Meet: Daniel Clowes
Cutting-edge artist breaks into the mainstream with new books, movies, and an exhibition at the Oakland Museum.
Photo by Jonathan Bennett
50 / Graphic Novelist / Oakland
Ever wonder what it’s like to be nominated for an Academy Award, to walk the red carpet, and schmooze at the star-studded after-parties? For Daniel Clowes, the whole Oscar thing is not all it’s cracked up to be.
“It was awful,” says the Oakland artist and writer, who was nominated for his screenplay for Ghost World, the 2001 film based on his breakthrough graphic novel. “It was just like being back in high school but with exponentially more popular kids. Instead of the jock and the cheerleader, it was Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.”
Clowes’ response might not be what Joan Rivers wants to hear on the red carpet, but it’s consistent with the 50-year-old’s lifelong understanding of the outsider. Clowes, best known for his groundbreaking comic books, or graphic novels, has a laser focus on the pain and pathos of less-than-glamorous but always fascinating characters: Anxious adolescents and middle-aged miscreants fill comic panels usually reserved for Spider-Man or Charlie Brown.
In comic book circles, Clowes has been nothing less than a god for the past 25 years. But in pop culture’s mainstream, he’s still a niche artist. “More people saw the film Ghost World than have read all my comics combined,” he admits.
But that is about to change: Several of Clowes’ books are now in development for high-profile movies, including one to be directed by Alexander Payne, whose film Sideways ranks with Ghost World near the top of the list of great American comedies from the previous decade. And this month, the Oakland Museum of California will present a new exhibition of Clowes’ work. Modern Cartoonist: the Art of Daniel Clowes, opening April 14, is the first American exhibition devoted exclusively to Clowes’ unique and brilliant work.
“Seeing the drawings at full size, before publication, will demonstrate the quality of the work and also show his talents as a writer,” says exhibit cocurator Susan Miller, who notes Clowes recently won the prestigious Pen Center Literary Award.
THE BOY WHO LOVED MAD
Clowes (rhymes with browse), tall, lanky, and soft-spoken, grew up in Chicago, a shy child in an eclectic family. His grandfather was an esteemed history professor at the University of Chicago, his father was a furniture craftsman, his mother owned an auto repair shop, and his stepfather was killed in an auto racing accident when Clowes was just five.
“I was very innocent and played by the rules as a kid,” says Clowes. “But every friend I ever had was kind of this bad kid. I was always drawn into the dark drama of their lives.”
Those friendships with troublemakers infuse Clowes’ work; both The Death-Ray and David Boring feature a shy boy with a nasty friend.
Clowes connected with comics and cartoons at a young age, scouring his older brother’s collection of DC and Marvel superhero books. But it was the subversive humor of Mad magazine (and later the satire of National Lampoon) that helped Clowes find his rebellious calling.
“As a kid, I lived my life waiting for the next issue of Mad to come out,” he says.
ADVENTURES IN THE UNDERGROUND
After high school, Clowes attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (both his comic and film Art School Confidential are unforgettable gems about the travails of pretentious art school students) and worked for Cracked magazine, an uglier cousin of Mad. In 1986, he launched his first comic book, Lloyd Llewellyn, and from 1989 to 2004, he published his seminal comic book, Eightball, a subversive series that brought to mind the underground comics of the 1960s and ’70s by artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. But where those artists broke ground, Clowes completely tore it up, both as an artist and as a writer, using the comic book format as a revolutionary storytelling vehicle.
“Every comic artist loves and appreciates Eightball,” says Alvin Buenaventura, an Oakland-based comics publisher and the editor of the new monograph, The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist. “But as Dan’s work has progressed, it’s almost as if all cartoonists have become afraid of him. Whenever he comes out with a new book, it’s always at a whole new level. He sets the bar higher every time.”
Clowes made the leap from the comic page to the big screen in 2001 with Ghost World. While Clowes was sheepish about attending the Oscars, he is proud of the film and the critical acclaim it received.
“Before Ghost World, I was always saying that the work that my colleagues were doing was equal to anything at that time that was being adapted to film,” says Clowes, who often mentions his fellow cartoonists’ work, as though trying to share the limelight. “So it was very gratifying to have the film received with such positive acclaim.”
Expect another hit when his 2010 book, Wilson, about an ignorant and insulting, yet strangely fascinating Oakland resident hits screens. Director Payne, well-known for his skill with complex, even unlikable characters, like those seen in About Schmidt and The Descendants, will direct.
