Books + Comics

On Discovery: An Interview With Daniel Clowes

Wherein we talk about comics, Cool Dads, Daria, and whether there is any hope for my generation.

Collage by Minna

This interview is super long, so I’ll make this intro super short. Daniel Clowes is responsible for such beauteous works as Ghost World, Mister Wonderful, Ice Haven, Wilson, and, most recently, The Death Ray. He’s also partially responsible for comics being thought of as a real art form nowadays. Most important, he is responsible for the line “You guys up for some reggae tonight?” And, while I may not be up for reggae, I am up for you reading this interview! Ha-ha! Haaaa. Um, enjoy.

TAVI: Many of your characters are kind of pathetic and lonely, but somehow your observations seem more compassionate than condescending. Are you concerned at all with making sure you’re not making fun of them, or does it just end up that way? Do you think you’ve ever made fun?

DANIEL CLOWES: I try not to worry about that too much, but I try to make fun of myself more than I would make fun of anybody else. I try to hold myself to the same amount of scrutiny that I would any of my characters, so I would hope anything I do never comes across like I’m trying to show myself as being better than my characters or making a point about how people shouldn’t live this way or anything like that.

Do you find it comforting or terrifying that people can relate to characters that are closer to you?

It is comforting. In a way that’s the whole idea, I think: to try to get across things that I feel are so personal that they actually can’t be put into words, trying to create characters that will express these feelings that I can’t quite articulate, and to have people actually respond to those things in an emotional way. That kind of connection with other people, I think—that’s what you can hope for when you’re doing this kind of stuff.

Our theme this month is Home, and Enid Coleslaw [from Ghost World] seems to have kind of a mixed relationship with her hometown, as do the citizens of Ice Haven, and a lot of that is about being surrounded by a kind of low-brow culture. So I was really surprised to learn that you grew up in Hyde Park, Chicago, with a professor grandpa talking with other smart people like Saul Bellow in the next room.

At the time it was just boring. It was like, “I wish he’d just shut up and come to dinner so we can eat.” It wasn’t until years later when I heard other people talk about the people who had been over at my house that I realized, “Oh yeah, those guys are actually famous.” I just figured they were other old boring professors like my grandpa.

My dad went to Woodstock, and when I was younger he tried to get me and my sisters into that music, and I thought it was really lame, and then later I liked it and I felt like I’d been cheated.

[Laughs] You’d been cheated cause you didn’t get to go to Woodstock?

No, because like my parents had tried to make us like that stuff first.

Oh, I see, so you didn’t get the joy of discovering it on your own.

Yeah, and then I thought it was lame for a long time.

I think about that a lot with my son. I don’t want to inflict the stuff I like onto him. He’s only eight, so right now I could get him to like anything, pretty much, but when he’s a few years older I really don’t want him to respond to anything because I like it too much or not enough. I want him to sort of find his way into his own stuff, so it’s something I have to constantly modulate. I don’t want him to associate this music with me, I want him to discover it on his own and then I’ll go like, “Well, I happen to have all their records!”

That’s healthier, I think. There was an article on the Onion that was like, “12 Year-Old Girl Isolated From Peers Because of Cool Dad.” Her dad makes her listen to the Talking Heads and everything, and then she can’t relate to anyone else.

And now is the era of the Cool Dad. I know lots of parents who I just think, like, “God, if my parents had been like that I would’ve been into all this cool stuff.” Luckily they weren’t, so I discovered all that stuff on my own and they sort of disdainfully shook their heads at the stupid stuff I was interested in. But there are a lot of things that I don’t respond to. I’m not into video games, so I can just see my son becoming, like, a video-game tester as his job or something. Developing video games.

Nerds and underdogs are in a weird place right now where they’re kind of cultural insiders. How important do you think it is for there to be outsiders and a counter-culture?

That’s probably a bigger question than I can answer. I used to feel sort of a kinship with people who were into stuff I couldn’t be less interested in. Things like fantasy novels about elves. I realized those people were sort of seeking some kind of comfort in fiction, in this kind of escapist literature, that I could kind of relate to as a teenager, and now those kind of people just seem like…that’s everybody, you know? Like everybody is into the kind of stuff that only a very small group of damaged, shut-in nerds were into back when I was a teenager. So it’s really kind of hard to understand that world. I can’t quite grasp that a girl in high school would see the Thor movie. That is just unfathomable to me. When I was in high school, if I’d gone up to a girl and said, “Would you like to go read some of my Thor comics with me?” they would’ve just thought I was the lowest form of human life. That would’ve been so unimaginable. I was actually on the subway in New York and saw this, like, Attractive Teenage Couple, and the guy was like, “Hey, wanna go see Thor tonight?” and the girl was like, “Yeah, yeah.” And I just thought, that is just blowing my mind that that is happening right in front of me.

