San Francisco, June 2012: "Is that a comic book you're reading?"
I'm sitting on an AC Transit bus in Oakland, reading a collection of Daniel Clowes' early short-story comics. I nod at the elderly gentleman and he seems pleased. "Good for you!" he says, "what kind of comic is it?" I look down. The panel I happen to be reading at the moment depicts a baseball player holding his own giant dick in lieu of a bat, part of a larger strip about the sublimated, homoerotic ritualism of professional sports.
"What kind of comic is it?" he asks again.
"Oh," I say, "you know... just, stories and things." He knows I'm hiding something, but I'm also utterly at a loss for how to offer this man an honest answer in the few innocuous words he expects.
Although Mr. Clowes' recent work is notably more suited for public consumption, serialized in New York magazine and appearing frequently on the cover of The New Yorker, a bubbling undercurrent of human urgency remains. Sometimes veering into the abject, but always with the tacit drawing style and surprising literary voice that has pioneered a vein of alternative comics that are still inching themselves away from superhero antics and mere "adult" erotica.
We spoke on the occasion of Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes at the Oakland Museum of California, a retrospective of his work since the early 80s and his first show in nearly ten years.
Daniel Clowes, Ghost World; Courtesy of the artist
Christina Catherine Martinez: Do you think that the art world is helping to negotiate a place for comics right now?
Daniel Clowes: I really don't know. It all sort of happened slowly by osmosis. I've been doing the same kind of work for twenty-five years. It was absolutely obscure and no one had any interest in it back when we began, and we haven't really changed. Somehow the culture got tired of whatever it was doing at the time and made its way around to us. It feels like one of those things that had to happen at some point.
CCM: It almost skipped mainstream popularity and went straight to the art world.
DC: That's kind of true. And not just the art world, either. I recently did a talk about New Yorker covers, and they were showing New Yorker covers from 1992, and they were all kind of... nice watercolor paintings of Nantucket beach houses. Just no content at all. The content was "interesting angles on an old rustic porch at your rich uncle's beach house." In 1992 I was doing those early Eightball issues. Now here we are, exactly twenty years later, and things that I was basically doing on the cover of Eightball are now on the cover of the New Yorker. It finally got there somehow.
CCM: The interesting thing about a comics exhibition is you're looking at original artwork, but in reality it's more like you're looking at the process. It's not stuff that was ever meant to be seen.
DC: I like that about it. Whenever I see original artwork that looks perfect, it's disappointing. I want to see tape marks and pencil notations. A lot of original art has phone numbers written on it for some reason. Somebody should call all those phone numbers. You imagine they're all for loan sharks or something.
Daniel Clowes, Eightball 18 Cover-1, 1996; Courtesy of the artist
CCM: It's almost a shame looking at original Eightball artwork and realizing that it's huge, and there's so much detail that gets lost in print.
DC: When I look at the originals, all I see are the mistakes, and everything seems too big. After all these years I know how things are going to reduce when they finally go to print. Sometimes you get a little overzealous and put too much effort into the actual artwork to the detriment of the printed page. I always try to catch myself and keep focused on what it will look like in the book form. That's what everybody except for a handful of museum-goers is going to see.
CCM: The main thing you notice is all the editing. There are portions where a character's head or face is completely pasted over, ostensibly to change their expression. It reads almost like a director manipulating an actor.
DC: Literally, when you called, I was pasting some eyes on a woman's face. It basically is directing. It's usually: I had a specific emotion in mind and then I drew it the way I thought it would work and then put it down for a couple of weeks. Then I read it again and I realize that I didn't at all capture what I was trying to capture. It's often very, very subtle. It's closing the eyes a millimeter, or moving the eyebrows ever so slightly. It's a very tricky, intuitive process. I find pasting on is helpful because you can kind of move eyebrows a micron one way or the other if you need to. I could probably do it all on a computer, but somehow my vision of seeing something on a screen is very different from seeing it on a page. I really have a connection with it on the page. In Photoshop it all looks fine and I never feel like fixing anything. It's all evened out on the screen.
CCM: So much of the early, short stories that appeared in Eightball express frustration with narrative structures. There's a lot less of that in more recent books like Wilson and Mister Wonderful. The narrative is more straightforward. Wilson, especially, has a tone of resignation about him. Has that frustration gone away, or are you simply resigned to it?
DC: I think when I did those early Eightballs I was really resistant to narrative structure. I felt like movies especially at that time were so over-structured. You always felt like you were watching something that was produced by a formula. In the third minute of the film the protagonist is introduced and in the fifth minute you will meet his girlfriend, etc. It felt so overprescribed, I wanted to do the opposite of that. At a certain point I did that enough and I kind of got that out of my system. And then I got really interested in actually learning about narrative structures and working with them in way that goes along with the classic movements but then has room to go off on its own tangents. I felt much freer working that way after a while. It was like having a melody that you could then go off of, rather than going at it totally at random. I was certainly breaking the rules before I understood them.
Daniel Clowes, New Yorker Cover; Courtesy of the artist
CCM: It's hard to ask questions about your characters without feeling like I'm asking it of you personally, because your work has always been a reflection of your attitude or disposition at the time.
DC: I'm trying to articulate some vision of my own tortured inner life. I'm interested in a thing of life, the process by which it turns into a dream when you're asleep. That's very much the same process of writing a story for me. Trying to find the things that are emotionally interesting and resonant in our lives, and turning it into some kind of narrative.
CCM: After David Boring, there's a definite shift in your drawing style. It becomes more fluid from page to page. Every page in Death Ray and Ice Haven is completely different and laid out in a dynamic way. That fluidity seems uniquely endemic to the medium of comics.
DC: With Ice Haven I had decided to move more in the direction of comic strips. I had just gone through a phase where I was really interested in old comic strips, and Ice Haven was my expression of that. With The Death Ray I tried to think back and analyze what it was that I actually did love about superhero comics as a kid. Because I bought tons of them, and I never really read them. I would just look at them. I loved having them and I loved just being with them. There was something about them that had a visceral quality. I realized it was the thing that Pop artists really picked up on, this kind of trashy, visceral hugeness that each image had. This P.T. Barnum-ish, overselling thing that felt very American and very brash and strong and appealing. I was trying to capture that aspect of it, but without sacrificing the story in the process, because I think that's what happened a lot in those old comics. They would come up with these cool things they wanted to draw, and not really even worry about how the story made sense.
Daniel Clowes, Eightball 8 cover; Courtesy of the artist
CCM: Is it strange to have to revisit old narratives? Many of your recent books are collections of stories that originally appeared in Eightball, some nearly twenty years ago.
DC: Oh yes, it's very strange. I try to be forgiving. I used to look back at my old work and think, "oh my god, I can't believe how obvious this is, psychologically." Like anybody could figure out what I was going through at the time, when I wouldn't have wanted that. Or just the technical errors. Thinking the drawings are horrible. But now I try to look back at that stuff and be forgiving and see it as a record of another person at that time. It doesn't feel like it's me anymore, it feels like it's some other guy. Different approaches to alienation, I guess. That feeling like you don't even speak the same language as other people, it never goes away.
CCM: Is that because you spend most of your time in a dark room engaged in the monk-like practice of making comics?
DC: I'm sure that doesn't help matters. But I've felt that way since I was ten years old, before the solitary confinement had begun.
—Christina Catherine Martinez
ArtSlant would like to thank Daniel Clowes for his assistance in making this interview possible.