If the invitation of Daniel Clowes at the Angoulême Festival was an event of note, it was even more symbolical as it marked in a way the return of the American author to the comic book medium. With the publication of Mister Wonderful in the Funny Pages of the New York Times (between September 2007 and February 2008), and his contribution to the monumental Kramers Ergot 7, it was the end of a long absence for the Ghost World author.
Xavier Guilbert : Most of the American artists I’ve interviewed mention the Hernandez Brothers are one of the main reason they are working the field of alternative comics today. Was it the same for you ?
Daniel Clowes : I do feel indebted to the Hernandez Brothers. They were really the first pioneers of my generation. Crumb and those guys were all working in the sixties and were very tied up in the whole hippy culture. You know, they were sold in head shops and it was sort of accessory to smoking dope and it wasn’t thought of as literature. And the Hernandez Brothers came along, fifteen years after that, and they just decided to do a comic the way they wanted to do it, there was no market for it, there was no thought that anybody would want to read stories about Latino teenagers in Los Angeles. And they just did that, and it worked, and people started to recognize that they were very talented. That was very inspirational to me, that you could really do what you wanted to do. And certainly I’ve known those guys for many many years, and always felt a real kinship to those of that generation.
XG : How did you make your debut as a comic book author ?
DC : I originally went to art school. There was a — you couldn’t go to a school to learn comics, there was nothing even remotely like that. So I thought the best thing for me would be to live in New York, which is were the center of all publishing was. And I had never been to New York in my life before I went to school, so I thought if I went to New York, I could be around the world of comics and — and then I thought in art school, I could at least learn how to draw and all those kind of things. But of course by the time I went to art school, it was in the late seventies and it was when people were doing conceptual art and you would get an assignment and you would hand in wadded-up Kleenex as your final art. And I started like — “oh I wanna do ruled lettering”, and all these boring old-school things that no one really knew how to do. So I had to kind of learn all this stuff on my own. But it was also a great place to just have the time to experiment and kind of figure out what I wanted to do. Luckily, rather than being sucked into the world of — the art world of that time, kind of going with the crowd, it left me all the more resolved to do the opposite of that, and that was to do my comic.
I was about twenty-two years old and I was trying to get work as a professional illustrator, and I was having no luck at all. People would go “oh, these look like comics”. And so in my spare time, really to keep from sticking my head in the oven, I decided to draw my own comic strip and I just made up the character Lloyd Llewellyn off the top of my head — I just though it was funny it has that many “L”s in the name, that was really the extent of the character development. And I drew over the course of three or four months, and when I finished it, I thought : “what should I do with this ?” I hadn’t been to a comic store in many years, and I went to a comic store and I found a couple of comics and one of them was Love & Rockets, it was issue number three or four. “Oh, this looks interesting” — I didn’t actually read it, I just brought it home, I copied down the address of the publisher and I sent it to them, and a couple of months later I got a call from Fantagraphics and they said : “we’d like you to do a monthly comic”. At the time, I had hoped for some feedback, I just thought they would say “keep working at it, one year you’ll be published”. I was not ready for a monthly comic. Of course that was my dream, it just kind of came eight years too early or something.
XG : And from there you went on to doing Eightball ?
DC : Well, I did six issues of Lloyd Llewellyn very quickly and the publisher felt that it wasn’t selling enough so they canceled it. What were low sales at the time — it would now be Fantagraphics‘ number two selling comic book, that’s the miraculous way the comic book business has evolved in America, where sales now are so low that a failure in 1985 would have been an enormous hit today. So I was a little disappointed, I spent a couple of years doing work an imitation of Mad Magazine called Cracked Magazine, which is truly the lowest form of all publishing. Actually I had a friend who was the art director of Cracked Magazine, and after twenty years of working there, he tried to get another job and he couldn’t even get hired to art-direct pornographic magazines, there was nothing lower than that.
So I just decided — did I want to do comics or not ? I decided well, I want to go down fighting, I’m going to try to do something before I give it up. And so I thought I should be doing just exactly what I wanted to, and not worry about if there’s a market for it, if it would make sense to the reader. You know, I was always told “you have to have a specific character, the comic has to be named after the character, that’s the only way people are going to buy it”. I thought I was just going to do my own version of Mad Magazine, except like a really twisted, dark-spirited version of that. So I did Eightball and it immediately caught on.
XG : And Eightball became your main vehicle for your works, right ?
DC : I think pretty much everything I’ve done of note has been in Eightball, over the years. It’s very confusing to an European audience — it’s confusing to an American audience as well, trying to explain : “well, you have these books, but they were originally in those comics, but now they’re collected as books and they are slightly different”. It’s just a mess.
XG : Your first major story — and the first work of yours I’ve read, incidentally — was the very “Lynchian” Like a velvet glove cast in iron. There’s a strong dreamlike quality to this book, nearly surrealistic. How did it come into being ?
DC : Originally for that story, I knew it would be more than one chapter because I wrote “To be continued” at the end, but that was just because I couldn’t come up with an ending. I just thought I’d figure it out at some point. I thought I would go maybe two or three chapters, and I didn’t have any plans for it. And it just literally took over my life, it took on a life of its own and got bigger, bigger, more and more ideas and all of a sudden my brain was filled with the world of that story and I wanted it to go on forever in a way, but finally at a certain point people started telling me “I have no idea what’s going on anymore, I need to read this all at once” and it got so complicated that they told me they were not even reading it anymore. So I thought I had to tie all this up, and finally ended it after ten episodes. And it’s a — I don’t know, it’s a story in a way I’m very proud of, although I see it’s completely insane for most people to read. Every time I look through the story I think — I know what’s going on here but how could anyone else ? It’s very deeply personal. I was kind of experimenting to see how much personal I could get, how specific I could get to my own fantasies and ideas and dreams and things and still have people understand what I was talking about, or relate to what I was talking about.
XG : In comparison, Ghost World is very different — there are very few fantasy elements, and I think it perfectly captures the unease of the teenage years, as well as the harsh outlook of those girls on the world around them.
DC : I was really just — these characters just came to me. Originally I wanted to do a very different kind of story, it was going to be a futuristic kind of a space thing, where they were on another planet, they would be wearing togas and stuff. I have all these notes that I still can’t understand to this day, but… But I created the two characters and all of a sudden they were real people and they needed to live in a real world and there needed to not be any fantasy elements to the story. So it became a very different thing, and I really felt I had no control over that story. I manipulated events slightly by making one character go to college or trying to go to college while the other isn’t, but that was really the only plot thing I imposed onto them. I just wanted them to live, to live out their lives as they would during this crucial summer of their lives after graduating from high school.
XG : What about the choice of the blueish color for the book ? It gives the whole an impression of — distance, maybe, or coldness.
DC : My initial thought was — I remember when I was a teenager, Enid’s age, I remember walking around and being struck by — I was living in the city of Chicago, if you walked around at six in the evening, you notice everybody came home from work and turned on their television. And there’d be this kind of dark gloom with no color at all outside, and inside there was this blue light. Often people still had black and white televisions back then. It just had this very specific kind of blue tone that was very haunting to me. Somehow that’s a striking image of my teenage years, when I was eighteen, that’s the image I think of, one of the many images. So I wanted to capture that, I wanted the whole thing to feel like it was bathed in that light.
XG : Has your experience with Hollywood changed the way you approach comic books ?
DC : I think it’s made me appreciate that absolute control. And I used to appreciate that more, just in terms of content, or in terms of — you know, just the kind of things you could do in a comic that no one would ever allow you to do in a movie. But I also appreciated it in terms of — you know, if I write a screenplay for a movie and I give it to a director, they may do a good job or a bad job, but it will never be what I’m imagining as I’m writing that screenplay. And so it’s always frustrating, whether good or bad, it’s always a little … it’s just that I have a certain way I envision everything, and then to see it not carried out that way is just not satisfying. In a comic, I can do it however I want. And I never quite appreciated that, the little nuances and expressions and things like that, that you don’t realize are all part of the process of telling a story. So I certainly gained an appreciation in that way.
And I learned a lot through doing movies about how to hold an audience’s attention and the things that — I learned to be much more ruthless at cutting out things that were maybe not necessary to telling a story or to… I learned that if you leave things here that are not necessary, they often distract from the whole. You watch an audience watching a movie and you can see that so clearly. Doing comics you never have any interaction with an audience as they’re reading it, so it was great to have that.
XG : And now it seems that you’re back making comics.
DC : Yeah.
XG : I must be the hundredth person telling you this, but the Mister Wonderful serial was the first thing you had done in what, four years ?
