Dan Clowes Ties Up our Loose Ends
A Dan Clowes self-portrait
The thing I love most about Dan Clowes' characters is that whether they're disaffected teenage girls in Ghost World or alcoholic serial killers in Art School Confidential, they all inhabit the same jaded universe. His newest creation, Wilson, is a deluded, jobless, middle-aged loner. He's completely dislikeable. I like him. I went to meet Dan Clowes, talk about some friends we have in common.
Clowes found success in the late '80s with his comic book series Eightball . Since then he's produced lots of great books, designed the poster for Todd Solondz's Happiness, done a Ramones video , and written a screenplay about those kids who spent their teenage years remaking Raiders Of The Lost Ark (we spoke to them a while back, remember). The final issue of Eightball , published in 2004, was the self-contained story The Death Ray , Clowes' miserable teen dweeb take on superheroes; Jack Black, with his producer hat on, is working with him on a movie adaptation.
Clowes was in London briefly this week to talk about Wilson (published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on June 3) the story of a depressive looking for a meaningful relationship. I met Clowes in his publisher's office to gush and probe.
Was there anything specific about your state of mind that Wilson came out of?
It came out of a lot of things. I had a year of my life where I had a heart defect and I had to get open-heart surgery and I was unable to do anything for an entire year. I was faced with my own mortality in a way I didn't expect to be at 46. I was fairly sure I wasn't going to make it for a while there. Between that and having a child, and facing fatherhood, and then watching my dad die... all these things together gave me perspective on a middle-aged character that I didn't have before that. I really felt like I had something to report back from what I felt about myself at that age.
Something you've said before is that although your work is intended to be funny, people often find it bleak and depressing.
That's always been the case.
With everything I've ever done, yeah.
Well Wilson certainly depressed me.
Ha! Yeah, that seems to be the lasting feeling. I hope people find it at least funny on a page-by-page basis. Certainly not every strip in there is intended to be funny, but a lot of them are.
He reminded me of myself quite a bit, which wasn't too hilarious.
Ha. Yeah. I find though that the people who are actually like Wilson are the ones that really do not like the book. I've had a few people who say that he's unbearable. They're often the people who are sort of insensitive to others and have a lack of awareness of how they come across to people. It's interesting, it's like they're seeing themselves and it's really painful. People who tend to not be so much like him, at least in his anti-social behaviour - they have more sympathy for him.
There is a sadness to his denial, his delusion.
Yeah. I was just thinking about it today, he just expects the best from every situation. He enters every situation like, "I'm gonna treat this guy like he's my best friend, we're all comrades in the world." Then the tiniest little thing sets him off and then he's dismissive and blunt. He wants everybody to understand exactly how he feels, and if they don't he's not willing to sugar-coat anything. He wants people to accept him for his own awful self. There's something sort of admirable there.
Although I disagree with people who've said you're misanthropic, just because you have characters who can be somewhat negative.
Right. That's what I think. People call Wilson misanthropic and I don't think he is. He expects too much and he gets disappointed. Misanthropic people tend to have given up, and he hasn't. That's why his struggle is eternal, because he's constantly trying to make these connections and they're not working. The people I know who are really, deeply misanthropic - and I know lots of them - they're not interested, they've long ago given up making connections, they're cynical about family in ways that Wilson's not.
What’s going on with Death Ray , film-wise?
Well, when I originally conceived that story it was going to be a two-part story, it was going to be the kid, then, as an older guy, he would have his own longer story. But it just didn't work and I chose to focus it more on the younger kid. However, when I finished it I was approached by Jack Black, asking me if I wanted to write a screenplay. I told him I wanted to focus it on the older guy and fortunately he was actually more interested in that. So that's what the script I've now written is about, and we have a director I'm not allowed to mention who might start on it this year.
I read it again yesterday and it made me think of Kick Ass , did you see that film or read the comic?
I didn't, but a lot of people told me that it was a little suspicious that it came out several years after my thing.
I haven't read the comic, but the film was kind of being sold as a real-life superhero approach, yet ultimately it was another superhero film. What I love about Death Ray is it really is the real deal.
Right. And the version we have now, which does incorporate the kid part of the story, is much more what you're thinking, I think. It's much more the grim, depressing version of the superhero thing.
I can't wait. And what's happening with the Raiders film? I spoke to those boys last year when they had a charity screening here.
Thank god someone showed it. That's their life and that thing can't be shown commercially, so they have to be present when it's shown.
It is great to see it with an audience.
Yeah. I've seen it with them two or three times and I've never seen an audience so in love with a film. It's just so great that they're able to get something out of that experience, because it was so thankless for them at the time. So, as you probably know I wrote a script based on their lives, I connected so much with their stories. I finished the script, and the producer and everybody was very excited about it, it was moving along, and then my agent called and said "They just greenlit the fourth Indiana Jones film." And I said "That's good, right?" And he said "No, that's terrible." Because the only studio that could make our film is the studio that made Raiders and once they greenlit that fourth film, they were not going to make anything else with that character in it, certainly not a $6m film that could be construed as making fun. So literally, on that day, all work ended.
Spielberg liked what they did though, he's a fan.
He's a fan of what they did, but he wasn't so keen on their story being made into a film. Also, the fourth film changed the way you viewed Raiders Of The Lost Ark , it affected the way our movie was written. Because you really had to see Raiders Of The Lost Ark as this '80s relic, and for it to have come back and have been resurrected, it lost that feeling. So you could just see the air draining out of it.
It's a shame. I was very hopeful that it was gonna be made. But that's how it works.
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