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Daniel Clowes: 'You've got to be obsessed'

Comic-book writer extraordinaire Daniel Clowes talks about the beauty of difficult characters

  • By Rachel Cooke, Guardian News and Media Limited
  • Published: 00:00 July 16, 2010

Daniel Clowes
  • Image Credit: Rex Features
  • Daniel Clowes's work has been compared with that of Philip Roth and JD Salinger

Daniel Clowes, comic-book writer extraordinaire, laughs at his own jokes. He titters boyishly when we talk about his new book, Wilson, the story of a lonely, middle-aged, egotistical loner who simply cannot get on with other people, no matter how hard he tries.

In some ways, Wilson is a wholly unsympathetic character, saying aloud the things others might only think. But he's also an everyman figure: there's a bit of him in all of us, and this makes him funny. In one scene, in an airport lounge, he strikes up a conversation with a business traveller. He asks the man what he does.

When the man starts to explain he's in senior management at an equity firm, Wilson waves a finger across his own frozen facial features, and says: "Glaze!"

The man continues. "Jesus," says Wilson, increasingly exasperated by his mumbo jumbo. "Listen to me, brother," he finally explodes. "You're going to be lying on your death bed in 30 years thinking: ‘Where did it all go? What did I do with those precious days?' Some work for the oligarchs, is that it?"

Clowes is mildly surprised by the reaction to Wilson so far: though the book is selling faster than any other he has written, the responses to it have been "all over the map". Personally, he thinks those who have Wilson down as a misanthrope are entirely wrong.

"I know lots of misanthropic types," he says. "I tend to like them. I find it sort of healthy, comforting. It's a better default setting than over-optimism. But I don't think of Wilson as misanthropic. He thinks he's going to make a connection with people, that they'll be on his wavelength, and then gets frustrated when they aren't. He has a naive faith in humanity. People seem to need a likable protagonist more than ever. It's because they're so used to being fed that in the movies. I find it insulting, the way movies try to ingratiate themselves with the audience that way. I'm more interested in characters who are a little difficult."

He can say that again. Difficult characters are his stock in trade. In 2001 Clowes became unexpectedly famous (at least by the standards of most cartoonists) when his book Ghost World, about two social outcast teenagers, was turned into a hit movie starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. He wrote the screenplay, and was duly nominated for an Oscar. There followed two more unsettling graphic novels (he dislikes this term, but accepts that he has been unable to come up with anything better), David Boring and Ice Haven. All these books have strange, often adolescent protagonists to whom weird and grotesque things happen almost by accident, casually disturbing their otherwise suburban lives and also a certain sense of timelessness and placelessness.

Clowes's work has since been compared with that of Philip Roth and J.D. Salinger, and, in 2005, Time magazine named David Boring one of the 10 best graphic novels ever written.

In Wilson, Clowes uses the single-page gag format each page has a punchline, as well as working as part of the longer narrative and it has a more elegiac, redemptive tone, perhaps because he began work on it as he sat beside his dying father's hospital bed.

"It's this horrible limbo," he says. "You're there, waiting for the inevitable, but you don't want to leave. I was hoping to have some connection [with my father], but he didn't want to talk; he was thinking his own things. So, I got out my little sketch book. I thought: I've got to do something primal, something automatic, the first thing I can think of. That was when Wilson came to me: I saw him in the airport. He was one of those rare characters who just appears like a lightning bolt. I knew this guy. He's the kind of character who creates his own content. Give him, say, the subject of sparkling water versus non-sparkling, and he'd have something to say - though what, exactly, might surprise me."

Clowes was born in 1961 in Chicago and, according to his mother, never wanted to be anything other than a cartoonist. "My parents divorced," Clowes says, "and my brother, who's 10 years older than me, moved out when he was fairly young and left me all his stuff. He was an inveterate collector of comics. I had no television when I was little, just a stack of old, beat-up comics from the 1950s and 1960s. And then he'd come home, bringing with him underground comics. I was inundated! I learned the language of comics at 3 or 4. It was innate to me."

At art school, it was frustrating: his teachers insisted that cartooning was an "undignified" field. "And they were right! Nobody was doing adult comics, then." So how did he keep himself when he graduated? "A friend of mine was made editor of Cracked magazine, the poor man's Mad. I worked on that, and I did my first comic book series, Lloyd Llewellyn. But the truth is that for ages it was just me, a rented room and a drawing board. I had to work obsessively hard to get out enough issues of Lloyd, and then of Eightball [in which Ghost World and David Boring were first serialised], to make even a bare living. I was 30 before I made a living that was not embarrassing."

These days he is married, with a small child, and his drawings regularly adorn the cover of the New Yorker. What's more, graphic novelists have joined the literary establishment. Only recently, Clowes was walking around the offices of Jonathan Cape thinking how amazing it is that, in Britain, he now shares his publisher with Philip Roth and Ian McEwan. "I just kept going: wow!" This is a happy state of affairs, but it worries him that younger writers now think of cartooning as an instant career. The comics he reads by up-and-coming artists are super-professional, but they are also, he says, instantly forgettable; he has yet to discover anyone with the indelible talents of, say, Robert Crumb or AdrianTomine.

"It's not like a job at Microsoft," he says. "You've got to be obsessed. Now there are all these people who are not really comic people doing graphic novels. Well, it's not that easy, actually! I wouldn't pretend to think I could suddenly write a novel. Screenwriting is the closest thing to it, because a comic book is all about dialogue. Even so, I felt like an amateur when I started that."

Is he still writing films? Yes, though it's a tough time. He believes the edgy Ghost World would almost certainly not get made today: as belts have tightened, it has become increasingly hard to raise money for anything other than the most obviously commercial films. He has five or six projects on the go, but none has a director on board so far.

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