Daniel Clowes, renowned comics artist, talks to Alexander Chee about his newly reissued The Death Ray and his distaste for superheroes and wrestling.
Daniel Clowes is currently one of America’s most celebrated comics artists. He frequently illustrates the pages of GQ and the covers of the New Yorker, he publishes with major publishers, he has been nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of his graphic novel Ghost World, and is at work on several other film projects. It would, in short, be easy to be suspicious that this success had dulled his edge. And yet reading his newest work, it’s clear he’s allowed his success to encourage him to take more risks, to push himself harder.
No one knows the American loser—or loves the American loser—quite like Daniel Clowes. Clowes’ comics have from the beginning of his career consistently outlined a vast country of the self-deceiving and the lonely, the heartsick and the heartless, the cruel and the lovable—America, basically, but as it is really lived. Even at his most bitingly satirical the jokes are only funny because they’re true. At a time when so much of American media remains obsessed with showing us pictures from a country of smooth perfect people who never are lonely, sick or sad for too long, Clowe’s recent stories come from the place we know is ours. They are the revenge of the real. His characters are both unlike anything you see elsewhere in literature and completely familiar from life. The shock of recognition you get while reading him is that feeling that somehow the artist has found this thing you were sure no one else had seen.
While much of what passes for emotional realism in contemporary fiction looks a little shallow next to Clowes’ work, his comics draw on the familiar flat shapes and colors of the Sunday Funnies of yesteryear, if the Sunday Funnies troupe slipped away, that is, to get high, steal a car or move to a new town and get new friends. Or, in the case of the hero in his new edition of The Death Ray, to use the Death Ray his dead father left him.
First published as a standalone comic in 2004 in his groundbreaking comic series Eightball and reissued this year by Drawn and Quarterly, The Death Ray is something of a departure for Clowes: there’s a hero vigilante in a mask. I conducted this interview with him on the phone in late November on the occasion of the reissue of The Death Ray, and we spoke about everything from the origin of that masked hero to the death of underground culture to whether there was something in the water in Chicago that was good for making comics.
Alexander Chee So, a friend of mine who knew I was going to speak to you asked me to ask you about a pamphlet he said you wrote several years ago [MODERN CARTOONIST, 1998], about how important it was for comics to be an outsider art. Does this sound about right? We wondered, what do you feel about that now?
Daniel Clowes It was many years ago and it was half serious and half kidding. I liked the idea that cartoonists were all insane and so it was really about realizing that and making this pamphlet and I was hoping my publisher would print it and I could just leave it on subways like a Jack Chick comic.
AC Who is that?
DC He’s the guy who does those fundamentalist Christian comics, probably the most widely published cartoonist in the world. I think some of those have like 100 million copies printed.
I have not re-read the thing in many years so I don’t want to comment on that but I think the so-called acceptance of comics is all in the minds of journalists and desperate booksellers. My comics sold fairly well when it was a completely unknown underground thing and they seem to sell vaguely the same numbers now as they did then, it’s just a different audience. Back then it was only people involved in the underground culture and now it’s a general audience at bookstores.
AC So, do you think indie bookstores are becoming the new underground culture?
DC If you looked at the number of people who buy books there it would be a very small percentage of the population, far less than those who’d buy an indie movie. I mean, probably several million people saw the Ghost World movie, for example, but it’s in the hundreds of thousands for the book—a small percentage.
AC Related to the shift in your audience, what do you think is underground culture now?
DC I don’t even know if there is anything like that anymore. Anything that would once have been spread only among the cognoscenti years ago is now immediately disseminated to a huge audience. There used to be the excitement of finding the original true voice of a minicomic or zine from this guy in Oklahoma and now it’s tweeted all over the place instantly and I can find out about something like this from my mom.
AC Has your mom actually told you about a comic?
DC No. But . . . videos, for example. I’m always the last person to find out about the latest cat video and I forward it my friends and they’re like, we liked that last September. I’m always hearing about it from someone who is just incredibly square, like a year later.
AC I wondered what is it like having Death Ray appear as a book amid the publication of both Mr. Wonderful and Wilson? I say that because it was originally published, if I’m getting this right, as Issue 23 of Eight Ball Comics, back in 2004. Why bring it out as a book now amid two other major works?