DC : It was the first thing published. I had done — I had spent about a year of my life working on a long book that I was planning to do and I drew the first ten pages or so, and then learned that I had a very serious problem with my heart. And I was very sick and had to get a kind of major surgery and I couldn’t work for close to a year. It was between six months and a year, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t even sit, and when I finally recovered, I felt better than I had in — in ten years. Just, you know, it was a problem where it was getting much worse over the course of a few years, and I was miraculously feeling great. And I looked back at that thing I was working on, and all of a sudden it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. And I tried to get back into it, and I spent a couple of months trying to work on it, and I just — I just put it away, it’s been in a file, I haven’t even looked at it since then. This was 2006, and I just thought “I have to start over with something new”. And then the New York Times called with the idea of doing a strip, and I came up with the Mister Wonderful thing. And that got me back into doing kind of shorter things. So since I’ve finished that I’ve been working on a kind of a shorter — I don’t want to call it a “graphic novel” ’cause it’s not really a good description of it but it’s a, it’s a story that’s about 75 pages.
XG : Is it going to be published as a whole ?
DC : I guess. Yeah, that’s the idea. Nobody’s really — nobody wants to deal with selling the comic format any more in America, it’s just an antiquated format. It’s mainly because it has to be inexpensive, people expect them to be — to not cost a lot. So stores make no money off of them, so they’re not interested in promoting them. And I could do it in that way, but it feels somehow like its time has passed, and it feels like an affectation rather than just doing… I always wanted it to just feel like, you know, the comic books of my childhood. And now it just feels like I’m quickly trying to do some old-fashioned thing that doesn’t exist anymore, so it feels like I have to modify the way I’m doing comics, you know, packaging the comics, I guess.
XG : It’s indeed very present all around the comic scene. The Brothers Hernandez changed completely Love & Rockets, I was interviewing Charles Burns last year who’s working on something lengthier … is that the end of Eightball, basically ?
DC : You know, I wouldn’t say that necessarily, because I may invent yet another way to do it. You know, as something that is not quite the standard comic book, but I’m sure — I doubt I will ever do another standard, black-and-white, 32-page, pamphlet of that size. I may figure out something that’s bigger and more lavish, and that somehow has a different presence.
XG : A bit like the last two Eightball issues ? Which were kind of stand-alone, and very specific in terms of construction and structure ?
DC : Right. And you know, I sort of intended to keep working in that way, but everybody got so … you know, they would buy it in the comic for very little money and then when I tried to sort of change it around and do it as a book, they were saying : “this is too — you know I could have gotten it for $7 and now it’s $14, and it’s …” Without thinking that anybody else would have just not done the comic, they would have gone straight to the book, and they of course would have to pay $14. And so it just became confusing, and people didn’t quite understand the difference between the two and so, I think at this point it’s just better to do it in one format and plan it out that way. But it’s sad because I really like the idea of the comic book a lot. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.
XG : There’s something I also noticed with Charles Burns. In your early works — say Lloyd Llewellyn or Like a velvet glove cast in iron, there’s a lot of the grotesque, or stuff that has to do with fantasy elements. And those things have seemed to be toned down as you progressed and grew older.
DC : I think that’s true to some degree. I feel like lately I’ve been more interested in that stuff again, and I felt like it may just be phases of interest, where for ten years you’re interested in one thing and then you kinda go back to another thing. I feel like I’m sort of on the verge of going back into that kind of stuff with whatever I do next, I’m not sure what that will be.
XG : I got the impression that you got very busy with movie-making and film-related projects, since Ghost World. And that had a drastic impact on your comic book output, with only the last two issues of Eightball — Ice Haven and The Death-Ray Gun coming out since.
DC : Yeah, as I said I spent about a year working on that thing that I just — I was trying to write this dense novel all at once, and it just seemed that I was trying too hard to do a graphic novel, it felt really restrictive. I had to stop working on that. Since then, I’ve done a bunch of smaller things. I don’t know, it didn’t have as much to do with doing the movie stuff as just needing some time to stop doing comics for while and kind of rethink it. I just felt like the idea of doing a comic book all of a sudden seemed like it didn’t feel right anymore. And I had to figure out how to do comics, I didn’t necessarily know if I wanted to do single books, I couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. Now I feel that I have sort of an idea of how to approach it, and I feel more … like I see a future of what I can do ahead of me, and for a few years I just couldn’t quite see what I could be doing, I couldn’t figure out the terrain of the comic business anymore.
XG : You were talking about control, that’s something that’s very present in the way Ice Haven is constructed. Is that something you would like to get back to ? Because Mister Wonderful — that may have to do with the intended audience, it’s more straightforward, you just follow the main character.
