It's hard to introduce Daniel Clowes without upsetting the delicate natural order of the comic-book world. To give him his full due, you have to use sweeping, clichéd phrases: Clowes is "the voice of his generation" or, at the very least, "among the greatest living graphic novelists." All of this is true, but in an artistic field that studiously avoids the caste system, it's best just to call Clowes a really great cartoonist.
Whether he's capturing surrealist freak shows (Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron), youthful isolation (David Boring) or middle-aged romance (Mister Wonderful), Clowes' work consistently transcends its medium and lingers in the minds of its readers. The stylized detail in the 49-year-old San Franciscan's effortless-looking lines is topped only by his mastery of dialogue both internal and external—skills he has translated into screenplays for two movies based on his books (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) as well as a new animated collaboration with French director Michel Gondry and Gondry's son, Paul.
Clowes' latest book, Wilson, follows its titular grumpy, middle-aged protagonist who, in the wake of his father's death, makes a last-ditch effort to connect with the world and start a family. It is among Clowes' most lyrical and reflective works, and it's also funny as hell. WW spoke to the author via telephone before his Sunday visit to Powell's.
WW: What's the worst thing about your job?
Daniel Clowes: I have to live by my wits at all times. I have no health insurance, retirement fund, any of that stuff. I have no idea what's going to pay the bills next year. I really do wake up in the middle of the night thinking, "What the fuck am I going to do?" And you have to do it by yourself, you can't be hanging out with people while you do it. You gotta recognize that and find ways to get out of the house and deal with other people. That was like the main reason I wanted to work in movies; it would give me an excuse to actually talk to other human beings.
Is that something that gets tougher as you get older, too?
When you're 25 years old you have friends you can call at 11 at night and say, "Hey, let's get a beer." I've got a 6-year-old in day care. I can't really take off from the wife and leave at a moment's notice.
Speaking of that, there's a lot of bad fathers and distant fathers in your work.
Which is kind of unfair, because my dad was actually a really good dad.
Where does that come from then?
Everybody wants to be closer to their dad. My dad was the least emotional human being I've ever met, but now that I have a child I sort of realize that that was just his make-up as a human being. He did the best he could.
There's a scene in Wilson where he tries, unsuccessfully, to get some nugget of wisdom from his dad on his deathbed.
That was certainly based on when my dad was in the hospital, on his last legs. I sort of thought my whole life that when it got down to the final clock ticking down that he would say all the stuff I kinda hoped for him to say at some point…. That's not what was on his mind at all. He's thinking about much, much more cosmic things, sort of really contemplating the void there. It was like in the comic, pretty much.
But I assume you're not like Wilson in too many other ways?
No. In some ways I think he's like my avatar, he's like the uncensored version, the unfiltered version of my worst moments.
Do you talk to yourself the way Wilson does?
I do talk to my dog occasionally. "Isn't it a great day today?"
Is that what you ask her? Questions that a dog might understand?
Yeah. "What am I gonna do, Ella? What am I gonna do?" "Help me Ella." I want my dog to tell me, "Here's what you have to do…"
Do you ever get bored with making comics, or is it more fun now than when you were younger?
I have to say, it gets much, much more fun. When I was younger, it was such a struggle to get what I was trying to achieve, I would work and work and work to just get one page right, but then you've got to do the next page. I had to do that with Velvet Glove, I had to keep that style going for 150 pages, and that got really tiresome. And I was constantly just going, "That looks horrible!" and feeling terrible about it. In the last 10 years, I like the way the drawing looks, and it feels sort of effortless.
It's funny to me that you've always been involved in so much pop culture, and yet your characters often deplore pop culture.
I like the idea of comic books and weird records and all that stuff. I love that. But they rarely live up to that promise. I'm always kind of disappointed by the stuff that comes out of that culture. With all those album covers I did, at some point I made it a policy– they'd always send me a tape, and I'd never listen to it. But I liked the Ramones.
You did the "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" video.
And that's such a cool thing to do. I did it in a month. It was just an insane rush job. I basically came up with the whole thing in a day, and then [management] ran it by the Ramones, and they had all the most idiotic ideas—I had to constantly talk Joey Ramone out of all these ideas.
Were you a Ramones fan growing up?
Huge. They changed my life. I actually postponed my wedding to do this [video]. It was a big deal. And the highlight of my life is, a friend of mine sent me a public access show from Chicago with an interview with Joey Ramone right after the video came out, and he's going, like, "This is our favorite video we've ever done. This guy Dan Clowes did it, and he's a really cool guy, he's a big fan." Oh my.
How's working with Michel Gondry?
I was really blown away by what a cool guy he was. He's not your typical movie director that drives a Porsche and dates supermodels. He's a really down-to-earth guy. His house looks like a college dorm. He doesn't care about any of the typical stuff; he just really likes to make cool art.
It seems like an odd pairing in a way. Gondry seems so giddy.
A little bit, but we complement each other for sure. I mean, I find that I'm closer to his son, who's much more—well, he is sort of like the Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, that's who he reminds me of. Very polite, very scary, super-smart kid. He and I tend to gang up on Michel a lot; he finds us a little too much sometimes.
Two of your latest stories, Mr. Wonderful and Wilson, have pretty happy endings. You had open-heart surgery a few years ago. Are those things connected?
I think that having a son makes you try to look for some way that the future is palatable. I think when you don't have a kid you can very easily get into, "Well, everything's going to hell and there's no hope and why bother even worrying about it?" When you have a child, and when you're faced with your early death, you tend to think, "I need to see if I really believe that." I feel like always assuming the worst is a way to kind of curb your anxiety, in a way. It's much harder to try to imagine a way things could work out. In a way, it's a more difficult ending.
You're one of the only comics artists I've ever talked to that's said they get halfway through a story and they aren't exactly sure where things are going.
I think you have to have an ending that you could use if you get stuck, and I've done that many times. That frees you up to not worry too much. I change stuff at the last minute. I'll often have the letters all penciled out, the dialogue, but right when I'm lettering is the perfect time for my brain to hear the dialogue in my head. Then I try to write almost as fast as somebody's talking, and very, very often I change big chunks of dialogue just as I'm inking. Then often I've looked back and thought, "That was better the first time. That makes no sense."
Have you spent much time in Portland?
You know, we've spent probably a total of 24 hours there, and yet my wife and I fantasize about moving there all the time. We're going to be sorta looking around, saying, "There's a nice house, maybe that's the one." I'm sick of all these rich people.
Joe Sacco is here.
Yeah, he's like, "Move here! I'll be you're best friend!" But I'm like, "You're never around."
Daniel Clowes speaks at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Sunday, May 16. Free.