DC Back when it appeared I was in the world of the birth of my son, who’d been born about 2 months before, and I was completely unaware of anything by the time it came out—unaware of how it was received in the world. I did feel like it was the best thing I’d ever done up to that point. I remember it sold out immediately and then was unavailable for all these years. It was painful to me that people couldn’t see it, and that for this new audience, this was completely missing from my body of work to them. So I’ve really wanted to get it back in print since then.
I feel like my career has a completeness to it now that it didn’t have before, like a big part that’s been filled in.
AC Reading it, I didn’t know that it first appeared in 2004. It struck me as being a part of a group of books about the problem of the superhero that have appeared in the last ten years.
DC I haven’t read or shown the slightest bit of interest in a superhero comic since the ’70s. I really can’t even look at them. They hold zero interest for me the way magazines about crossword puzzles hold zero interest for me. But I did have a big interest in them as a kid, and I loved the pop-art style of the early Marvel and DC comics.
I did not write it with the intent of making a point of any kind. I write by coming up with a character that I have an emotional connection to and coming up with an interesting situation for them. If you know the character well enough, they take it in an interesting direction, and they tell you what to do. That’s what I hope comes through.
AC There was no grand statement then.
DC The times I’ve tried to make comics with this or that statement, well, it’s never gone past the stage of trying to figure them out. It all had to go back to the drawing board. I was never interested in making one of those books where the characters feel like figures on a chess board that the artist is moving around.
AC In some ways I think the only hope you have of making a grand statement is by giving up on making a grand statement.
DC I think that’s true. I have tried to do that, and I now know better.
As a teenager I had really grandiose plans to do sweeping works that I was too lazy, thankfully, to get off the ground. I would have really embarrassed myself.
AC Let’s talk about The Death Ray. This is such a beautiful book, as an object. I like that the cover of looks like Spider Man stole Flash Gordon’s gun.
DC That’s almost exactly right. The costume is something I made up when I was 15 or 16, and the very basis of the story—a skinny kid who lives with his grandparents and has a ray gun—is something I was trying to write back then. Thankfully I never got it together. My uncle or someone had an old Buck Rogers gun from the ’30s and it made this totally anomalous popping sound. It was unnerving to hear—not what you expected—and I liked that for the story. That’s why I had the gun make that popping sound.
AC It is unnerving. There’s something more horrible about it. You were making comics back then?
DC I was. I started making them, well, really early, I’ve been making them forever.
I am really not into fighting or guns. This was the only time I ever drew a gun. I think it had more to do with the quality of erasing all your problems instead of the violence. When I was a kid and read superhero comics, I used to skip over all of the fighting and I was totally into the soap opera, the family drama and relationship stuff of the heroes. I think it’s why I stopped reading them finally. It’s like watching professional wrestling to me, I have all of these friends who are really into professional wrestling but to watch it for more than three minutes totally bores me out of my mind.
AC That brings me back to my friend, actually, who for some reason suggested I ask you about who your favorite professional wrestler was. I guess that’s answered. (laughter) What we wanted to know also is, what comics do you read now? What are the really cool comics no one knows about?
DC I wish someone would tell me about the thing I don’t know about. I just read all the, you know, underground alternative comics. All the guys like the Hernandez brothers and Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware, and a lot of younger guys I’m really into like Kevin Huizenga, Michael Deforge, from Toronto. He’s great, he’s just a kid.
AC Did you have a go-to comic as a kid? One that you just had to get?
DC I would just buy comics. I just liked to read any comicCracked, Richie Rich, anything. Once I started learning how to buy the early comics, I really loved the Steve Ditko Spider Man, he was the only one I could relate to. Before he became a muscle-bound frat boy.
Also Jack Kirby. I haven’t finished a lot of them but I could just look at them all day. I find them a little tedious to read for some reason.
AC Is it okay to ask you to comment on what’s next?
DC I’m working on a longer comic book but I’ve learned not to talk about it because it just dissipates my energy and it makes me self-conscious and I find if I just keep it to myself I’m not self-conscious in the slightest and I can do everything without thinking about anyone reading it and then it’s too late to turn back, or take it back. Some time late next year or the year after.
AC I’m glad to hear you’re working on something longer. It seemed to me reading Wilson, Mr. Wonderful and The Death Ray, together, that all of them occupied somehow the same landscape, that there were places in between where all your work met. As if all of your books were windows into one world, one that was yours.
