by Craig Elliot
Daniel Clowes is 38 Years Old, Likes Coffee,
and Still Owns a Rotary Telephone.
CE: Do you remember yourself as a kid?
DC: Yep. Every minute of it. I'm still bitter.
If it's true that we can often find the
clues to explain our lives as adults by examining our childhoods,
it would seem noteworthy to mention that for Daniel Clowes, comics
have held a fascination for him from before the time he could
read. "I can remember looking at a big stack of Jimmy Olsen
comics that my brother left lying around in my room," says
the creator of the comic called Eightball. "I must have been
3 years old or less, and I remember paging through these comics,
trying to figure out the stories. I couldn't read the words, so
I made up my own stories. Then I remember reading them years later,
when I was 9 or 10, when I could actually understand the words.
I remember at that time, I was very aware of what I thought when
I was three or four, thinking,"I had this all wrong!"
"They were a lot more violent and
scary. I was a very fearful little kid, and I would always see
the worst in everything. The glass was half-empty. I would see
people kissing, and I would think one was trying to bite the other."
It seems appropriate that Clowes decided then
that he would spend his life drawing comics, correcting the discrepancy
between what he saw and what he understood it as meaning.
Clowes' comics are a haven for malcontents and
outsiders, reflecting back on itself this unsympathetic world
with all its shadings of pettiness and stupidity. His pen explores
the infinite freakshow of genetic permutation, human and otherwise;
in Clowes' world, the beautiful are ugly, and the ugly are sickly
fascinating. All the while, his stories are told with the skill
and clarity of a cinematographer.
"I like the look of old photographs,"
he responds softly. "I have this certain vision of the way
I want my comics to look; this sort of photographic realism, but
with a certain abstraction that comics can give. It's kind of
a fine line."
"There's a whole different thing between
a comic and a photograph, too. You can give some kind of spark
of life to a comic that a photograph doesn't really have. A photograph,
even if it's connecting with you, it seems very dead on the page
sometimes. Comic characters have to have some kind of life breathed
into them, and I'm never exactly sure how that's done, but you
can tell when it works and when it doesn't. There's nothing worse
than looking at a comic when somebody doesn't have that. It's
like looking at store windows or something."
Aside from his highly critical eye, Clowes has
a wicked mind for satire; the two combined mean caustic hilarity.
He can lay it on in thick layers, or with a subtle touch that
has you laughing out loud one moment before you start worrying
about if he was talking about you. It can ultimately earn a guy
a reputation for being a bit of a dick, actually, but Clowes sees
things differently. "I think there's two sides to that coin,
where, if you didn't care, you wouldn't harp on it so much. When
you see somebody who's got a complaining personality, it usually
means that they had some vision of what things could be, and they're
constantly disappointed by that. I think that would be the camp
that I would fall into -- constantly horrified by the things people
"But you know, at some point I should
wake up and realize that that's the way things are and try to
deal with them in that way, but I certainly tend to dwell on the
negative aspects of humanity, I guess. It's more interesting.
And I certainly don't exclude myself from my disappointment."
Over its ten-year history -- "Where has
my youth gone?" -- Eightball has undergone an astounding
evolution. It began as a collection of shorter bits, some one-offs
and others, such as his Lloyd Llewellyn and Dan Pussey characters
and "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron," his first efforts
at carrying stories and characters through numerous issues. Clowes
has reached the point now where each Eightball's cover contains
a complete instalment of his most recent serial, David Boring,
a guy whose Clowes-regular life is being fucked up by what may
be the end of the world.
Clowes says, as opposed to the army of characters
he has sent forth to represent himself in the past, he is not
David Boring. That isn't to say there aren't hints of him in there,
like Boring's fascination with old style comics and his general,
underlying sense of dread, for which Clowes claims artistic license.
"Just because he's not me, doesn't mean I can't put things
like that in there. I've given him a much different persona than
I've ever done before."
That might make it sound like Daniel Clowes has
it made, in a sense; that he's living that dream of doing what
he wants to do, on his own terms, and all that crap, but being
an "adult comic artist," he says, comes with its own
peculiar set of quirks. "There are advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages all come into play when you're just starting out
because it's a field where if you have any talent at all, you
can really come in and get some attention right away. You can
be 16 years old and get written up in Spin magazine," he
says with a laugh.
"Once you're at my stage, it gets very frustrating
because all the stuff you could use to your advantage when you
began now starts working against you. You get trapped, there's
nowhere left to go and you wonder, ®How can I get people to read
these comics?' After a while, you have to sort of give up and
realize that it's a marginal thing."
And that, in a lifetime full of them, is Clowes'
biggest complaint. "I love the medium and I love individual
comics, but the business is nothing I would be proud of. It's
embarrassing to be involved in the same business as the mainstream
comic thing. It's still very embarrassing to tell other adults
that I draw comic books -- their instant, preconceived notions
of what that means. Just to have to go through such a rigmarole
every time you tell somebody what you do, and then when you tell
them, ®I do adult comics,' of course they think it's some pornographic
"You have to say, ®Basically, I'm one of
five people who do these sort of comics for adults,' but unfortunately,
no adults ever see them, except for a handful of weirdos. I mean
that in the best possible way."
"There's a lot of great cartoonists
working, but I don't see too many people coming along who are
of the 'where have you been all my life?' variety. People I tend
to read are the Fantagraphics mainstays -- Love and Rockets, Chris
Ware, people from Drawn and Quarterly; I like most of their artists."
