How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Daniel Clowes

Portions of this interview were used in a recent article I wrote about Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine for the SF Weekly. My thanks to Mr. Clowes for his time.

You have famously criticized art school in your work. Do you think art school was a waste of time? What did you get out of it?

It wasn’t really a waste of time. At the time I went, nobody really had any notion of teaching the kinds of things that I wanted to learn. There’s something about the rarity of a kid who really wants to learn these specific skills and has a goal-oriented plan in mind where he wants to accomplish certain things very specific, and to have people tell him that those aren’t worthy goals and that nobody is going to teach him these things -- it was frustrating and humiliating. 

I went there with this bright-eyed kid from the Midwest moving to New York quality of wanting to be in the town where all the great comic books were produced and learning the secret arts of how those were put together -- and then to be told that, really, you should just learn how to do second-rate abstract expressionist paintings, and that that was more valid than trying to tell a story in pictures, it was just really dispiriting. 

But, that experience was also very helpful, later on -- learning that I needed to figure out all of this stuff for myself, and come at it through my own experimentation. 

So they had no cartooning instruction at all at that time?

No, not at all. Nobody taught it.

What was your area of focus?

When I started, my major was drawing. I figured that would be the most helpful. And it was sort of useless. You do some figure drawing and stuff, but it was just a tiny subset of the stuff I needed to learn. I switched to graphic design, and that wasn’t quite what I wanted. And then I switched to illustration. 

It was like going to school to be a dog trainer and they teach you to raise fish or something. A lot of it just wasn’t what I needed to learn. And comics aren’t that much about art. I feel like art school isn’t necessarily the place to go. It’s closer to writing than drawing in many ways. Now they have schools that are devoted to teaching comics. And maybe that’s not such a good thing, either. Maybe it’s better to learn it on your own.

What were the immediate post-college years like for you? What paid the bills?

It seemed like an eternity, but I spent a year living with roommates and sponging off of girlfriends and stuff. I got out of school, and all my teachers said, “You’ve got this great portfolio! You’ll be getting illustration work in magazines right away!” I had enough money to spend six months in New York taking my portfolio out to magazines trying to get illustration work. It seems like it [lasted] ten years. 

Every day, I’d drop off my portfolio and wait around until the end of the day and I could tell the art director hadn’t even looked at it. It was the most frustrating thing. I never got a single illustration job. 

And just when I was ready to give up and go back to Chicago and live with my parents again, a friend of mine got a job as the editor of Cracked magazine. He just blundered his way into that job. So I wound up getting work in Cracked magazine and that saved my life. That was my first professional work. I was about 23. I’d been out of school about half a year. 

Have you made it solely off cartooning income since Cracked?

Yeah. Back then, I don’t think I made in the five digits for at least five or six years, but you could live really cheaply. I remember at the time thinking it was just a crazy amount of money we needed to come up with, but now it’s inconceivable that you could live on $7,000 a year.

How long did you stay in New York?

Not long after that. That was the first thing I had to come to grips with. “If I’m going to be doing this, I’m not going to be living here.” Not even in the wilds of Brooklyn, where I was living. But in Chicago you could get a nice apartment for $300 a month. 

I heard you say recently in response to a fan’s question at a Q&A that the way your art looks now reflects the way “I always thought comics should look.” Could you expand on that? Because it almost sounds like you’re saying that comics are a visual abstraction.

I think what I was stumbling through with that is: The way I’m trying to get my drawings to look is to where – through my eye – they have no style at all. When I was kid, it seemed to me that there were certain comic artists who were drawing without any quirks or anything that differentiated it from a standardized vision of how comics would look. So I’m trying to do that. To me, my work looks almost like it has no style, like I’m trying to just transcribe reality in the way I see it. 

When I read people talking about it, I get the idea that it has a very distinctive style. I’m always shocked when people can recognize my work – when they just see a face or something and know that I drew it. I think, “How would you know?” 

But I think that’s what a style is, it’s that little system of psychological quirks that come through in the work that the author is probably the last to see. The kind of work that I dislike or that always seems kind of cheap to me is when somebody is really trying to have a style, and tries to make everything look a certain way to fit into their quirky style. Illustrators especially do that -- I just always find that hideous.

I thought The Death Ray was maybe the darkest story you’ve written --


-- and it occurred to me that a lot of the characters in your stories are angry people, but it come out in different ways. And it’s often funny. But in this book, it’s almost never funny. There’s less humor. 

I find some of it funny, but in ways that I can’t imagine anyone else would ever find funny.

The protagonist becomes truly dangerous. Did you consciously shift away from humor?

When I set out to do that story, I did not think of it as something that was necessarily going to be funny. You never really know which way they’re going to go when you begin. Sometimes they become funny without you really wanting them to. 

I had the character in mind – the two versions of the character: the young, na├»ve, lonely kid and the bitter, angry middle-aged man. And trying to navigate how one becomes the other became the focus of the story. They become about the characters and the characters come alive and you can’t really change them at a certain point – they just become who they are – and he became a really dark, angrier-than-usual character. 

A lot of the response to The Death Ray is that it’s your reaction to superhero comics, which seems kind of simplistic.

Certainly it’s not a response to the last forty years of superhero comics [laughter]. I haven’t really read a superhero comic since I was seventeen years old. I tried to read Watchmen, and that was about it. It’s just not something I’m that interested in. 

But it certainly is a response to how I felt when I read the early Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics when I was fourteen years old – and what I hoped to get from superhero comics as a teenager, but never quite did get. This feeling of – can’t even quite describe it – but there’s a certain quality suggested by the imagery in superhero comics that I never felt was quite delivered, that seemed really charged with emotion and kind of big and dark and strong. And then when you actually read them, they’re just kind of frivolous and silly and formulaic. So I was trying to fulfill something that I had imagined could exist when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

Right – as in Peter Parker never coming across as a real kid?