DC I like that idea, that all these worlds are related somehow and certainly those three works are works where I thought about them a lot and had lots of ideas for their worlds, but they’re very condensed now. The one I’m working on now I am trying to give myself room to go wherever I like, so it’s not so pared down. Though it may be by the time I’m done.
AC And how is that editing done? How much tech is involved in how you work now, for example?
DC There’s no technology. The only thing I’m really using is coloring, done on the computer, as it is the only way to get that really flat comic book color that I like. Everything else is done on paper. The best way I find to work is to really think about it before I start and try not to get bogged down in too much extra sketching and planning, just to have it all clear in my head without having to stop and rethink things.
AC I recently heard Gabrielle Bell talking about why she didn’t do mini-comics much anymore. She was talking about how she used to like doing the small books, and how she felt she made more money from them sometimes, and then apparently distributors raised the requirements on how many copies you needed to sell before being distributed and that went away. How have these changes affected you and your work?
DC Back in the old days I really used to feel like I knew all the readers personally, like they were a certain type of person. At a comic con I used to feel like I knew at the briefest glance if it was one of my guys or one of the superhero fans, and now it’s impossible to tell. But I try not to think about any of that stuff. I have a great publisher now, and they do a great job with all of that.
AC I was looking at the old covers for Eightball and I noticed the way in which they referenced horror comics. And it struck me that your comics are partly about how the monster is really you—a kind of horror comics starring the self.
DC Absolutely. I think we all have to own up to that or its dishonest. Whenever someone’s doing comics and making themselves the victim or the hero it always feels dishonest, or delusional somehow.
AC In teaching comics over the years, I’ve noticed one trope that I thought I’d ask you about, the Suicide joke. It seems like something of a standard in comics, the suicide that is also funny.
DC Where have you seen this?
AC It’s intensively a part of Chris Ware’s anthology of comics for McSweeney’s, for example. Many examples there, like the Little Nun, where each strip ends with her praying. She’s also often dying at her own hand.
DC You can do the most extreme things in comics and get away with it in a way you can’t with film or literature. Things like that are read more easily as a joke. Something about the language lends itself to doing really objectionable stuff, and so I’m always shocked when people are offended by comics.
AC Given that, would you say there’s something of yours that couldn’t be made into a film?
DC I feel like, to make a film, you have to make it as a film and figure out how something works as a film. I would hope that all my stories could be done that way, but very few of them would leap gracefully into script form without changing things around pretty drastically.
AC How much is Chicago still an influence?
DC How can it not be? Whenever I have a nightmare of getting lost in a city it’s still Chicago in the ’70s. It’s imprinted on my unconscious. A big part of my inner life is there. I’ve been in California 20 years now and it’s only recently that I’ve started to feel like it’s seeping into my work. I think wherever you spend the childhood it’s always going to be the backdrop for whatever you do.
AC Was there something in the water, because how is it that so many amazing comics came out of Chicago?
DC It was one of the first cities to have fluoridated water, so maybe.
It was pure coincidence that Chris Ware and I ended up living a block away from each other. He got a scholarship to the Art Institute to go there for free, and for me, where I was, that was where I grew up, and so we just ended up being very close to each other.
Cartoonists can live anywhere, they don’t have to be anywhere in particular, so most cartoonists live wherever their wives want to live. That’s why I’m in California now.
AC I love Chris Ware’s sketchbooks, but I’m always amazed at how different they are from his comics.
DC He has a way he believes comics should be done that’s very different from drawing. He’s figured out the optimal level of detail that should go into a comic and anything he says, we should take notice, because he knows what he’s talking about.
AC Do you keep a private sketch journal?
DC I used to, but I felt like I was doing it because I was supposed to. It just felt like homework. I used to think it was really helpful to sit there and sketch a car, but it wasn’t that helpful, as I was always thinking about other things. I decided to just save my energy for when I was making comics. It was more useful to sit and observe things and to bring that back into the studio and apply that thinking back into my drawing. The work became much more spontaneous and less like something I was forcing myself to do.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and the forthcoming The Queen of the Night. He has taught the graphic novel at Amherst College and Columbia University’s MFA program. His reviews and essays have appeared in Bookforum, OUT, Granta Online, The Paris Review Daily and The Morning News. He lives in New York.