I feel like every actor will be in an interview and be like, “I’m such a nerd secretly! I like Star Wars!”

Every actor! It’s always like, you know, Brad Pitt—“I was a total nerd!” No you weren’t!

You’re Brad Pitt!

It’s impossible!

You’ve talked in the past about the depressing strip mall-ness and commercialization of the world, and you’ve talked about the greatness of discovery being kind of lost now because of the internet. So I’m wondering if people my age have anything to be happy about.

[Laughs] No, you don’t! No, it’s just a whole different apparatus for finding things. You used to be able to drive across America and every town would have a little junk shop, and you’d go in there and you could find some weird old book or something that you’d never heard of, and that would lead to you seeking out other stuff. You used to have this sense that if you just kind of drove off the freeway a little bit, you’d run into some interesting little pockets of culture. And now you’re just gonna see another Applebee’s or whatever. All that stuff is gone. It’s been plowed over. So really the only way to find stuff now is on the internet. I could tell you right now about some obscure filmmaker and you could know more about him by midnight than I would’ve been able to find out in 10 years when I was your age. But I don’t know that it would mean much to you unless you really connected to the guy and kept following it and doing more and more research. It’d just be like, “Yeah, I know about that guy,” and then you’d move on to the next thing. There’s something about having it be like a mystery that you have to solve and figure out that really connected you to this weird culture back then.

On days when I’m more optimistic I feel like then the real good stuff stands out, though.

That’s certainly true. It also used to be like, you’d buy an album by a recording artist and there’d be one or two good songs on it, and there’d be all the rest that were just kind of to fill up the album, and you’d work your way through that and learn to like the other songs after a while, and then you’d wait till the next album came out. And now it sort of feels like everything is all the greatest hits. You learn about a musician and you immediately can figure out what their 10 greatest songs are, and you just listen to those and you don’t experience the full breadth of their failures and mishaps and all that stuff. I feel like that’s how all culture is. And I’m as guilty as anybody else now—if I hear about an author or something I go straight for their most well-known book and read that first, and, you know, I don’t have that experience of kind of building up to that. You don’t wanna read the rest of their books after that because you figure, “Well, I’ve already read the best one. It’s not gonna be much better than that.”

I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe we should be using this interview for a site for people who don’t like the internet or something.

[Laughs] Like a site where you have to write a letter to somebody and they’ll print it out.

Exactly. So we’ve had a couple articles this month about growing up somewhere boring and how to make the best of it, and Enid is kind of a reference for us for that. How would you explain her attitude towards growing up in that kind of environment?

You know, people used to write reviews and say, “She’s cynical and depressed,” and I think she was the exact opposite of that. She figured out a way to make her life more exciting just by imagining the things around her being charged with some kind of mystery and energy that’s possibly not actually there, but that she’s giving to them. She’s able to look at people on the street and imagine these huge, important stories about them and to create drama out of very small things in her life. And I think that’s kind of the best you can hope for when you’re stuck like she is.

She is often lumped together with other moody young women like Daria or Margot Tenenbaum. We’re guilty of that on Rookie. Do you see that comparison or no?

Daria came along after Enid, and I always felt like it was influenced by it, though I have no great specific evidence for that, so I was always somewhat resentful of Daria, though I’ve actually never watched it. But I’m sure there was sort of a zeitgeist of that type of character floating around in the air at the time. Enid first appeared back in 1993 when I did that first episode of Ghost World [in Eightball], and it really felt more like you weren’t seeing that type of person at all in any type of culture.

You’ve often used settings that are sort of boring-town-y, but it’s not a Stepford, white-picket-fence, creepy-happy thing. Do you consciously avoid that?

Yeah, ’cause my comics aren’t really about suburbia ever, you know. I never lived in surbubia. I lived in Hyde Park my whole life, and then I moved to a horrible neighborhood in Brooklyn, and then I’ve lived here in Oakland, which is another urban environment, for the last 20 years, so I never lived in the suburbs at all. It’s really a matter of kind of paring down the environment that the characters live in so it’s not about where they live as much as who they are and how they’re interacting. The places they live are supposed to be kind of nondescript. And it’s always funny, ’cause people will say, you know, “I thought that was really cool that you set Ghost World in North Oak, Virginia!” or some other place that I’ve never been in my life, just because it has something that feels like where they live. That’s sort of the sign that you’re onto something, when you can make people feel like it’s about them in some way.