DC : Yeah, it’s certainly not as complicated. I don’t know. I enjoyed doing the Ice Haven thing, it’s not necessarily — I’m just more interested in finding specific characters that I’m interested in and seeing what they do. And the form the story takes is really not something I think about until it kind of happens. With Ice Haven, my intent was just to draw a bunch of disparate strips that had nothing really to do with each other, and then I came up with the idea of how they could all take place in the same town. And then I started reading old Sunday newspapers to get inspiration, and I realized what a great thing it would be if the characters from each comic strip kind of had something to do with each other, even though they are done in completely different styles. So if little cartoon kids interacted with Prince Valiant or some completely — and then the story took on a different life, it was the idea of all those different comic strips interacting with each other. But that’s the kind of idea you can only use once. You can’t go back to it. So I can’t see myself doing anything exactly like that ever again.
XG : There’s also the idea of the mystery behind the kidnapping in the book, that ties things together along with the narrative device of the various comic strips. What was the inspiration for that ?
DC : There are characters in this book based on the American murderers Leopold and Loeb. It was called “The crime of the century” in America, in the twenties, sort of the O.J. trial of these days. They were two very smart intellectual teenagers who decided to kill another boy in their school just to see if they could get away with it. And this story had a great deal of resonance with me because I went to the same school that these boys went to, sixty years later. So their story kind of haunted me my whole life, at some point I felt like I was one of them, and then most of the time I felt like I would be their victim. It was something that — it just stuck with me, and I wanted to do a story about it, but I didn’t want to just do a re-telling of their story. When I thought of this story it seemed to fit in perfectly, and that was my way of finally doing something with those characters.
XG : How did you react to the controversy that surrounded the firing of Nate Fisher, the teacher who had given Ice Haven to read to a young girl ?
DC : I felt terrible, and I felt — my first reaction was that I should come out and say something about this and then I thought : “anything you say in his defense is not going to help him”. It was going to only hurt him and I felt that the only thing I could do was stay back from it completely. Because I felt that, if I defended him then all of a sudden people are going to look at all my other — they’re going to look at A Velvet Glove and all my other works, which is far worse than Ice Haven and they’re going to say : “oh, there’s this pornographer, he’s on his side”. I didn’t want people to think we’re friends or anything like that. I wanted the poor guy to have a chance. So I felt awful about it. And that was just ridiculous. But I recently heard that he got a new job and he’s doing really well and everything worked out — thank God.
Because you know, I have a young child and the thought of — I know how rare it is to have a good teacher, and the thought of a good teacher being cast aside for nothing is obscene. It was just awful.
XG : There’s only one part that was changed between the two editions of Ice Haven, it’s the part where the critic discusses your own body of work. It’s a part loaded with derision and negative outlook — were you just playing with that, or does that stem from the high art / low art opposition ?
DC : I don’t know. To me, I find critics endlessly fascinating, because I think of myself as a critic on some level, and… and I’m always interested in the kind of person who becomes a critic. So it was really more about delving into this kind of guy and what are the issues he has to contend with rather than what he was actually saying. I kind of wanted him to be — that he did like my work. I wanted it to be, like I had created the only critic who actually liked my work in this world. But to me, it was more interesting to take the idea of this guy, and what are the things that haunt him and run through his head, you know, when he’s lying in bed at night.
XG : At the same time, he also gives out a lot of hints or avenues to explore while looking at your work. Was it because you felt you needed to clarify some things ?
DC : I wanted people to be dubious as to whether they should follow this guy or not. But to — yeah, to give a few hints. I wouldn’t say they are necessarily all things I would agree with, but to lead people in a certain direction, I thought that was a funny idea. For a while, I was thinking of how to make Ice Haven into a movie, and I decided it would have to be a film critic if it was a movie, it wouldn’t work with a comic critic, and somehow that’s not as funny. The idea of a comic critic living in a small town, as though that’s just a job, like being a mailman of something — it’s ridiculous.
XG : He’s also very remote from the other characters.
DC : Yeah, why is he there ? (laughing)
XG : I see there the special edition of Ghost World, there’s also an Eightball collection that is going to receive the same treatment by Fantagraphics…
DC : Yeah, they did one a few years ago now. There’s the Cornélius here in France, that’s the 20th Century…
XG : How do you look back on those pages that have been published over ten years ago ?
DC : In a way, they seem like they were done by a different person, and in a way I feel like I did them just a few weeks ago. You know, I can’t believe some of those things are twenty years old, that’s … You spend your time at the drawing board and everything blurs together, and it’s odd — you know, I have had the same drawing board I’ve been working at since I was eighteen years old, and that’s my main frame of vision, this white drawing board. Days go by and years go by, and you think back and you cannot believe something you feel like you just finished two weeks ago is twenty years old.
