Master of the Form
Oakland author Daniel Clowes is happy to follow his vision, whether or not it has a Hollywood off-ramp.
By Peter Crooks
Daniel Clowes is undoubtedly one of the premier graphic novelists in the history of the medium, even if the Oakland-based writer prefers "cartoonist" as his job title. Clowes’s books are masterworks of the paneled comic format, featuring storytelling that can shift from hilarious to haunting to heartbreaking from page to page.
A new book, Original Art: Daniel Clowes (out November 12 ), takes readers into Clowes’s artistic process, with museum-worthy reproductions of his illustrations, including several never-before-seen works. Drawing from Clowes’s groundbreaking comic book Eightball and best-selling graphic novels Ghost World, Ice Haven, Wilson, and Patience, Original Art lets readers explore his stories from perspectives not available in the finished publications.
"This book is for people who are really interested to see how comics work," says Clowes, taking a break from work on a new book to chat with Diablo. "There have been a number of similar releases for other artists, and I love them. I have all of them."
Clowes is the first to admit that this new tome isn’t the best entry point for a casual reader. It’s a graduate-level examination of 30 years of Clowes’s work—150 pages of drawings that give a detailed look at the intricate elements that go into each page. It’s also a huge presentation: The book is about 16 by 24 inches. The oversize format allowed Clowes to create one of his most elaborate covers, featuring a version of the artist working at his desk while surrounded by his own creative universe.
"The publisher sent me an advance copy the other day, and it weighs nine pounds," Clowes says, chuckling. "It weighs more than all my other books stacked together."
Raised in Chicago and trained as an artist in New York City, Clowes moved to the East Bay in the mid-1990s. He lives with his wife, Erika, and son, Charlie, in a craftsman-style house in Oakland and is proud to note that he has been in the East Bay longer than any other place in his life.
Clowes loves to stroll Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue during work breaks, and the street and its city frequently find their way into his drawings. Gaylord’s Caffe Espresso on Piedmont provides a background for a blind date in Mister Wonderful, the serialized piece he created for The New York Times Magazine from 2007 to ’08.
Even Clowes’s earliest visit to the East Bay shows up in his work: A character in The Death-Ray (2011) recalls a childhood summer spent in Livermore—similar to the one Clowes experienced in 1969. ("We went to an A’s game and watched the moon landing on television," he remembers.)
Of course, you don’t have to be a local to understand Clowes’s oeuvre. His books present deeply empathetic characters through prose and pictures. Ghost World (1997) tells the story of two teenage girls about to face the real world after graduating from high school. Its note-perfect depiction of adolescence has drawn comparisons to a 1990s version of The Catcher in the Rye. The acclaimed Berkeley author Michael Chabon has called it "one of the best books about adolescence written."
Like Ghost World, The Death-Ray was originally in Eightball before being released as a graphic novel in 2011. The Death-Ray deconstructs superhero mythologies by applying them to a teenage boy whose parents have died.
Wilson (2010) was created while Clowes was sitting by his dying father’s side. In it, the artist conjured a Born Loser–style misanthrope who provides particularly sociopathic punch lines to various situations. Each page in the book is a stand-alone event, drawn in the style of various classic newspaper comic strips; the collective effect of the book’s 80 pages is remarkable.
Clowes’s output has earned him a legion of obsessive comic fans as well as mainstream accolades. In 2011, Clowes received the PEN Center Award for Outstanding Body of Work in Graphic Literature. The next year, the Oakland Museum of California hosted a major retrospective, Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes.
Meanwhile, Hollywood has taken notice of his unique voice, although Clowes has been careful about the projects he has brought to film. In 2001, Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff shared an Academy Award nomination for their screenplay adaptation of Ghost World. The movie was an early showcase for a young Scarlett Johansson, who would go on to make other films based on comics (including Avengers: Endgame). In 2006, Clowes wrote a screenplay for Art School Confidential, an under-seen comedy starring Jim Broadbent and John Malkovich that was based on an Eightball comic. Two years ago, Woody Harrelson played the titular character in Wilson, for which Clowes wrote the screenplay as well.