People have written that the characters of Ghost World and The Death Ray are these average, relatable teens. Do you think of them that way, and did you set out to create characters people would relate to?

You know, I’ve never set out to create a character that people could relate to, because I think people tend to flatter themselves in terms of…if you want to create a character that people relate to, it’s usually a character that people imagine themselves to be, somebody who’s sort of heroic and courageous but not recognized as such by others. And I always found that to be kind of false. I feel like it’s sort of pandering to a certain kind of narcissism on the reader’s part. So I’m always trying to create characters that seem like plausible human beings in whatever situation they’re in. Which to me usually means that they’re sort of erratic and scared and confused and trying to move toward their own comfort and safety at all times. That seems to be the general principle of how humanity operates.

There’s a kind of anti-art-school feel to Art School Confidential and the art class scenes in Ghost World. What do you have to say for yourself now that there are comics courses in art school and people like you are so fancy?

The thing is, all that stuff [in Art School Confidential and Ghost World] is a response to being in art school in 1985. It was really such a different world. I used to tell my teachers I wanted to do comics and I would try to show them Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman and other examples of people doing really great comics that have clear value to them, and they’d just shake their heads, you know, like, “Why would you want to do that?” And then they’d try to teach you whatever weird thing they were doing, and it was always something like neon sculpture or something. Like, that’s fine for you to do that, but why would you ever presume that’s what anybody else should be doing? It was really deeply frustrating. You were kind of put in a world with these people who should’ve been the very first people to recognize that comics could be a viable art form, and they were the most resistant of all.

What kept you wanting to do comics, despite all that?

Of course I tried to do all that stuff, but it was literally a guessing game. I would just throw some stuff together like, “Maybe this’ll work?” Every once in a while it would be like, “This is great! You get an A!” and I’d have no idea why. I’d try it again the next week and it’s like, “No, this is terrible, you get a D.” I had no clue what it was all about. Still don’t. Luckily I had a really clear sense of what I wanted to do, and I was sort of fueled by the resistance. It made me feel like I should really dig in my heels—I had that kind of adolescent thing of, “I’ll show them! I’ll prove them wrong!” And all these schools that teach comics, I don’t know that anybody good ever comes out of any of those. I don’t know, I think it’s something you have to learn on your own. Pretty much any art form is like that. You can learn a few little basic tricks, but you gotta figure out your own way of doing things.

A lot of typical superhero stories have that “I’ll show them!” attitude, but in The Death Ray Andy doesn’t really seem to want to get back at people who made fun of him or whatever.

If I think back to myself at that time, I would’ve felt like I was being oppressed by others, like really seriously, but if I were to look around and try to find a specific target for my anger, it would’ve been pretty tough. It was mostly, like, people just sort of dismiss you by ignoring you or in very subtle slight ways. Most people don’t bother with a kid like Andy. It’s not like they spend time picking on him—they just don’t think about him ever. That’s hard to respond to. So I wanted to capture that feeling of having a desire for revenge but not necessarily having a target for it.

The book kind of loops back to that, to ignoring versus negative attention. When characters are killed there’s no bloody death scene—they just disappear and aren’t on the next panel.

Yeah, I find that really disturbing, too. I used to have dreams a lot when I was a kid about, like, people disappearing—like they’d just be gone. And I’d wake up screaming. It was just extremely horrifying. Somehow a body riddled with bullets is like, “Well, there it is, and now I understand why they are no longer living.” But the thought of just not existing and being gone is really terrifying. There’s something about drawing comics too, where sometimes I’ll draw a guy in the background or something and he doesn’t look right and I’ll just erase him, and then I’ll have this feeling of like, “I just obliterated this human life.” Like, here was a guy who never existed before and I put him there and now he’s gone, and there is something really disturbing about that.

Have any of your characters ever made their way into your dreams?

Every once in a while, yeah. I’ll have a dream where one of my characters is just like, a guy. Like Wilson actually seems to me like a totally real guy.

Are they weird real-life versions or are they drawings?

The few times I can think of they’re real-life versions, which is really very disturbing. Another dream I have all the time is where I’ve finished some comic and I’m looking through it and it’s just some totally made-up comic, and in the dream I often think, “Wait, I’m dreaming of this really cool comic, I gotta remember what it is so I can replicate it in reality!” And then as I’m looking through it it starts to change into something else and it’s this feeling of, like, Aw, I’ll never remember what I’m looking at! It’s frustrating.

You’ve talked about being into comedy like MAD magazine growing up. What comedy do you like today?

