely two-story 1912 Craftsman set along an equally lovely tree-lined street of this East Bay suburb, talking about how the book came to be. Six feet tall and slim, Clowes has a salt-and-pepper beard and sharp blue eyes. Despite possessing the most sardonic of wits on paper, he laughs easily and often in person, at his jokes and others’. This afternoon, he’s taking care of his beloved beagle, Ella, who has dementia and barks every 20 minutes or so because she forgets that Clowes is at home. Along one wall of the room, which doubles as artist studio and comics archive, collections of Peanuts and Nancy and Gasoline Alley share shelf space with Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library and the complete works of R. Crumb. An old-timey paperback carousel is stocked with Mad magazine reprints; in a nearby cabinet there’s a tin-toy knockoff of Fred Flintstone, his 5 o’clock shadow an eerie blue.
If things had gone differently, says Clowes, Patience might have been published, in a greatly abbreviated form, more than two decades ago. He had an opening for the story in issue No. 16 of his long-running anthology, Eightball, and the germ of an idea. “I had this vision of a bull-in-a-china-shop kind of guy from the future stomping through the present,” he says. But Clowes had only six pages to spare, sandwiched between the letters page (“Tell your friends they’re fucked-up and stupid,” one read; another asked Clowes if he “got an erection” while coloring nude figures) and the sixth installment of Ghost World. Figuring it would take at least 20 pages to tell the story, Clowes abandoned the idea. If you look at the original cover he created for that issue back in 1995, you’ll see the unwritten story’s evocative title, “Martian Holiday,” between headlines for “Immortal, Invisible” and “Squirrel Girl and Candy-Pants.”
Patience begins, as do so many love stories, with a store-bought home pregnancy test, then launches into a fantastical tale of young love and violent beatings. The narrative moves from 2012 to the near future to the near past and back again, alongside its laser-toting, time-traveling protagonist. There are rich jerks and dope fiends and mullet-wearing weirdos; there are also moments of extreme tenderness. In one scene, the protagonist is just about to shoot a child in a grocery store, and you kind of hope he does. The book’s blad describes the story as “indescribable.”
Despite poking fun for years, perhaps bitterly, at the low station of his chosen profession — he once compared being the world’s most famous cartoonist to being the world’s most famous badminton player — Clowes has become one of his field’s most respected and influential artists. He has won many of the top awards — Eisners, Harveys, as well as a PEN Award and an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay for the 2001 film Ghost World, which starred Thora Birch and then-newcomer Scarlett Johansson. Even so, Clowes claims he’s still honing his cartooning skills. “I feel like I’m about 20 years away from getting where I want to be,” he says.
In fact, this is a good time to be Dan Clowes. Between 1989 and 2004, Clowes published Eightball, which reimagined the multiartist underground comics anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s as a one-man show. Last year, his Complete Eightball, a slipcased set of two hardcover volumes reprising those years of work, was published to critical acclaim. This year, a film adaptation of Wilson starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern hits theaters, with a screenplay written by Clowes. And then there’s Patience.
At the heart of Patience are questions posed within every time-travel story: If I could go back in time and change the past, would I? What would I try to fix? And how badly would I muck things up? Clowes has had a lot of opportunities to think about those questions of late. For a 2012 retrospective of his work at the Oakland Museum of California, he revisited a lifetime of rough sketches and comics. And the publication of The Complete Eightball prompted him to look at work he did more than two decades ago, back when “we were assholes,” as one artist friend recalls. “Rereading them, it feels like every little thing that’s happened to me in my life, every little thought that’s ever popped into my head, has made it into my comics,” Clowes says, laughing. Those comics have dramatically shaped the industry over the years. It’s no wonder, then, that the story of Clowes’s life is also, in many ways, the story of the graphic-novel genre, and of its crossover into the mainstream.
