Authors & Ideas: A talk with Daniel Clowes about the likable curmudgeon ‘Wilson’
He’s the kind of guy who waxes rhapsodic about his love for the human race but curses people who don’t smile at his dog. He’s full of odes to the sweep of life and won’t stop sharing them with the strangers he accosts in coffee shops. He has no job and no family, and he’s both totally oblivious and smart enough to know how insufferable he is.
He’s Wilson — the main character in Daniel Clowes’ new graphic novel “Wilson” (Drawn and Quarterly: 78 pp., $21.95) and, it’s worth remembering, not Clowes himself. But so far he’s been good for this cartoonist who broke into the mainstream with “Ghost World” and has defined a whole subgenre of post-Crumb, post-Spiegelman “alternative comics” since. As unlikable as Wilson is, the book helped pack Skylight Books a few weeks ago and has already become Clowes’ bestselling work. Which is impressive, because this bearded, self-righteous, middle-aged slob may also be the author’s least likable protagonist in a decade or more.
“I didn’t intend to go in and try to push the envelope on how unpleasant I could make him,” a slim, bald and darkly handsome Clowes, 49, says over coffee at a Los Feliz cafe. “It came from within: I thought I’d make something both personally meaningful and something an audience would find interesting.”
In person, Clowes — who has created an oeuvre marked by hard-edged social criticism, over-the-top satire and obnoxious, confrontational characters — is almost disappointingly well-adjusted: He’s intellectual without being weirdly intense, skeptical without being bitter, observant without being harshly judgmental.
But in some ways, Wilson shares Clowes’ DNA.
“I think we have a similar worldview,” the author allows. “And his sense of humor — finding humor in the razor’s edge between tragedy and comedy — there’s a lot of resonance between me and him.”
By the time he was 4 or 5, Clowes was drawing little comics on the cardboard that the dry cleaner wrapped around his father’s shirts. He grew up middle-class outside Chicago and attended Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn art school that he later skewered in the strip “Art School Confidential.” While writing and drawing pieces for Cracked magazine in the mid-1980s, he began to work on his first continuing character, the lounge-culture-loving detective Lloyd Llewellyn, and by 1989, Fantagraphics was publishing Clowes’ occasional comic “Eightball.”
Clowes was inspired by Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” as well as the advances made by Crumb and Spiegelman. “I wanted to take the sensibility of the underground,” he says, “and apply it to longer narratives.”
Clowes’ early comics, collected in “20th Century Eightball,” show just how grim and socially uncomfortable Clowes could be. “Where do I get off being such a smug, egotistical, critical bastard!?,” a Clowes-like artist character muses in “The Party in Color.” “They’re the ones who are happy and well-adjusted, not me.” Two strips later, this character hangs himself.
Clowes’ breakthrough came with “Ghost World,” the comic about two hyper-critical teenage girls searching for authenticity in a fake-retro cityscape, published in book form in 1997. The 2001 Terry Zwigoff film, starring Thora Birch and an up-and-coming actress named Scarlett Johansson, earned both Clowes and Zwigoff an Academy Award nomination and vastly expanded Clowes’ audience. Although the 2006 film of “Art School Confidential” did much less well, it was a time of growth for non-superhero graphic novels in general.
Throughout his work, Clowes shows an interest in seeing through psychology and pop culture, which he attributes both to literary influences such as Nathanael West and J.D. Salinger, as well as to the culture he grew up in. “I sorta feel like when I was a teenager in the ‘70s, a lot of unmasking was going on.” It was true of the punk rock of the time, as well as of the absurdist, idol-smashing comedy of Steve Martin, Andy Kauffman and Monty Python.
“I felt like the cover’s been taken off these things and nobody’s going to ever fall for it again,” Clowes recalls.
Materialism, artifice and personal ostentation were especially well-skewered. But by the 1980s, people were driving showy cars again; rock songs had synthesizers. Comedy became guys in suspenders telling jokes for yuppies. Phoniness was back with a vengeance, and it fueled to Clowes’ work.
