It's not easy to stick a label on Daniel Clowes. In his 30-year-plus career, he's gone from submitting cartoons to Cracked to drawing New Yorker covers. He's illustrated a Ramones video and been nominated for an Academy Award for screenwriting. His comics have switched agilely between styles and genres, from the retro kitsch of Lloyd Llewellyn to the grotesque noir of Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, from Pussey!'s knowing send-up of comic nerddom to Ghost World's affecting portrait of teenage melancholy. Newsweek has hailed him as America's "premier underground cartoonist," yet that tag barely begins to capture the breadth or depth of his work.
Defying categorization suits Clowes (rhymes with "browse") just fine. "My generation of cartoonists, we're not exactly underground. I don't know what we are. We never had a name exactly," he explains as he tucks into a midday breakfast at a Berkeley eatery. "That was the best thing that ever happened to us." In person, the well-adjusted 49-year-old is a comforting contrast to his self-deprecating self-portraits (Ghost World's 18-year-old female protagonist flees Clowes when he turns out to be a goofy-looking "perv")—not to mention the assorted oddballs who populate his strips. Clowes describes his newest misfit, Wilson—a middle-aged man whose desire for connection is expressed by his need to sabotage every social interaction—as his "über-nemesis."
Surprisingly, Wilson is Clowes' first original graphic novel (another label he dislikes). That wasn't so much a creative decision as a reflection of the changing state of the comics business, he explains. Most of his previous books were collections of strips he's published in his comic book Eightball, which he launched in 1989. The last issue of Eightball came out in 2004. "Nobody wants to sell a comic book that's five dollars. At a certain point I had to face the reality of the marketplace that nobody wants that product," he says.
Below, Clowes talks more about his new book, his recent heart surgery, and how he broke one of The New Yorker's biggest taboos.
Mother Jones: You've said that you don't really care for the term "graphic novel."
Daniel Clowes: I thought it would never catch on. It's a terrible term. They're not novels; most of them are memoirs, in fact. "Graphic" implies an illustrated novel; that's not what it is. I just thought people would say, "It's a comic book, why are you trying to trick us?" But it worked: "Graphic novel" now means something very specific. People hear those two words and take them to mean a type of book that is generally correct. I give up—it works. The branding guys won.
MJ: That reminds me of the character in Ice Haven who describes "graphic novel" as a "vulgar marketing sobriquet."
DC: I had fun with that. I also called it a "narraglyphic picto-assemblage." When I went on my little book tour for that book, two or three people introducing me would say, "Among his many narraglyphic picto-assemblages are Ghost World…"—they just absolutely took it seriously. It's hopeless.
MJ: It seems like that's an extension of the "comics aren't just for kids" theme that's always mentioned in reviews—you can also take comics way too seriously.
DC: It gets absurd. It's interesting that this topic is always of great interest—what are these called? My generation of cartoonists, we're not exactly underground. I don't know what we are. We never had a name, exactly. People would say "alternative," but that wasn't quite right. Or they'd say "post-underground." There were all these terms that never stuck. I always thought that was the best thing that ever happened to us. We didn't get pigeonholed as the '90s cartoonists. We didn't have a name, so we got to drift a long through the decades without being pinned into this clique.
MJ: I just read Wilson. I'm glad that you took on people who talk at you without your permission.
DC: You live in Berkeley, so you know it well. When my wife read the first half of the book she said, "This guy is like your über-nemesis—he's all the things that assault you on a daily basis." I think that's sort of true, but I also sort of admire a guy who can sit down at a table and just talk to somebody, even though he fails miserably at making a connection.
MJ: Here's this guy who thinks he's being honest and open yet he's totally self-absorbed and always ends up in a communication breakdown. It made me think about Curb Your Enthusiasm, which always makes me wonder what it would be like to say whatever's on your mind. After reading Wilson, I realized this is what it would really be like—you'd be an outcast!
DC: Well, Larry David has this superpower that he's a billionaire. So he can do whatever he wants. Wilson has no visible means of support.
MJ: Wilson is set in Oakland, which is the first time I've recognized a specific city in one of your comics.
DC: The strip I did for the New York Times Magazine, "Mister Wonderful," that's set on and around Piedmont Avenue. This one's set more on Grand Avenue. My house is sort of in between those two, so they're the polarities of my little world.
MJ: A lot of your older stuff is set in a generic, anonymous urban setting.
DC: It's a combination of Berkeley, Chicago, and Brooklyn—the three places where I've spent the most time. Which somehow flattens out to seem like suburbia, which is weird. But if you draw a place like Brooklyn accurately, it really does look like suburbia.
MJ: So you were buddies with Chris Ware in Chicago?
DC: Just by some miracle, without knowing where I lived, he moved a tennis ball's throw away from me. He was living four buildings away. I could almost see his window; it was so odd. So we became really good friends.
MJ: And when you came out to Berkeley you met Adrian Tomine?
DC: It turned out he was in one of my wife's classes. I had gotten his comics and thought, "This guy isn't a college student, he's way too good. He's gotta be like 33 or something like that." Of course, he was 19 at the time. And it turned out he lived five doors away from me in Brooklyn. Those two guys were like the best two cartoonists to come along in the last 20 years, and to have them both miraculously wind up on the same block was very strange.
MJ: Now the three of you and a bunch of other cartoonists are drawing covers for The New Yorker. How did that come about?
DC: The cover editor is Françoise Mouly, who is Art Spiegelman's wife, who is truly a devoted patron of our little clique of cartoonists. So far, no one's complained—I keep waiting for someone to say, "Get rid of those guys! Enough with the comics!" There's a certain formula where a New Yorker cover is not exactly a joke. I kept submitting ideas that were like ha-ha funny jokes, and that's not what it is. It's its own type of image that creates a certain response that is not a laugh but is amusement of some kind. Once you get it, everything becomes a New Yorker cover. But it was many years before I got what that actually was.
MJ: Recently, you, Ware, Tomine, and Ivan Brunetti created four covers that formed a hidden image when you put them together.
DC: That was such a pain in the ass! Now that it's all done, I'm glad we did it. The only editorial comment I've ever gotten was on that cover where I used the word "priapic." David Remnick said, "There's no penis jokes on our covers. That will never happen." I folded immediately, but Francoise was like, "No, that's the perfect word; it's essential." We fought for it and Remnick was like, "Okay, I give up." So I got the first penis joke on The New Yorker. It opens the floodgates…
(Wilson panel courtesy Drawn and Quarterly)