Humanity’s comfort punctured with a cartoonist’s pen
IT was a gloomy winter day, and the cartoonist Daniel Clowes was taking me on a tour of his neighbourhood, including a downbeat stretch of Piedmont Avenue that has served as a setting in some of his recent graphic novels. He pointed out the bench where Marshall, the alienated loner of Mister Wonderful (2011; serialised in The New York Times Magazine in 2007-8), sulks after being kicked out of a party, and the nail salons that the titular sad sack of Wilson (2010) curses when he returns home from prison. Although he was supposed to be talking about his coming retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California, Clowes kept returning to the subject of his hometown of nearly two decades. “It’s such an underdog,” he said admiringly.
He saved one of his favourite places for last: the Chapel of the Chimes, a gloriously over-the-top columbarium filled with ferns, splashing fountains and wall after wall of glass-fronted compartments stacked with crematory urns. As he wandered through its rooms, Clowes said that he sometimes comes here to write. Then he pointed to an array of urns shaped like leatherbound tomes. His face lit up. “That’s my dream,” he said blissfully. “That’s going to be my last book.” Clowes, 50, may have a fascination with the mordant and the downtrodden, but he is also one of today’s most successful and respected graphic novelists, lauded for his stylistic genius, his mixing of heartfelt emotion and biting cynicism, and his prolific output: 14 books, not to mention dozens of comics like the pioneering Eightball. In the last two years alone he has published three graphic novels, including The Death-Ray (2011), about a teenage boy who becomes a superhero when he smokes cigarettes, which helped land him a 2011 PEN career achievement award. Two of his comics have become independent films, 2001’s Ghost World (starring a young Scarlett Johansson) and 2006’s Art School Confidential; and Wilson will be a movie from the director Alexander Payne, who just shared an Oscar for the Descendants screenplay.
“I liked this bizarre portrait of a misanthrope,” Payne said in a telephone interview. “It’s a great part for an actor. And who would play that hideous ex-wife?” But for all of the plaudits Clowes has received from the cartooning, literary and film worlds, he’s never quite gotten his due where visual art is concerned. Though his work has turned up in group shows, and he had a 2003 solo show at Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles, he has never had his own museum exhibition.
But now the art world is finally catching up.
This month Abrams will publish The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, his first monograph. And on April 14 his first museum retrospective will open featuring 100 works dating to 1989, all but two the original ink drawings and gouaches for his cartoons, books and New Yorker covers.
According to Susan Miller, the independent curator who organised the show, the recognition is overwhelmingly deserving. “Not only is Dan a great storyteller who gets dialogue cold,” Miller said, “but he’s rendering his images with a kind of facility that you see in some of the masters.” The clarity of his character depictions, she added, often remind her of the portraits of the Pop artist Alex Katz.
Many fine artists admire his work, like the German painter Neo Rauch, who included Clowes in a show of his favourite cartoonists at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht in 2002. “Dan’s work stands out because of its precision,” Rauch wrote in an email. He was also “fascinated by its underground, slightly creepy aspect,” and added, “Plus, he has a very dark humour that appeals to me immediately.” Clowes can create a striking face with a few deftly placed lines or brush strokes, often seizing on some specific characteristic that summons up an indelible personality. Think of Enid Coleslaw, the snarky teenage anti-heroine of Ghost World, and her big, black nerdy-hip glasses; they cover most of her face, but they can’t conceal the tiny shifts in expression that loudly telegraph her mood. As Art Spiegelman, the author of the comic book memoir Maus, observed, the same can be said for Clowes’ knack for creating a sense of place. “He’s a really terrific comic artist,” said Spiegelman. “He’s also very observant.
The little details that come up in setting his stage are based on having a very keen look around him.” Judging from his work one might expect Clowes to be a dyspeptic misfit himself, hunched over a drawing table in some squalid cartoonist’s lair. Instead he lives in a spacious California Craftsman house with Erika, his wife of nearly 17 years, their adorable 7- year-old son, Charlie, and an equally winning beagle, Ella. And though his studio is crammed with vintage comic books, pulp magazines, comics encyclopedias and Mad magazine memorabilia, everything is neatly organised and artfully decorated with Arts and Crafts furniture.
Then there is the man himself: tall, skinny and soft-spoken, but vastly more affable and kindly than the surly beings who spring from his pen. While talking about his early days as a cartoonist, Clowes mentioned having “a lifetime of resentment to pour out.” When asked why he appears so easygoing, he guffawed. “I get a lot of it out in comics, you know?” he said.
