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Clowes Encounter: An Interview With Daniel Clowes

The cartoonist talks about his new book, heart surgery on a shoestring budget, and how he broke The New Yorker's ban on phallic humor.

| Thu May 13, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

MJ: I assume you don't usually work with an editor.

DC: Never. I never know if a book is crazy or not. There's that fear—this is the one that will end it all. With Wilson, I think worst-case scenario, it will be funny and painless to read. But I'm still not sure how it will be received.

MJ: I enjoyed it a lot—even though I was depressed by it. Not in a bad way—

DC: No, I sort of take that as a compliment.

MJ: You had open-heart surgery recently—what happened?

DC: I was 45 or so and just noticed I wasn't as spry as I used to be. My doctor listened to my heart and heard a little something there and told me to see a cardiologist. It just happened to be a year when I had really good health insurance—it was like $1,000, and I never would have ever gone otherwise. The cardiologist said, "Your heart is twice the size it should be and you have a very serious leaking valve and if you don't get this fixed you have two or three years left." It was terrible. I had to go in for surgery and they repaired it, luckily, and it's back down to regular size. It's one of those miraculous surgeries—it's sort of like origami. I probably will be fine for the rest of my life. But I was very sympathetic to the health care debate after that. The operation cost, I think, $300,000.

MJ: How'd you get into comics? Were you a fanboy?

DC: I was. I had an older brother who was an inveterate comic reader and I inherited a stack of comics without covers—for some reason he always ripped the covers off. We didn't have TV, so it was always, "Go read your comics!" Before I could read, I remember trying to piece together the stories from the images. It was a very primal experience.

MJ: What is it about comics that breeds obsessiveness?

DC: It's a world that you can exert control over. I started drawing at a very young age. Writing a story wasn't satisfying, but to actually draw our own world—it's like controlling your own dreams.

MJ: That was the message of Pussey, which is about an impotent guy who dreams about superheroes all the time. As well as being a satire of fanboys and the comics industry.

DC: That was so specific to 1989. Nobody had done anything like that before, making fun of comics fans. Now, that's such a commonplace thing; everyone's so familiar with that world. There's Comic-Con every year, which gets 100,000 people. Back then, it was like 1,500 people and that was it; that was all the comic geeks in the world. It seemed like this sad little world—which it still does, but it's a sad big world. When I was in high school, if you said you liked superheroes or Lord of the Rings, you were just like a hopeless reject, and now those are the biggest things in the world. Even Avatar is a total nerd thing, and yet our popular culture has somehow made all that stuff acceptable.

MJ: So what are the outsider nerds into now?

DC: I don't think there are any outsiders anymore. It's good for the outsiders; I don't know if it's good for our culture. I think it was good to have this mass culture that we all reacted to in some way. I was thinking the other day that there will never be another form of music that everybody has to respond to—like disco.

MJ: I have to ask about OK Soda—this short-lived early-'90s soda that you illustrated a can for.

DC: I never saw it—it was gone in two months. It was fast. I didn't quite get that Coca-Cola was doing it; it was just this ad agency that contacted me. The way that face on the can was created, the original character I used was based on Charles Manson; the eyes on the guy are absolutely Charles Manson's eyes. I thought that would be a great thing to announce two years afterward. Now, there's like a whole cult devoted to OK; the cans are quite valuable.

MJ: You recently drew a strip for the San Francisco Panorama, Dave Eggers' newspaper project. How do you think that turned out?

DC: I don't know if it has any use at all as a project that anyone could ever do again. But as a single magazine, it sure was fun to read. After I got it, it was all I read for six weeks. It had so many great ideas I wish papers had. [Eggers] had this notion that if you had this big size you could get cartoonists to do a weekly strip—but you couldn't. It took me a week to do that one strip.

MJ: The Panorama was a celebration of print newspapers, yet the big, full-color comics page has been gone for ages.

DC: Since the '30s! It could be done again—printing is now as cheap as it's ever been. But who would you get to do it?

MJ: A lot of web cartoonists have figured out a way to do daily or weekly strips.

DC: That's true. It's interesting how people have gravitated toward this awful grind of doing a daily strip. I can't think of anything worse.

(OK Soda photo by Flickr user janetgalore used under a CC License)

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