XG : Doing Mister Wonderful for the Funny Pages, was it a way of going back to some canonical form of the medium ?
DC : I had wanted to do that actually for quite some time. I always wanted to do a weekly comic strip. Like — people like Charles Burns and Matt Groening and Linda Barry did that for years. But I knew I didn’t want to do it for ever, or for even more than a year, probably. And it’s very hard to get some newspaper to get interested in doing something if you are going to stop it quickly, they want it to keep going. So I could never figure out how I would ever be able to do that, and then when the New York Times said, you know, “we want only twenty episodes”, that’s exactly the kind of space I wanted to be able to ex– I always wanted just the experience of having a reader read something one week and kind of have the whole week to anticipate what the next step is going to be and to play with that kind of thing, that sort of suspense.
XG : What I find interesting with Mister Wonderful, is that there still are most of you major themes — such as alienation, and the fact that your characters tend to worry a lot about how they are going to be received, and alway the underlying problem of communication. I think that the fact that most of the conversation is blotted out by the narrative, the internal monologue, is something very effective.
DC : It was — yeah, that was a fun device. You know, I was trying to do my thing, but also with keeping in mind that the readership for the New York Times is very broad. It’s a large segment of different types of readers, and so I wanted to keep it something that would not be the kind of thing I would necessarily have in Eightball, which is for an elite audience that would actually seek out my work and knows who I am. I wanted people who are just flipping through the magazine to have a way into the story and to be able to kind of, you know, understand what I was doing. It was very gratifying, it was the first thing that lots of my relatives ever actually read of my own work. “I could never read your comic books, but that one I understood.”
XG : I find interesting that your characters are either teenagers or middle-aged persons — two periods of life where there’s a sort of attraction-repulsion for the flesh, especially from a sexual point of view…
DC : There’s enough stuff out there where it sort of presents the beautiful, airbrushed sexuality of human beings, and I feel like that’s like the tiniest sliver of the actual truth. To me it’s much more interesting to see that we are all kind of repulsed by each other.
XG : I’ve had the impression that your output kind of grows up, or follows you through the stages of life. Maybe I’m projecting, but a lot of your early stuff includes a lot of things about being in art school, about being an adolescent and the fear of fitting in.
DC : Sure. I think I’ve always been deeply alienated. I never quite figured out what crowd I belonged to. I’ve always kind of wanted to have my own clique that I could be part of. And there was never anything that was quite right. Even at a certain point I thought : “well now that I’m a cartoonist, I can be in this fraternity of cartoonists”, but even that it’s a very elusive thing, there are only certain people I feel comfortable around. And it’s always been an issue for me to try to kind of understand who I am in the world and what kind of archetype I fill. I’ve always had this kind of shifting opinion of myself or self-definition. I’m very interested in that time of life when you’re a teenager and you’re becoming a young adult and you kind of have to pick who you are, you have to make a choice. And somebody like Enid in Ghost World, every other day she can try out a new look — maybe this one will stick, maybe this is what I want to be. At a certain point you have to say like “I am this guy”. Like there’s the Canadian artist Seth, who always dresses in clothes from the 1920s or 30s, and at a certain point he picked that, and now if he starts wearing jogging clothes or something, people would go “oh, I knew, I knew he was a phony”. It’s like he picked that and that’s where he’s stuck. I feel like I’ve never quite picked who I am and what my thing is.
XG : And that fear is very much present, but Mister Wonderful is a middle-aged man. Your work is following you then ?
DC : No, it’s definitely — I often find it’s a few years behind although. The Mister Wonderful and the thing I’m working on now are very much the sort of the middle-aged version of — it’s almost like the middle-aged version of Ghost World or something. It’s the same kind of characters but with, you know, the concerns of facing the last half of their lives rather than the first half.
XG : Is that something you wanted to express specifically, or just the way it turned out ?
DC : Just, you know, just whatever happens to be front and foremost in my daily thought patterns. You know, the kind of stuff that you think about while you are in the shower or going to the Post Office. And it’s those thoughts that seem inconsequential as you’re having them, just seem like this thing that’s filling up your brain because something has to. Those are the things that I find, are the things that I have to do stories about. They can be in any form, but I have to somehow deal with these things that are just ever-present in my brain as I’m brushing my teeth, because that’s what I — I need a way to get that out and go to the next thing, whatever that is.
[Interview conducted during the Angoulême Festival, on January 29, 2009.]