Clowes was born in Chicago in 1961, the younger of two sons. His parents divorced when he was 2, and his mother married a business partner of his dad’s. “It was this very ugly situation,” Clowes recalls. When Clowes was 5, his stepfather was killed in an auto-racing accident, and the boy ended up being shuttled between the homes of his mother, father, and grandmother. “None of them ever talked to each other, so I had these three very separate existences,” he says. “At 7, I could have gone away for a week by myself and nobody would have noticed.”
When his older brother moved out, he left behind a stash of old comic books. Clowes became an avid reader, and while still in grade school began creating his own superhero comics starring such heroes as The Recluse, X-12, and The Grenade. In 1979, he moved to Brooklyn to attend the Pratt Institute, with a dream of becoming a cartoonist. The idea didn’t seem nuts at the time. During his stay at Pratt, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly created Raw, a high-minded anthology that championed comics as a legitimate art form (its second issue featured the debut of Spiegelman’s Maus, the Holocaust-based comic series that would become the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize). The following year, Robert Crumb (Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural) began publishing Weirdo, a lowbrow collection in the vein of earlier San Francisco–based underground works like Zap Comix.
When he arrived at Pratt, however, Clowes discovered professors who were more interested in abstract expressionism and early color-field painters — the stuff they were into when they themselves went to school — than in comics or cartooning. “It was my own fault for going to a normal art school,” Clowes says. Instructors tried to steer him toward more lucrative pursuits — graphic design, say — and away from comics, which were considered the domain of losers and hacks when they were considered at all. Clowes later lampooned his experiences at Pratt in “Art School Confidential,” a four-page comic about a place where “rich guys who draw worse than your seven-year-old sister” take classes from “has-been famous-artist professors who couldn’t teach a dog to bark.” One of the few upsides for Clowes was that school was basically free, thanks to a generous scholarship and the Social Security benefits from the death of his stepfather. “Had I gone to school now and paid $60,000 a year or whatever, I can’t even imagine how infuriated I’d be,” he says.
After graduation, Clowes was faced with two career paths. He could draw his own comics for an indie publisher (artistic freedom, but peanuts for pay) or he could draw established superhero titles for a mainstream house like Marvel or DC (considerably less artistic freedom, but more, and more consistent, peanuts). Clowes pitched an idea about a chain-smoking private dick to Fantagraphics, a Seattle-based publisher of indie comics. To his surprise, they bit. In 1986, the first issue of Lloyd Llewellyn hit the newsstands. “I never wanted to do Lloyd Llewellyn,” he says. “But at the time, they were just very convinced from a marketing standpoint, in the truly sad and minor-league terms that that would even apply to an alternative comic in 1985, that you needed a character to catch on.” Before long, Clowes began to strain against the restrictions of the format. “You can sort of tell about halfway through that I’m really trying to not do stories about him,” he says.
After the demise of Lloyd Llewellyn, Clowes created Eightball, an anything-goes showcase for all the story ideas that were bouncing around his brain. Clowes was living in an apartment in Chicago at the time, about a block and a half away from a young art student named Chris Ware, who would go on to write Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Building Stories. The two soon became friends, and Ware remembers Clowes’s intense dedication. “When I was in graduate school at the Art Institute,” Ware says, “I’d leave long after midnight after working all day and walk home tired and dispirited, only to look up and see the light on in Dan’s studio.”
When Eightball launched in 1989, there was nothing like it. It was a bit like Mad, if Mad were done by one guy instead of dozens. Some pieces, such as the noirish “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” had the creepy and unsettling feel of Charles Burns (Black Hole), but Burns never interspersed his graphic novels with short, comedic bits like “Why I Hate Christians.” Many stories featured characters brimming with rage, like “I Hate You Deeply,” which skewered actors, bodybuilders, the well dressed, members of the military, dum-dums, British musicians, idealists, and crybabies, among others.
Clowes began taking his books to Comic-Con International in San Diego. Even among comic nerds, the guys doing alternative books were the outcasts. Fanboys would line up for hours to see the artists who drew Spider-Man and X-Men, but not to see Clowes. “He didn’t have lines, so I’d just sit there and talk to him,” says Alvin Buenaventura, a fan and future editor who was in the fifth grade the first time he met Clowes. “I would bug him, and he would do a little doodle in my fan sketchbook.”
