Immersing yourself in one of Dan Clowes' graphic novels feels like reading Nabokov and watching a David Lynch movie at the same time. Talking to him is a similarly overstimulating and nerve-wracking experience. Yes, we’ve run a few interviews with the man already, but since he’s got a first-ever retrospective of his work happening his homeland of Oakland, we decided to check in with him again.
VICE: Do you think comics as a discipline will continue? People always worry that the internet generation doesn't know how to concentrate.
Daniel Clowes: Although I would have thought that, there are a whole bunch of guys who are 25, 30 right now, who are really good and really dedicated. They grew up reading my comics and stuff like that. They put in the time to learn how to do this stuff, and I would have never imagined that. So I don't know. It does seem really unlikely that anything like that would ever continue to happen. I can't imagine I would have drawn comics if I had Facebook at 13. The whole reason I was doing it was to communicate somehow with... aliens of the future or something. I had no idea who would ever read any of the stuff I was doing. And thank god no one did and I burned it all. It was certainly done with the impulse of reaching out to the world in some way, and would I have done that if I could meet girls who read comics on some website?
But the attitude toward comics fans portrayed in those early comics is so... I don't want to say antagonistic, so I'll say ambivalent.
No, it was very antagonistic.
OK, yes... It was like you threw out the fishing line and weren't very happy with what it was bringing in.
There's a bit of that. That's something I remember talking to other artists about at a certain point. Part of the process, probably of being any kind of an artist, is almost curating your audience. You want to have a public appearance and look out into the audience and think, every person I see out there seems like a guy I would have over for dinner. It's really all about the quality of your audience as opposed to the quantity. I remember doing a signing at a convention and I was standing next to some really popular Marvel comics guy, and he had this endless line of zit-faced 13-year-olds. Just, the most horrible teenage boys. There are no boys that age who aren't horrible, and that's all it was. And I had like three female adults in line for me. Totally normal people. And I thought oh man, I'm so thankful that I don't have those 13-year-old boys to deal with. That would really make me feel bad.
Those events must be hard. People who make visual art usually do so because that's the best or only way they know how to communicate. But then other people always want to make them talk about it.
Absolutely. That's why I've enjoyed doing the interviews for this show, because it's not about a single book. When you're talking about a fictional book, what are you going to say? "Well, I did this book. It's all in there. Everything I have to say is within that book. Read the book. I have no explanations.” Anything I would say is just going to obfuscate things or throw you off track. I'm only going to give non-committal answers for that reason. Whenever I hear fiction authors on NPR talking to Michael Krasny, explaining their book, I always think, How can you... don't do that! Don't talk about your characters like that. It's so embarrassing.
Well, writers love to talk.
They love it. They love it. They'll talk about characters like they're real people. It's like talking about your childhood imaginary friend. It's really embarrassing.
I watched a video of a signing you did at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles.
The one with the lady wearing the Enid mask? That was unbelievable.
It all seemed very flattering and wonderful... but also quite awful.
It didn't feel like it was about me. It felt like it was about some heartwarming, beloved actor. It felt a little strange.
Are you surprised that, of all your characters, Enid is the one that people are most attached to?
Not really. I sort of knew it, the minute I started drawing her, that there was going to be some connection. She just felt like an archetype that hadn't yet been articulated. Now, it's definitely a type of character, but at the time it really felt like nobody else had quite done this thing.
I was still in high school when the movie came out, and my dad told me I should go see it.
There were a lot of Dads seeing it and telling their daughters, "This is just like you! An obnoxious brat."
I said I'm not interested in what a middle-aged man thinks teenage girls are like.
All Enids would think that.
Even though Enid has become an archetype, the attitude of ownership she has over culture and discovering culture is kind of moot now. You can't be petulant about finding something cool or obscure, because you probably found it on a blog.
How would you do it? I can't even imagine how an 18-year-old could find something nobody else knew about. It's not even conceivable anymore. I'm actually surprised that book still seems to resonate. It's like a book about the 1920s at this point. It seems closer to then than to now. She has a dial telephone, she has no computer, she's unreachable when she leaves the house. Who lives like that? It's a very different thing now. Even then it was a little weird, but at least it seemed plausible.
Those incidental aspects of the character and the period are now considered affectations.
When did you know you didn't want to make superhero comics? There's a real tension in Death Ray between the classic superhero visuals and the story itself, which is about how we wouldn't really know what to do with superpowers. The way they fail in that reality is quite sad.
I had always sort of assumed that's where I was headed, because that was really the only way to make a living as a cartoonist that I could see. I didn't think I was going to get a daily comic strip—it seemed like you had to win the lottery to get that. I just imagined I would be one of those guys that inks comics for Marvel or DC. This is when I was 13 or 14 years old. At a certain point that seemed really great, a really great job. Then the older I got the more it seemed like a nightmare, but I still felt that's what I had been basing my life around, and I was ill-prepared for anything else. At a certain point I decided I'd rather do anything than that, it just seemed like absolute torture. It was a long process of coming to grips with that, and realizing that I really did not like, or even approve, of those kind of comics. I'm doing my own comics and but also being stuck in that world without intending to. I've had to talk about superhero comics so much of my life, beyond the point of being interested in them. It's a very strange thing. It'd be like if John Updike had to constantly talk about Westerns. It doesn't necessarily relate to what I do, but it became such a part of my daily life that it had to come out in some way.
And those are still the only point of reference. There's superhero comics, and everything else is just "alternative comics" even though there's a lot of diversity within that category.
That's certainly a trope. I think they sell well, and I think publishers can kind of understand those books. It's kind of thing they publish in other fields and other forms, so they're ready to sign up any kid who's willing to go to the Middle East and write and draw about it. Joe Sacco is the guy who did it first and by far the best, and I can't see how anyone could ever top what he's done. It seems almost pointless.
Do you consider your work crass? If I'm reading one of your books on the bus, I feel like I have to hide it half the time from the person sitting next to me.
Sometimes I'll catch a glimpse of one of my comics, and… like, I was working on the script for Wilson and my son came in and he was looking over my shoulder and I realized, oh my god if he's reading what's on the screen it would be mortifying. I'm just trying to amuse myself and I obviously have a very low sense of humor.
Your son is still very young. Do you anticipate him discovering your work with excitement or dread?
From talking to other cartoonists whose kids have grown up around their work, they tend to be utterly disinterested. Or if they read it they don't really want to talk about it. I was never interested what my mom or dad was up to, until after they died. Then all of a sudden I was very interested. So I probably won't be around when he finally sits down to read through the old man's works. I have mixed feelings about him reading some of it. I hope he'll be forgiving. I hope it doesn't embarrass him in any way. I would hate if his future wife's parents read my work and didn't want her to marry him or something.
Because he inherited some strange, genetic ass obsession?
It could happen. I don't know. We have yet to figure out where he's going with all that stuff.
"Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" is on view at the Oakland Museum of California until August 12th, then continues on to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (June - October 2013); the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (November 2013 - January 2014); and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (February - April 2014). Check danielclowes.com for updates and stuff.
Are you crazy for Clowes? Check out some other conversations with him: