Adult superhero fans make Daniel Clowes sad: "People need something that has very clear moral boundaries, I guess"

The comics artist talks to Salon about why "Iron Man" is for kids, "Ghost World" and his new book "Patience"

Published March 19, 2016 10:30PM (EDT)

Daniel Clowes   (Fantagraphics)
Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

It feels strange to rave about someone who’s both self-effacing and the creator of so many self-loathing characters. But the comics artist Daniel Clowes is one of the masters of the genre. As cartoonists who draw people who don’t wear capes and tights have moved from the underground to literary respectability, Clowes -- an early forerunner -- has stayed in the game without losing his edge. And he’s been an important influence on younger cartoonists like Adrian Tomine and Craig Thompson, who have built on Clowes’ originality, humor, innocence and dark alienation.

It was those elements that made director Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation of Clowes’ 1997 graphic novel “Ghost World” an instant classic (and featured an undiscovered Scarlett Johansson). The 2010 book “Wilson” will become a film this fall, directed by Craig Johnson and with Woody Harrelson playing the ornery title character.

As engaging as those books may be, Clowes’ new one, “Patience,” is his first real page-turner and maybe his most emotionally direct story so far. The tale of a couple hit with tragedy, it involves time travel and complex backstories. “This is a fascinating collage, repurposing elements from action thrillers, psychological horror, and romantic drama,” the Publishers Weekly review says. “Clowes skillfully anchors each psychedelic turn in human emotion.”

Salon spoke to Clowes from his home in Oakland, California; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Reading “Patience,” I was struck by how different it was from your other books. But I’m not sure there’s a typical Dan Clowes book. Does it feel like a departure to you, too?

I always think, “This is unlike anything I’ve ever done!” And then it settles in and fits in, without my control.

I’ll start at the most obvious place: Where did the idea for this come from?

It was many things. The basic situation -- of the character kind of having to go into his recent past and retrace how things got the way they did -- was of great interest to me. It was just something that had been running through my mind. I had been putting together all my work for this museum monograph, so I was starting to see my life from this perspective that you get when you hit my age, where you see the specific days and moments where things veer off into a new direction. And I could kind of see the plot of my own life -- what were the plot points, what were the reversals, all those kinds of things that actually happen to us in less dramatic ways.

That’s what set me off thinking this would hold my interest. In the beginning I’m just trying to find something that’s got that engine of interest that will regenerate itself every day.

This has more of an engine than most. The plot keeps moving and twisting and changing every few pages. Does that make it more difficult for you? Your other books are more character-driven.

Yeah, I’ve certainly submerged the plot in my other books. In several of them I want you to not think that there is a plot, that it’s just sort of unfolding as it is. With this one, I felt like with this kind of story, for the reader to actually get out of it what I was hoping they would, just the emotions and the connections to the characters and things, I knew that you had to have a plot that would not distract you. So I knew I had to work it out so well that it felt like you were in good hands, which was a challenge. It’s a very complicated story, and I wanted it to feel not so complicated.

I can’t think of another book of yours that has this much time travel.

No, I don’t think I’ve ever done any of that.

Did you have a favorite comic book or TV show that you used as a model for the time travel, or did you just wing it?

I was kind of winging it. As a kid there was a TV show called “The Time Tunnel” that I really just truly loved. It had the greatest time machine, which was this long, conical tunnel that had a spiral pattern inside, and they would walk into that tunnel and then appear in Nazi Germany. It was oddly not at all a science-fiction show, because these guys would then be in a historical setting. So it was more like a costume drama than a time-travel show.

I don’t remember a second of any of the stories except that tunnel was so powerful to me; I love that idea.

I really went out of my way to not look at any time travel stuff while I was working on this. Everybody was suggesting movies to me and there were all these books that would be in the periphery of my vision that felt like, “This is exactly the same as this book.” I felt like even if I did a book that was exactly like another book unwittingly, at least there would be these differences that would have to come out, and it would be somewhat clear that I hadn’t read that thing. So that was my hope. Now I feel like I can go back and watch “Looper” and stuff like that.

There’s a lot of pain in the book, but it feels like there’s less making fun of people and mocking pop culture -- both things we’ve come to expect from you. Do you feel like you’ve said goodbye to that kind of cynicism?

I haven’t said goodbye to anything. I’m always open to whatever comes along with each new book. I definitely didn’t feel like doing another sort of humor book. “Wilson” was more overtly funny to me and this one has humor around the edges, I think, but there’s nothing in it just designed to make you laugh.

It does feel like it’s a lot different in tone. Was it depressing to work on, or did it have an exhilarating quality?

It was the latter, for sure. When I started it, I had no idea it was going to be as long as it is. I was hoping to get it under 100 pages. If you had told me, “You’re gonna be working five years on a 180-page book,” I would have clearly predicted that at the end of that I would want to shoot myself and I would never want to see the book again. I would feel so burned out, I would have guessed. And the reality was I didn’t want to stop. I really still feel I’m in the world of the story even though I finished three or four months ago.