In the third issue of Eightball, Clowes published “The Return of Young Dan Pussey,” a scathing takedown of the comics industry. In the strip’s satirical alternate reality, Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee is a glad-handing cheapskate with an eye for prostitutes, while Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth is a bully who consults a thesaurus mid-rant to come up with fresh ways to insult his artists. Art Spiegelman is a creepy, chain-smoking taskmaster who forces his stable of unpaid artists to create work for his comics magazine in a miserable hovel with burlap sacks for beds. “I just felt it was nasty, snotty, gratuitous,” recalls Spiegelman. Françoise Mouly, his Raw co-creator, says, “I became aware of [Clowes] as a wiseass a long time ago.” Clowes has a different explanation. “Jealousy isn’t the right word, but I just had a longing to be a part of that world and had that feeling that I wasn’t,” he says. “It was sort of an expression of rage and self-pity and trying to make myself feel better about that.”
Clowes quickly gained a reputation as the industry’s angry young man. Friends still talk about “the chip” — that weight on his shoulder from having worked so hard at a medium long associated with kids and misfits. “Oh, you mean the chip?” they’ll ask when questioned about how much he’s changed since those early days. Read enough of his works and you’ll see character after character with some version of the chip, from Enid Coleslaw to Wilson to the time traveler in Patience. “We often talked about Charles Schulz,” Clowes’s friend and fellow artist Richard Sala says. “When he was alive, he was the most famous and successful cartoonist ever, but he was still depressed. He still remembered every slight and every mean thing that anybody had ever said to him. And I think Dan related.”
Clowes’s star began to rise within the indie comics world, and in 1992, he went to Berkeley to sign copies of Eightball at the store Comic Relief. Erika Katz, a literature student at the University of California, Berkeley, hadn’t read his work before but went there to have the latest issue signed for a friend. On the cover was a sweating, hideous man looking square at the reader and saying, “Hello! I have chosen you at random to obsessively pester and annoy for the rest of your life starting right now!” Erika was smitten. She slipped Clowes her number, and he called her the next day.
The following year, Clowes moved to Berkeley, where he and Erika found a place together on College Avenue. He discovered he was living just blocks away from both Sala (Peculia, The Chuckling Whatsit) and Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve), a then-19-year-old artist who happened to be a classmate of Erika’s. The trio of artists started getting together for weekly outings, hitting the local doughnut shops. “He was meaner then,” laughs Sala. “I think when you’re young, you’ve got to be critical of a lot of things to define what you don’t want to be.” In 1995, Clowes and Erika, at that point a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, wed.
Clowes was then midway through the four-year run of his breakthrough series Ghost World, a moving coming-of-age story about two adolescent girls. The mid-’90s was a time of expansive growth in the comics industry, for both mainstream and alternative titles. A speculator boom in superhero comics sparked huge sales and sent prices for first issues soaring; comic stores began popping up across the country, from Portland to Miami. In time, the collecting bubble burst, but by then graphic novels by artists like Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Joe Sacco (Footnotes in Gaza), and Charles Burns had gained large audiences and were getting critical attention in places like The New Yorker. In recent years, besides publishing Wilson, Clowes has put out four other books, including Mister Wonderful, a midlife love story originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine, and The Death-Ray, which gooses the superhero comic (in Clowes’s version, the ectomorphic hero spends his time vaporizing bullies, dope dealers, and squirrels).
Follow the arc of Clowes’s career and you’ll see how he and his peers have riffed on one another’s themes over the years, like the best of jazzers. Clowes’s angry young men are second cousins to those of Joe Matt (Spent) and Johnny Ryan (Angry Youth Comix); years before Enid and Rebecca appeared in Ghost World, Jaime Hernandez was chronicling the lives of two teen punk girls, Maggie and Hopey, in his masterful, decades-spanning Love and Rockets. You’ll see the same wistful nostalgia in the works of Ware and Seth (Palookaville) and Clowes.