Chris Ware -- "Yeah, he's great. He's probably
the one guy that's come along in the last 8 or 9 years who could
be considered indispensable, but other than that, there's not
much out there that I've seen that's all that interesting. There's
people with potential, but that only gets you so far."
Depressing -- "Yeah, although I shouldn't
complain because I actually do have a few potential ways to get
out of that coming up. I may actually be getting published by
a bigger publisher."
Band getting signed to a major label -- "See,
all that stuff is totally meaningless to me. I just don't think
that has any validity, if somebody's doing good work. I don't
think anything to do with who publishes the work matters at all,
as long as they're not compromising to get published. I think
the thing with the bands is that people get signed to big labels,
and there's all this money funneled into it, and then there's
the pressure to write hits; they can't just churn out a record
of whatever they want. I don't think what I'm doing will ever
be akin to that. I don't know what a ®hit' would be. I can't really
alter what I do; I can only do it the way I know how to do it.
And I have no desire to change that to make it popular."
When did you decide? -- "It was right then.
I remember just staring at this Batman comic; I stared at it so
much that later, I haven't seen the comic in 35 years, but I can
tell you who inked it. I can recognize the technique. It had those
perfect lines that people can get when they're professional cartoonists.
I was very, very impressed with that. I thought, ®How can a human
being draw like this?' I tried to get my dad and others to draw
like that, and of course they couldn't. I spent my entire adolescence
trying to buy every different kind of pen available because I
was sure that was all it was -- you needed to have a special pen
that enabled you to do this. Sadly, not true."
Move to Berkeley an influence? -- "I don't
think so. I was thirty-something when I moved here, so it wasn't
like I was an impressionable young lad. I was pretty set in my
ways by the time I was 11, so... laugh
Do they every spring forth full-grown? -- "No,
not really. Little bits and pieces in my head, but I've almost
never had an idea for a story where the whole thing just came
to me. It's always been a process where slowly, it comes together
and you have to keep your mind open to ideas relating to a certain
idea. It's actually a fairly mysterious process."
Clowes is not entirely sold on the suggestion
that the comic is less egocentric now than when it began -- "Yeah
well, I disguise it better. I think, at the time I was doing that,
it was sort of a novelty. I was one guy doing that at the time,
and then a lot of people came along and started doing it ¼ it
was this ®boom' of alternative comics, and everywhere you'd go,
you'd see somebody doing that sort of story, so I got out of it
before it got really old."
38 years old
Organization. The list gets longer and longer, and as it increases
in length, the will to do any of it diminishes even faster. --
"Yes. Right now especially. It's one of those times when
all these things are coming up or I've got something to do. Jury
duty. I've spent hours trying to get out of it."
Process -- (laugh) "Usually, after I finish
an issue, I sit and do nothing for about a week. I usually plan
to take a month off, and then after about five days, I can't stand
it any more and I have to get back to work. I have nothing to
do and I'm just sitting there all day. I usually have a notebook
of ideas that I collect. As I'm working on one issue, I'm sort
of thinking about ideas for the next. So I sit down with this
giant notebook of ideas, and I cross out all the really stupid
ones that seemed brilliant at 4 in the morning 3 months ago and
now don't make any sense. Then I take all the decent ones and
I try and see if there's any thematic unity to all of them. I
tend to write two or three stories at once, and then often I'll
realize that two of them are very similar and I can put them together
and combine them into something. There's generally some sort of
magical process by which they all come together at some point.
Then I try to sketch out the entire thing in skeleton in some
sort of vague plot line. Then I sit down and draw it page by page
and do the writing as I go along. I usually write about two pages
in advance -- actual dialogue and things like that. I try to keep
it relatively spontaneous, without too much advance thought
Naked men or women? -- "It's a toss-up,
I guess. It's kind of fun to draw the naked women, but there's
a special thrill out of drawing a really hideous naked man. We
had to do a lot of that in art school, so I feel I've got plenty
of training in that."
Foreshadowing, recurring themes -- "No,
it's all intentional. There may be some cases that I wasn't even
really aware of myself, but usually it's all planned." Raygun
-- 'I find it impossible to read, but I believe that's the intention."
Folks might have been led to believe that you're
a strange and awful man -- (laugh) "Only Canadians would
Regular guy -- "Well that was that writer's
Devotion makes you abnormal -- "Yep. It's
kind of sad that way."
5 or 10 years. --- "Ask me in five or ten
years. I would like to be doing comics until I'm blind and suffering
from horrible arthritis, but I'd like to do other things as well."
Make a movie? -- "Yeah, sure. There's lots
I'd like to do."
Peter Bagge -- "Well that's someone who's
totally obsessed with making TV shows and movies and all that.
He's not interested in comics any more."
Puts himself right in the middle of the action
-- "That's generally the source of my fear or disappointment.
I think of myself and think, ®I could easily do the same thing.'
Whenever I hear of somebody doing some horrible thing, ®I could
imagine doing that. All it would take is the littlest push...'
"Well, of all the characters"? -- "I
think the girls in Ghost World, to some degree, I feel the closest
to." Two girls, 18 or 19, extremely sensitive, keep world
at bay through hard shells of irony and sarcasm.
Modern Cartoonist-threshold -- "I was sort
of trying to, in a way, that was supposed to be a call to arms
in one sense and an ironic statement at the same time. I could
very clearly see that that wasn't going to happen, and I was sort
of trying to shame somebody into coming along and at least trying
to get something going."
Get to the Daniel Clowes page on the