Most people don’t understand just how long it takes to do a book like this.

No, they don’t. Everyone’s like, “Oh, you doodle it. You do like a page in an hour or something.”

It’s all color and almost 200 pages. Do you still hand-draw everything?

Every single part of it is all done by hand by one person. The guys who used to really crank out the comics had a real assembly line working. They would have people doing the lettering and the inking and the coloring. Some of those manga guys who could do an incredible amount of comics had people who would imitate the style and they just had these whole teams of people. It was more like a movie studio.

How long does it take to draw and letter and color a page?

In this book I did them two pages at a time. So all the two-page spreads were done at once, and each of those would take probably four or five days of drawing and then another full day of coloring. So you’re looking at a workweek of each spread. But then there’s all kinds of retooling, redrawing and corrections, all kinds of complicated stuff that adds immense amounts of time to the process.

Let’s talk about the Clowes universe in general. “Ghost World” still lives for a lot of us: Do you ever think about doing a sequel or a grownup version of that?

For years I thought about what would that be, not necessarily that I would ever want to draw it. I just never came up with anything that felt like it needed to be done. I think they sort of deserve their own little life that goes on in people’s minds and not in reality. The only thing I’ve ever thought of doing with any of my characters again is to try to create some gigantic epic story that involved every character I’ve ever created in one big story. That’s what I’ll do as I’m like keeling over with a heart attack. I’ll be working on that.

That’s a lot of characters at this point.

It would be like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

Or like those Marvel meets DC things.

Right, where “The Avengers Meet the Justice League with Teen Titans.”

You’d have to have Jim Belushi in there too, I think.

I hope so. He’s part of the world. [Laughs]

Where are you with movies these days?

The “Wilson” movie will be coming out in the fall. It’s not quite all done but they’re putting the music on right now.

Woody Harrelson is Wilson, with Laura Dern and Judy Greer and a bunch of other great actors. I wrote the screenplay for it. I was not involved in the production, but I’ve seen enough to make me think it’s going to be pretty good. I’m excited about it. And then beyond that I have nothing. I’m really comic-focused these days.

The comics world just seems like it’s bigger and more prestigious every year. Do you still follow a lot of new work?

I feel like it’s so big and fragmented that I feel lost a little bit. One of the great appeals to comics when I started was that you could know of every comic coming out, good or bad. I feel like I knew the name of every single working cartoonist in America. And now, every single day I learn about 50 more people I never heard of who are doing presentable comics. I can’t even grasp it.

I count on friends who have really good taste, who find things and show them to me, and hope if anything’s really good that I need to see, it will ultimately come my way. Because I don’t have the wherewithal to figure out how to find stuff anymore.

There’s so much to keep up with. Along with comics, underground and otherwise, there are more superhero movies all the time. You’ve been vocal about your frustration with superheroes.

I am laughing at the fact that for years, when we were doing “Eightball” and “Hate” and “Love & Rockets” and stuff, we thought, “What we’re doing is really the mainstream stuff. It’s like comics for adults, that a general audience could read… and only the tiniest niche audience of emotional defectives care about superhero comics.”

Superhero comics seemed to you like some old-world 50s thing that was dying out.

Right. And yet they’re dominating our industry. I remember an artist, Bob Burden, saying, “It’s so random. It would be like if all comics were about pilgrims and then we did comics about normal people and we were looked at as the weirdoes.”

So that was our thesis, and then to see with the advent of technology where they could actually make these realistic superhero movies, to see that: No, the entire culture is what the comics shop was in 1985. It repudiates our lofty claims. It says more about our culture than anything else. I’m always kind of saddened when 45-year-old parents of my son’s friends can’t wait to go see “The Avengers.” That shouldn’t be for you. [Laughs]

The sense that it’s a guilty pleasure or something for kids seems to have disappeared.

That’s long gone.

How much does that shift have to do with technology?

I think there’s a certain chaos in the world and people need something that has very clear moral boundaries, I guess. I’ve taken my son to see a few of the superhero movies and I just find myself tuning out the minute it starts. It’s just not of any interest to me.

I’ll leave the movie and a day later I’ll think, “Oh, we should go see that movie.” It’s like I can't even remember it. And he doesn’t even like them. That’s the thing, he’s sorta like, “Yeah, it was OK.” [Laughs]

I think you and I and your son are an anomaly on this.

There’s no doubt about it. I find it hilarious when normal people are talking about obscure Marvel characters like they always loved them. It’s like, No you didn’t. [Laughs]

Acting as though they’d been dedicated fans their whole lives.

Yeah, or just like, “Oh, that’s great, I love ‘Iron Man.’” It’s like, No you don’t. [Laughs]

Yeah, it’s sort of become compulsory now, I guess.

I guess.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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