Over the years, Clowes’s physical path has also crisscrossed with many of these artists in unlikely ways. He’s done book tours with Ware and Tomine and Sala. For the Oakland retrospective, the accompanying monograph was edited by Alvin Buenaventura, the kid he met at the San Diego Comic-Con. In 2008, he began creating covers for The New Yorker, assignments he received from art director Françoise Mouly, the former editor of Raw. “One thing that impresses me about Dan,” Tomine says with a chuckle, “is how he’s been able to rebuild bridges.”
Unlike a lot of cartoonists, Clowes is a lot happier than the characters he creates. Most of his hapless protagonists spend much of their miserable lives futilely chasing after the sort of contentment and familial joy that Clowes has found for himself in Piedmont. He and Erika are, by all accounts, the picture of marital bliss. They are both incredibly smart, but in such vastly different ways that there’s an admiration for the other that borders on awe. Their son, Charlie, is a polite, congenial boy with a preternatural interest in computers and engineering. This morning, mom and son are heading out for a round of miniature golf. At 11, Charlie has yet to show any interest in reading his dad’s books. “He just knows,” says Erika. “He really believes us when we say, ‘You wouldn’t really like this,’ or, ‘This really wouldn’t be appropriate for you.’”
The first book they’ll probably introduce him to is Wilson, says Erika, because the film is coming out and he’ll be curious. There’s a perfect father-son symmetry to this because Wilson, the comic, was inspired by Clowes’s relationship with his own dad. “My dad was dying in the hospital, and I kept going to visit him, but he didn’t want to engage or talk,” he says. Figuring it would be disrespectful to jump on his computer or start emailing people, Clowes pulled out his sketchbook and began doodling. “At first I drew pictures of him, and then I was sort of going crazy, so I started making up these little comics about a belligerent character.” Two days later, he’d filled an entire notebook.
Wilson is a multilayered narrative full of pathos and heartbreaking loss, crafted out of a series of 70 single-page gag cartoons. The hero is a disagreeable fellow who tries to engage with total strangers at every turn; the punchlines, such as they are, are the coda for strips about the importance of family (“Hey! Can you get that brat to shut up for two f---ing seconds!?”) and the visual charms of downtown Oakland (“Jesus Christ, that bum is taking a shit right on the goddamn sidewalk!”). Wilson is at his father’s deathbed and desperately waiting for a moment of true connection that never comes (“Come on, fucker!!” he urges his dying dad); as with many of Clowes’s stories, the revelatory moments occur largely offstage.
Critics have labeled Wilson a misanthrope, but Clowes disagrees. “I have lots of very good friends who are deeply misanthropic, and they’ve pretty much given up. They have no interest in any kind of connection. Wilson enters every situation with this kind of optimism about having this optimal experience, but he’s not willing to compromise at all, so he’s endlessly thwarted.”
The film stars Harrelson as Wilson and Dern as Pippi, his much-put-upon ex-wife. The comic book is set in Oakland, with its tree-lined duck parks and graffitied streets, but the film was shot in Minneapolis. “That was the tragedy of the whole thing,” says Clowes. “It’s written for Oakland, and every description is about an actual place in Oakland.” But by the time the movie filmed, much of the Oakland he had captured so vividly in the comic was, thanks to gentrification, long gone. “St. Paul is really kind of what Oakland was in 2008 or so,” Clowes says.
While Wilson evokes the look and pacing of daily newspaper strips, Patience draws from the great American comic book traditions of the past century. The original pages are in a corner of Clowes’s studio, on oversize black-and-white boards neatly stacked upright in a wooden case. Each board is 15 by 22 inches, more than four times the size of your typical comic, the same size that artists like Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman used back in the ’40s and ’50s to create stories for classic horror titles like Tales From the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. For the first time in his career, Clowes did two pages at once, envisioning each spread as a single unit. There are expansive panels in Patience that evoke the majestic, surrealistic “phantom zones” and otherworldly dimensions created by artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby for books like Doctor Strange and Silver Surfer. In one, the hero blasts through the cosmos, his internal organs aglow as his body flies through a rainbow vortex of smoke, orbs, and guts.