Clowes’s most recent book, 2016’s Patience, was unlike anything he had written before. The book melds mind-bending science fiction—time travel, specifically—with heartbreaking romance and questions about the meaning of existence. The artwork and story are dazzling, and the 180-page book could be turned into an epic movie. Clowes is just waiting for the right filmmaker to adapt the material. If a Patience movie doesn’t happen, that’s fine; Clowes isn’t interested in compromising his vision to make a film studio happy.
"At this point, I’m less interested in collaborating or working with a team of people to create a movie," he says. "I’m happiest to stay at my desk and draw. That’s what I want to focus on for now, and to follow that vision where it goes."
The Magical Realist
Groundbreaking cartoonist Gene Luen Yang still believes in the power of comics.
By Morgan Mitchell
When Gene Luen Yang bought his first comic book in 1984—Superman, of course—the then–fifth grader had no way of knowing that 32 years later, he would author a Superman comic of his own. Or that he’d write the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. But he knew he wanted to be a cartoonist.
"I feel like my love for comics is prelogical," Yang says with a laugh. "I’m fascinated by the combination of words and pictures, how they can support each other and even contradict each other. I also think—especially today, with the digital media that completely surrounds us—there’s an intimacy in actually holding a story in your hands."
Yang’s infatuation with comics has been a thread throughout his life, from his childhood, to his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, to his 17 years spent teaching at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, all the way to his postgraduate work at CSU East Bay, where his masters project focused on comics and education. In turn, his life has inspired his books.
In 2006, Yang published his first full-color graphic novel, American Born Chinese, a work that garnered him the Michael L. Printz Award, which recognizes the best book written for teens, and the Eisner Award, the comic book equivalent of an Academy Award, as well as the National Book Award nomination. While the story is in no way autobiographical (after all, it features a magical monkey king), it is certainly steeped with details drawn from Yang’s life. As an example, he points to a scene at the end of the novel that takes place in a café. "I modeled that café after an actual café in Oakland Chinatown that my friends and I used to go to," he says. "Throughout the book, there’s a lot of that East Bay feeling."
Similarly, it was Yang’s time as a computer-science teacher that led to Secret Coders, a kids’ mystery series that also teaches coding. (He received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship while working on the project in 2016.) His own children’s shenanigans were a source of inspiration for Prime Baby, a comic strip about "mathematics, aliens, and sibling rivalry" that was published in The New York Times. And in his upcoming graphic novel, Yang returns once more to Bishop O’Dowd, this time venturing into nonfiction. Dragon Hoops, due out in March 2020, will follow the men’s 2014–15 varsity basketball team and its coach as they attempt to win the California State Championship after five years of losses.
"I’ve always associated basketball with humiliation and pain, so it was the last thing I expected, doing a book about basketball," Yang explains. "But I became friends with the head coach, Lou Richie, [while I was teaching at Bishop O’Dowd] and I found this really incredible story."
Very aware of the often dismissive attitudes that continue to surround comic books and graphic novels, Yang knows that not everyone will pick up his work, but he’s encouraged by the growing audience for the medium. "[When I was a kid], nobody knew what a graphic novel was," he says. "In many ways, I’m very jealous of kids these days. That sounds like such an old man thing to say, but it’s true! The number of different genres that are being represented in comics today is breathtaking."
When asked what he would say to convince someone to take a chance on a graphic novel, Yang contemplates the question for a moment before replying. "There are stories that are best told through certain media, right? There are stories that are best told through novels, stories that are best told through television [or] film. And there are stories that are best told through comic books and graphic novels," he says. "If you don’t read [them], you are missing out on a treasure trove."
Thi Bui melds past and present in a true-to-life story about immigration and parenthood.
By Morgan Mitchell
In 2018, the San Francisco Public Library made history with its pick for One City One Book, a program that encourages the entire community to read the same book at the same time. Author Thi Bui’s debut memoir, The Best We Could Do, was the first graphic novel ever selected for the citywide literary event. City librarian Michael Lambert said about the work, "This book eloquently delves into the human side of the immigration story and is a must-read for anyone who cares about the conversations happening across our country."