I like all the typical stuff, like Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais and all those guys. Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s actually this new show on HBO by Mike White called Enlightened, with Laura Dern, and it’s so subtle that it’s not even a comedy—it’s so close to just being like a really unbearable soap opera or something, but it’s just over the edge of being comedy, and I find myself laughing my head off at it without really understanding why. It’s kind of brilliantly on that razor’s edge. But, I don’t know, I’m sort of a sucker for anything that’s even trying to be funny.

Ghost World the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for “best adapted screenplay.” Was that weird for you? Like, first you couldn’t even get your art teachers to understand why you wanted to do comics and then you had to do Oscars stuff?

Yes, it’s quite a leap. That’s kind of how it is being any kind of an author, I think. You’re spending so much time alone where you’re just desperately hoping the FedEx guy will come so you have somebody to talk to during the day. You’re just really living inside your own head in this little tiny microworld in your studio, and then all of a sudden you’re out speaking in front of Russell Crowe or something. There’s no in-between like where you go and speak to five people and then 20 people, it’s just you’re doing one or the other, so I think it’s actually really bad for your mental state. I much prefer the staying-at-home part of it.

It’s a very monklike way of living. Would you ever be able to share a studio?

No, I can’t imagine that. I’ve actually always wanted to hire somebody to help me do stuff, and it would save me a ton of time, but the thought of just having someone in my studio…I’d feel like I’d have to make lunch for them and constantly entertain them. When my son has kids over I feel like I constantly have to keep them entertained. I don’t have the personality to just turn everything off and ignore people and focus on my work. I have to really be completely alone.

What was influential to you growing up, visually?

Just the whole world. As a kid I loved the look of the early ’60s, kind of the pre-hippie era, just the haircuts and clothes and the way women dressed, it was really appealing. And then all of a sudden people started wearing, like, filthy clothes and messy hair and stuff. That seemed really hideous and horrible to me. It definitely relates to what was going on in my life at the time because, as with many kids who grew up then, my family was just disintegrating while all that stuff came in, so it represented this chaos that was entering my life. But I still have an affection for that pre-1968 look, that kind of saturated Technicolor look. That seems like the real world to me, or like the way things should be.

Say someone finishes this interview and wants to get into reading comics. Where should they start? Other than your new book.

[Laughs] Yes, I would start with all of my work! You know, the publishers I’ve worked with, Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, you kind of can’t go wrong with 90% of the stuff they publish. Go to drawnandquarterly.com or fantagraphics.com and just look through all the stuff they’ve published over the years. There are many, many great things. There are great artists like Robert Crumb and the Hernandez brothers that have these gigantic bodies of work that could take years of your life just to get through, and then there are other artists that have much less out there that are much easier to navigate like Chester Brown, who has made four or five books, but they’re all amazing. There’s lots of stuff out there. I wouldn’t recommend anything specific because I feel like we’re at the point now with comics where people can kind of figure out on their own what they like.

What would you say to someone who wants to make comics? Not about a career as a cartoonist, but about the actual process of making them?

A good way to start is to make comics about your own life. Sort of a good way to learn how to create fiction, if that’s what you wanna do, is if you’re really honest and do something that feels like you’re kind of revealing a secret to people. I’ve never read anything like that that isn’t interesting, no matter how crudely done it was. And I would always say don’t try too hard starting out. You get people who have been doing comics for two weeks and they’re like, “I’m gonna do a 500-page graphic novel about the Civil War!” or something. It’s like, you’re gonna do three pages of that and then never ever draw comics again because you’ll realize what a horrible, boring idea that would be. I would say just keep it to two or three pages and then build up from there. But don’t overshoot your abilities. ♦

15 Comments

  • MeeMoo December 28th, 2011 3:27 PM

    Wonderful interview, Tavi! I am a big fan of Mr. Clowes and had the pleasure of meeting him at a book signing once. The most amazing part was that he took the time to give each person in line a little illustration along with an autograph. Awesome guy is awesome.

    It is always interesting to hear thoughts on the accessibility of culture these days and whether or not it is a good thing. Patton Oswalt’s piece in Wired elaborated on it beautifully (with a hint of terrific nerd bitterness):

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/12/ff_angrynerd_geekculture/all/1

  • December 28th, 2011 5:40 PM

    I’m a pretty big fan of Daniel’s so I was really excited about reading this. And then I was really hoping that you had done the interview, Tavi, because then I knew I would like it even more. And happily it was you that spoke with Mr Clowes – and it’s so good!!! (I think I was wanting you to do it because you sort of introduced me to him via ‘Ghost World’ – so I associate you pretty closely with his work.)