Clowes says that he looked back at those Ditko and Kirby classics in the course of creating the book. “It’s incredible how much talking there is,” he says. “Every single character is just blathering in every balloon! Kirby did these beautiful pencils, and then Stan Lee went in and added blocks of text, guys trading quips as they’re punching each other and flying against walls.” Clowes wanted to correct that by making a comic where art and story work together, neither stepping on the other. “I was really determined to make that work, where the writing actually helps the illustrations, rather than makes you go, ‘Why did I just read that long word balloon?’”
Going back and fixing the past is a central theme in Patience, too, but the book explodes the major conceit of your typical time-travel tale: that the tiniest of missteps in the past — Stay on the path! Don’t try to save Abe Lincoln! — could have unimaginably horrible ramifications in the future. In Clowes’s world, the past is made of sterner stuff. The bigger question in Patience, and a lot of Clowes’s other books, isn’t about how much we can change the past, but how much the past shapes and changes us. Clowes acknowledges the huge impact that his own childhood — the divorce, the constant shuttling around — has had on how he views marriage and parenting today. “I always grew up wanting what I have now with my own family,” he says. “A house, a wife, a child, everything very stable.” His time at Pratt and his early years as a comic book artist have had a similar impact on his work; the chip, Clowes says, lingers. “Even after you achieve a certain level of success, you still are that guy that was toiling in obscurity in your un-air-conditioned apartment in Chicago,” says Eric Reynolds, a longtime friend of Clowes’s and a Fantagraphics editor. In a strip Clowes did for The New Yorker in 2001, a Clowes doppelgänger identifies himself as a screenwriter at a cocktail party. “I dare not tell anyone I’m really a cartoonist,” he thinks to himself. With each new project, Clowes is still plagued by doubts. That’s why he doesn’t show anyone his work until it’s done, he says. “Half of the time I’m like, Well, this is really fun,” he says. “But the other half I’m thinking, I could always just not publish this. I make sure I just do the book before I even try to get any money for it. So I always feel like, worst-case scenario, I could publish ten copies and sell it as a limited edition to my friends.”
Drive east along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, past The Viper Room and the Chateau Marmont and the Laugh Factory, and you’ll come upon a neon sign of a one-eyed, three-legged space alien lighting up the night sky. You’ve arrived at Meltdown, the self-proclaimed largest comic book store on the West Coast and a shrine to all things Clowes. The artist designed the store’s mascot, Mel, back in 1996, and you’ll see the little guy everywhere: on stickers and pins, on posters and T-shirts. A display case near the entrance is devoted solely to Mel memorabilia; an even larger case along the western wall of the store is jammed with not-for-sale collectibles from Clowes’s comics and films, including old Eightballs; ads for the Ghost World movie; toy figurines of Enid Coleslaw (Ghost World), Andy (The Death-Ray), and Pogeybait (Eightball’s “Zubrick and Pogeybait”); bumper stickers; and Zippo lighters.
This night, the place is packed with customers — not a lot of kids, just the sorts of people you’d see hanging out on Sunset Boulevard on a Saturday evening. The slim, 20-something woman working the register looks nothing like Jeff Albertson, the haughty, potbellied comic shop owner on The Simpsons. The store is a sign of how much the comics world has changed, a change Clowes has helped create. Back when the artist attended Pratt, comics fans were geeks and losers, guys who lived in their moms’ basements and, once a year, trekked out to conventions. “Now people think of graphic novels as the vital art form I thought it was when I first started out,” Clowes says. It’s a good thing, mostly, but also a little bittersweet. With audiences flocking to superhero and sci-fi-themed movies in droves, comic geekdom has been co-opted by the masses. What was once a badge of nerdish honor is the new normal. All of us are comic geeks now — which means, in a way, that none of us are.