“When I started doing ‘Eightball,’ I didn’t feel there was anyone saying these things that seemed so obvious,” he says. “But once you realize Bob Barker is ridiculous, it gets less funny to point it out for the 3,000th time.”
“That’s kind of Wilson’s problem,” Clowes adds. “He’s living that way, but no one else is.”
“Wilson” is the first book Clowes has assembled from all-new material and not from serialized comics. It’s also his book most influenced by “Peanuts,” including the way each page comprises its own strip. As with “Peanuts,” these discrete chapters have no connective tissue or transitions between them.
Clowes had been reading the reissues of the Schulz cartoons, edited and designed by the cartoonist Seth, while dreaming up “Wilson.” “You feel like there’s this overall narrative to them,” he says. “It’s Christmas, then it’s New Year’s, then it’s spring and leaves are on the trees. It feels something like real life. You can fill the in-between in your own mind, that’s where you get the action and movement.”
Each page also uses a different artistic style — some more realistic, some less — or palette from the one before and after it. Clowes tried to find a single style with which to tell the story, but each one felt like a compromise. “I realized each strip had its own tonal nuance or feel or presence,” he says. “I was trying to modulate the tonal shifts…. Joke, joke, joke, and then have the reader blindsided by tragedy.”
In fact, “Wilson” starts out like typical early Clowes, with a frustrated and marginal protagonist, but a few pages in, after an excess of empty public philosophizing, Wilson goes looking for meaning in general and his ex-wife in specific, and the book takes a turn beyond where any of the author’s work has gone.
It’s not the broad outlines but the density — a quality Clowes admired in Mad magazine as a kid — that makes “Wilson” and Clowes’ other work so rich and indescribable: the visual details, the asides, the running jokes, the sudden nods to seriousness. Adrian Tomine, the author of the “Optic Nerve” series and a cartoonist indebted to Clowes’ style, says he’s sometimes puzzled by passages in his friend’s work.
“It’s the realization that he’s working at a level above my head, and that now I’m gonna sit down and think about it,” Tomine says. “He’s got a level of self-confidence: I need the instant gratification of people getting it. He’s content to send these messages out in a bottle.”
At this point, Clowes has five ideas for comics and three films from which he’ll choose for his next project. One that he’s doing for sure is expanding “Mr. Wonderful” — which ran as a serial in the New York Times Magazine — in book form next spring. He’s also working on some scripts, but that’s as close as he wants to get to the cinematic process. “I have almost no interest in working on a movie,” says Clowes, who was involved in both films. “It became less and less fun. At one point, I thought I might want to direct a movie or something. That’s really not me.”
There’s been talk about projects with Jack Black and Michel Gondry, but neither of these has yet borne fruit. Clowes worked hard on a script for a film about some boys making a shot-by-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The story, he says, “had so much resonance with the things I was interested in,” and the collapse of the project over permissions, he says, is “a tragedy.”
Clowes is equally excited about another idea. The maturing of graphic novels and some fans’ sense of history has led several cartoonists to reissue handsome, serious editions of the work of their forebears. Clowes is especially interested in Crockett Johnson, the cartoonist best known for “The Carrot Seed” and “Harold and the Purple Crayon” but whose “Barnaby” strip, which ran from the early 1940s to the early 1960s, remains obscure.
He’s hoping to bring out editions similar to what Seth has done for “Peanuts,” though the rights have been tied up for years with the estate and its lawyers. Johnson — who possessed a deceptively simple visual style — shows that the comics-aren’t-just-for-kids movement did not begin with Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Clowes says.
“ ‘Barnaby’ was a very smart comic written for the adult intelligentsia of the ‘40s. If you look at the back of his first collection, you see [comments from] Dorothy Parker, Louis Untermeyer — these big-deal critics of the day. And it’s as funny now as it was in the ‘40s.”
Timberg blogs at scott-timberg.blogspot.com/.