    Of course I love all the jokes in much of what Daniel does, but I think that even more than that, I love his attention to character. And how he talks about people taking comfort in fiction – I think I take a lot of comfort in his characters. This is particularly true for me with his characters from the movies ‘Ghost World’ and ‘Art School Confidential’. When I’m watching these films, I relate to the characters a lot! So it was very interesting reading about how these characters (characters)came about, how he put them in a setting and gave them life. I also appreciate his tip on creating fiction, where you reveal a secret to people – a great idea!

    And he just seems like a nice person… “I don’t have the personality to just turn everything off and ignore people…”

    Awesome interview, Tavi. One to really treasure!

    P.S Daniel shouldn’t stand too close to Russell Crowe – I believe he has a nasty habit of throwing phones! :-)

  • Gabi December 28th, 2011 5:44 PM

    ROOKIE, I LOVE YOU

  • laurenolivia December 28th, 2011 8:27 PM

    I think this has been my favourite part of Rookie so far :)

  • Tavi December 29th, 2011 12:11 AM

    It would’ve been tacky to add this at the end, so I’ll say so here: I absolutely love how uninspiring the last line is.

  • Mags December 29th, 2011 1:27 AM

    I disagree about his assessment regarding the current generation. Trust me, if you drive off the freeway into some random small town, you will find lots of cool stuff. You just have to shut off your computer and leave your house. There is LOTS of stuff out there. The problem isn’t that those quirky, hidden gems have been “plowed over,” the problem is that people aren’t willing to go out of their way to find them. Most people, anyway. Including myself. I need to go out and explore more.

  • rubyhobbit December 29th, 2011 4:40 AM

    This is really great! I liked what he said about letting the kids choose what they want to be and they way he describes his characters and that he is very much like him(duh), myself as well. I wish i can just go out whenever I felt like it to see more of the world but I’m only 17 and my parents are strict. Seriously, if I could I would :(

  • WitchesRave December 29th, 2011 1:02 PM

    Creepy timing, I just got Ghost World for christmas o_O

  • Hunter December 29th, 2011 7:49 PM

    Good questions

  • Razzmatazzberry December 30th, 2011 9:13 PM

    The part about listening to only an artist’s hits was really resonant! It’s a bummer, but so true these days. I have a record player (I know this is pretentious sounding) and listening to an entire album by one artist is such a different experience than just listening to various favorite singles on my iPod. I feel like this feeling ties with Ghostworld but I’m not sure in what way. It is probably somewhere in the interview (which was great by the way!!). Maybe in like searching something your already familiar with (suburban hometown) for something special rather than mulling over the known attractions and being bored.

  • susannaw January 1st, 2012 7:53 PM

    did enid really appear before daria? daria was in like 5 episodes of beavis and butthead in 1993, he might be right, but i thought id put that out there.

    • Anaheed January 1st, 2012 8:01 PM

      Interesting! I am a research nerd so I just looked it up, and it appears that Daria appeared ONE MONTH before Enid! Daria’s first B&B appearance was May 1993; the first Ghost World strip came out in June ’93. So they are basically twins.

      • Anaheed January 1st, 2012 8:01 PM

        Could I use the words appear/appearance any more in one comment sheesh.

  • Emilyisananglophile January 2nd, 2012 5:14 AM

    To be honest, I didn’t know who this guy was before the interview… which is especially embarrassing for, while I wouldn’t call comic books the major part of the things that make me a complete and total nerd, I visit the comic book store every wednesday with my best friend (an actual complete comic book nerd)… the people at the local comic book store know me by name and, between Fables, Runaways, Sandman, Scott Pilgrim, and Y the Last Man, I’m hardly a virgin to the medium. Scott Pilgrim is among my favorite movies. I saw Thor, X-Men First Class, Captain America, and The Green Lantern this year, some of them multiple times. I am sincerely upset that The Avengers movie comes out the day before the AP Euro exam, so I can’t go to the midnight premier… and my friends are like me. We’ve spent hours discussing Loci’s psychology and we wrote to the actor who plays him… any way, I looked into this guy further… very cool.

    Also, instead of trying to get me into their tastes I went hunting in the attic and discovered old records. My dad and I bond over Elvis Costello and my mom and I over the Sex Pistols… but even more than that, I was slowly brought into the love of this music by my uncle and cousins, who started giving my burnt CDs as gifts… I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully express my appreciation.

  • caro nation January 8th, 2012 12:30 PM

    Wilson was the first book that ever made me sob uncontrollably.