Berkeley resident Bui was ecstatic to have her book be celebrated by her Bay Area community. But at the same time, there was something deeply troubling about the ongoing relevance of her novel—which follows Bui’s family during the fall of South Vietnam and their escape to the United States—despite the decades that have passed.
"There are more refugees now than there were when the Vietnamese exodus was happening—even more than right after World War II, which is a crazy thing," Bui says. "Why is the world still like this? It’s a problem humanity has to figure out. I’m here to use my experience as someone who came from the other side to try to balance the narrative."
The Best We Could Do is the product of more than a decade of work. In order to tell her family’s story, Bui had to learn the graphic-novel medium, conduct countless interviews with her mother and father, and do considerable historical research. There are numerous completed drafts of the project that showcase entirely different art, due to how Bui’s style evolved over the years.
Perhaps because of this, every part of the graphic memoir feels entirely deliberate, from the stark, minimalist illustrations to the tritone, watercolor-esque coloration to the four photographs that appear more than 200 pages into the book. Following dozens upon dozens of pages filled with only drawings of real-life characters, the refugee pictures of Bui and her family pack a punch.
"Every Vietnamese person that I know who went through the camps has a refugee picture. It’s such a strong reminder of where we came from that I knew I wanted to use it in some way," Bui says. "But because of the news, we become desensitized to refugee pictures. To have the reader spend almost the entire length of the book getting to know the characters in this much more intimate way and then get hit with the photographs, I think, makes the photographs more true to what they mean."
As much as The Best We Could Do is about the Vietnamese refugee experience, it’s also about parenthood, which is why the book opens and closes with Bui’s experiences with the birth of her son and includes many present-day conversations with her parents. So it’s not surprising when Bui says her favorite response from readers is "people telling me that they read the book and cried, and then called their parents."
Bui continues to explore the theme of parenthood in her upcoming release, Chickens of the Sea, due out in November. A children’s book rather than a graphic novel, the story comes from Pulitzer Prize–winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son, Ellison, and the art is by Bui and her son, Hien. "It was a really cool opportunity," Bui says. "We did it all on my iPad, so we were able to work on it on trains and in cafés abroad. We worked on it in a ramen shop in the Bay Area."
So much of the work was done overseas because Bui is also researching her next book of graphic nonfiction, Nowhereland. Focused on deportation in the U.S., the novel’s release date will depend on how fast Bui can write. Here’s hoping it won’t take another decade—but if it does, we’re certain it will be worth the wait.
Three to Read
Check out these other graphic novelists with strong local ties.
1. Adrian Tomine
Raised in Sacramento, Tomine graduated from UC Berkeley and lived in the East Bay in the early 2000s before relocating to New York. He created the acclaimed independent comic Optic Nerve and later wrote Shortcomings, Summer Blonde, and other beloved graphic novels. His illustrations have appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and many other national magazines.
Must read: Shortcomings, Tomine’s book about the romantic life of a 30-something movie theater manager, showed up on countless top-10 lists back in 2007. The story is set in Berkeley and provides a provocative and thoughtful look at Bay Area multiculturalism.
2. Rina Ayuyang
Ayuyang, an Oakland resident and former cartoonist-in-residence at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, made her mark in 2014 with the online comic series Beginning’s End. She runs a small-press publishing shop in Oakland, Yam Books, to showcase fellow cartoonists’ work.
Must read: Blame This on the Boogie—Ayuyang’s 2018 graphic novel about a young Filipino girl living in a musical fantasy world—is moving and beautiful. The author used colored pencils to create a vibrant visual texture.
3. Thien Pham
Oakland-based teacher Pham received raves for his 2012 graphic novel, Sumo, about a washed-up football player who moves to Japan to take up sumo wrestling. He has worked with fellow East Bay cartoonists Gene Luen Yang on the book Level Up, and Rina Ayuyang on the podcast The Comix Claptrap, which features interviews with acclaimed artists.
Must read: Pham’s I Like Eating comic, which appeared in the East Bay Express, took readers on a tour of local eateries. The series contains insider info, such as why there are two East Bay hot dog chains with similar names—one called Caspers and the other, Kasper’s. —P.C.