Clowes’ reservoir of resentment really began to seethe in art school. He arrived there obsessed with comics: Growing up in Chicago, his older brother had bequeathed him piles of 1950s and 1960s classic titles like Archie and The Fantastic Four, and later introduced him to the early underground work of Robert Crumb. But when he moved to New York in 1979 to attend the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, his dream of becoming a cartoonist himself was quickly dashed. “I just assumed that art teachers would be open to whatever you wanted to do,” Clowes said, “but they were to a man deeply resistant.” After receiving his BFA in 1984 he spent a miserable year trying to find illustration work. To cheer himself up he drew Lloyd Llewellyn, a parodic comic strip about a private eye. Because he had no idea how full-colour cartoon panels were made, he laboriously painted them on animation cells in reverse order like a monoprint. “It was totally crazy,” he said.
Clowes sent the cells to the cartoon publisher Fantagraphics, hoping to get advice. Instead, to his amazement, one of its founders, Gary Groth, called to offer him his own Llewellyn comic book (which ran from 1986 to 1987), only to cancel it, because of slow sales. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Clowes recalled, laughing. “I was doomed.” He decided to assay one last project before giving up. That’s when he devised the hit anthology series Eightball, which combined different comic genres and drawing styles. Clowes became a star of the rising alternative-comics scene of the early 1990s, and Eightball won industry awards like the Eisner, the Harvey and the Ignatz most years it came out.
That’s because the concept seemed so revolutionary, said Ken Parille, a professor of English at East Carolina University in Greenville, and a recognised authority on the work of Clowes. (He also maintains the site danielclowesbibliography.com.) “One story would be a Surrealist comic, and another would be a rant,” Parille said. “Then there would be short gag comics followed by serious fiction. And he was doing it all himself, operating in all these different genres and hitting on so many different emotional registers.
I had never seen a cartoonist do anything remotely like it.” In 1998 Ghost World, a strip serialised in Eightball, became a book, the coming-of-age story of Enid, who is often compared to Holden Caulfield.
“Ghost World was a real turning point in his career,” said his friend and fellow cartoonist Adrian Tomine (the series Optic Nerve). “To me it was the beginning of him dropping this veneer of sarcasm and satire. I think it surprised people when he started taking a stab at real, earnest storytelling.” Meanwhile the director Terry Zwigoff and Clowes adapted Ghost World for a film, eventually earning both an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
Clowes was on the set every day and found himself fascinated by the editing room – how a film could be completely changed by assembling the scenes differently or adding a single shot. “You learn how strong this medium of telling stories through images really is,” he said. “It was very inspiring, but it made me realise how much less malleable comics is than cinema, because you can’t add in a panel of a guy turning a doorknob once you’ve drawn the whole book.” His approach to 2005’s Ice Haven was directly influenced by this experience: It’s a Rashomonlike kidnapping tale told from the perspective of different characters, each of whom appears in separate stories drawn in different styles. “The idea was once I was done I could move things around much more easily,” he said.
Two events around that time slowed his output: The birth of Charlie in 2004 and open heart surgery in 2006. “When they were shaving my chest, and I was about to go under,” he said, “I felt like I had more courage than I thought I would have. It made me feel a little more like a grown man, rather than a child – that and having a kid.” In 2008, his father died. Wilson, hostile and clueless, first came to life in Clowes’ notebook while he sat in his father’s hospital room in Chicago. From that moment, Clowes said, “everything Wilson did surprised me.” Wilson’s visual expression is also surprising: Each page is drawn using a different approach, ranging from Clowes’ own version of naturalism to the more exaggerated styles seen in strips like Mutt and Jeff, Hagar the Horrible and Popeye. “The styles are very appropriate to the mental state of Wilson and the story at that particular spot,” Spiegelman said. “What’s impressive is how seamless it is.
Only in a few places do you go, ‘That character looks like a refugee from Peanuts.” Certainly Wilson’s characterisation remains so consistent that it’s easy not to notice the stylistic changes at all. “That’s my goal,” Clowes said. “To get you not to remember that you’re reading a comic, to feel like you’re in this story.” And that too is his goal for the retrospective. “I never thought of myself as a museum artist who’s doing work for the wall,” he said. “For me the book is the final result.” He assumes that most people who see his work at the museum won’t know who he is. “But if they have some connection to something they see,” he added, “and then they read the book, the more I’ll feel like the show was a success.”