Clowes created Wilson as a stick figure character that he would sketch while visiting his dying father in the hospital. “Wilson kept leading me in new directions and saying things that constantly surprised me,” says Clowes.
EAST BAY BOY
Clowes is excited that the first-ever exhibition of his entire body of work will be at the Oakland Museum.
“I’ve come to realize that I’m officially an East Bay guy,” he says. “I’ve been here 20 years now, more than any place I’ve lived.”
Residents will see East Bay references in most of Clowes’ recent work. Mister Wonderful, a 2011 graphic novel that originally ran as a serial in the New York Times Magazine, is set almost entirely on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue. And Wilson features drawings of the Tribune Tower, Lake Merritt, and the Grand Lake Theater.
Clowes came to live in the East Bay after meeting his wife, Erika, at a book signing on University Avenue in Berkeley. He laughs when asked if his wife was an adoring fan of his work.
“It was nothing like that,” he says, suggesting that he reaped the benefit of Erika’s low expectations. “She was there to get a book signed for an ex-boyfriend, who was a fan of my comics. I think she was assuming anybody that guy liked couldn’t have been very good.”
The couple have a seven-year-old son, Charlie, who has yet to see his father’s often very adult material. “I’ll keep him away from it as long as I can. But he has read the entire run of Peanuts, from the first strip to the last, which is something I still have not done,” says Clowes, beaming with equal parts proud papa and comic geek.
Clowes, who includes dedications to Erika in each of his books, is especially close to his family after surviving a serious health scare in 2006. “I had been feeling really sluggish, like I was getting old and slow. I went in for some tests, and the doctors found that I had a massively enlarged heart,” he says. “If it had happened a few years earlier, I would have suffered a slow and agonizing death. But thanks to advancements in science, the doctors at Stanford were able to perform an amazing, complex surgery. They had to refold my heart like an origami sculpture.”
THE NEW YORKER MOUNTAINTOP
While Diablo readers might not have read Ghost World or Ice Haven, it’s likely they have seen Clowes work in magazines such as GQ and Esquire, or most notably, on the cover of the New Yorker. His cover contributions have been gems, like the one of a member of the “boomerang” generation moving back into his childhood bedroom and hanging his Ph.D. degree on the wall amid posters and pennants, as his perplexed parents watch from the hallway.
“For a cartoonist, getting a New Yorker cover assignment is kind of like reaching the top of the mountain,” says Clowes. “Your work will be noticed by essentially every intelligent person in North America.”
But even in an elite forum like the New Yorker, Clowes’ subversive side can poke through. Take for instance the time Clowes created an exception to the magazine’s long-standing editorial policy of not making phallic references on the cover.
For the February 15, 2010, issue, Clowes re-created the pink butterfly from the New Yorker’s original 1925 cover, this time fluttering through the skyscrapers of Manhattan, saying, “Mankind! Surely they are the most vainglorious of all of God’s children! Where once grew verdant meadows they erect priapic monuments to their own dominion.”
Maybe they were banking on people not knowing what priapic, or phallic, means, but Clowes got the first-ever penis joke onto the cover of the New Yorker.
Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman would be proud.
Experience Daniel Clowes
Modern Cartoonist: the Art of Daniel Clowes: Oakland Museum of California presents the first American exhibition devoted exclusively to Clowes’ work. April 14–August 12, museumca.org.
Ghost World (1998): Two teenage girls graduate high school and try to find their place in an existential landscape of strip malls and apartment buildings. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking.
Ice Haven (2005): Clowes creates a sleepy Midwestern town with a dark underbelly in this riveting graphic novel.
Wilson (2010): Wilson, an Oakland resident, is one of Clowes’ most fascinating—possibly sociopathic—characters. Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) has signed on to direct a film based on Clowes’ screenplay.
The Death-Ray (2011): Adolescent loneliness is the subject of this “antisuperhero” story; look for Livermore references throughout. Actor Jack Black has commissioned the book for a film adaptation.
The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist (2012): This stunning monograph of the artist’s career features early childhood drawings and plenty of previously unseen work.
Ghost World (2001): The acclaimed film received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and features breakout performances by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, and an unforgettable turn by Steve Buscemi.
Art School Confidential (2006): This dark comedy about the life of art students features Oscar winners Jim Broadbent and Anjelica Huston, as well as John Malkovich and Buscemi.