In the early ones, he kind of did. I kind of related to him. Then all of a sudden Steve Ditko stopped drawing it and Peter Parker puts on about forty pounds of muscle and he looks like the most hateful jock creep. And the whole point of the comic is he’s this 120-pound bookworm with no friends who lives with his aunt – and then all of a sudden he’s Big Man on Campus, like he’s a superhero in his secret identity as well when he’s Spider-Man. It’s just a completely different idea. I remember even as a kid being bummed out by that. 

How did you meet Adrian Tomine?

I moved to Berkeley in 1992. And he had sent me his mini-comics when I was living in Chicago, and so I knew his work. I was probably about 29 or 30, and I remember thinking that he had to be 26 and 27. He was really good, and he seemed like he might be just a few years behind me and the Hernandez brothers. I just figured he was around that age.

He had done an issue of his Optic Nerve mini-comic with his photo on the cover. At the time, my wife was studying at Berkeley, and she said, “I’m pretty sure this guy is in one of my classes.” And I said, “No, no, this guy’s like 27, 28. I’m sure it’s just a bad photo.” She’s like, “No, I’m sure I’ve seen this guy.” Next day, she says, “Oh I talked to that guy. That’s him – Adrian.” And it turned out he was the youngest guy in the class – he was only 18 or 19.
And then it turned out he lived a block away from me, which was quite an odd coincidence – that somebody that talented would wind up on the same block as me. We wound up getting together for coffee and becoming friends. Instead of having friends his own age, he used to hang out with me and all the older cartoonists – a bad influence on him.

How would you say you’ve influenced one another’s work?

He’s certainly influenced me just by the way he is so adamantly into telling these stories, and he doesn’t try to do any crazy gimmicks in his illustration. He’s just focused on telling the story in the best way possible. That’s always been very inspiring, for me to see that – to see a kid who is really trying to hone his narrative skills as opposed to just showing off with his drawing, which is certainly what I was interested in when I was 18 or 19 – just doing cool drawings in my comics. And he seemed completely uninterested in dazzling anybody with his artwork. He just wanted to affect people emotionally, and that was something to follow.

And I love that he sticks to drawing about Berkeley a lot, when he was living in Berkeley. I could recognize almost every location in those comics – the Chinese restaurant that used to be on College Avenue. It’s great to have that record of it. He had a small orbit in his world, and he really focused on it and tried to make it something universal.

Is that something you’ve tried to do as well? I certainly noticed that the locations in Wilson and Mr. Wonderful look like the East Bay.

Wilson’s certainly all Oakland, as is Mr. Wonderful. They’re in that orbit. I like the idea of imagining some random guy that I’d see every day on my dog walk – having him come to life. That’s where those two came from.

Have you seen Optic Nerve #12 yet?

I just got it.

There’s a really funny postscript he did about his struggle to continue doing the comic.

Yeah – I liked that!

You’re quoted in there, from some NPR interview. Do you think there’s any value any putting out your own anthology comic anymore?

There’s plenty of value. It’s just the marketplace seems so hostile to it. When I was coming to grips with – when I was doing Wilson, I was thinking, “Do I do this as a comic? Do I do it as a book?” It seemed like an act of defiance to do it as a comic, and it seemed to be so freighted with some kind of meaning that I didn’t intend for the book to have. I didn’t want it to be about the format or about the marketplace. I want the work to be what people are focusing on, so I want it to be in a format that feels the most natural to the readership. And I felt like that had shifted from periodical comics to graphic novels.

I love reading comics like Adrian’s, although I have to say when I read it, I felt this feeling of pain at the end, like, “This took me 20 minutes to read, and it could be two years before I read another one.” 

When everybody used to do comics, you knew that next month, Chester Brown would do a comic, and after that, Peter Bagge would do a comic. There was always going to be something to read. But I can’t think of the last comic before this that I bought or read. When there’s one every year or two years, it’s a very different thing, and something kind of painful about it!

I always think that when I’m done reading – even something book-length, “God, I just read that in an hour.”

And I know Adrian worked thousands of hours on that comic. And you can’t ever do the math in that way. I always think the cumulative hours spent by all the people who read it has to exceed the amount of time you spent on it. [Laughter]

Comics seems like a great medium for a perfectionist. And screenwriting seems like it’s completely the opposite.

In terms of the final product, that’s absolutely true. But if you just think of the screenplay as the finished work, which is the only way I know how to do it, you actually have even more control over the screenplay than you do over a comic. Because once a comic starts going in a weird direction that you might want to correct, you’re not going to re-draw forty pages and make things work out. Comics are very organic. They go in their own way and you’re stuck with the final result. You could spend a lifetime re-drawing things over and over to get it right. 

But in a screenplay, you can cut out 40 pages in the middle and put something else in. You can change characters’ names and descriptions. So there’s a certain fluidity to it that, to me, is really refreshing. But I have to then cut off all expectations the minute I’ve sent the script off to somebody. 

But if someone writes a play, somebody could do a hideous production of that play, but that doesn’t affect the play. So I sort of think of it in those terms, even though nobody really reads a screenplay as a play – and it’s a very different thing than a play. 

When you’re working in comics, how tightly do you script before you start working on the art?

My goal is always to script very tightly and plan everything out in advance. But then I find you dissipate all your energy. A big part of comics is maintaining your energy and your focus and your enthusiasm. You have to be able to get up every Monday morning and say, “Okay, I’m ready to get back to page 63 of this comic,” with the same level of interest that page 1 had. 

To do that, I find that I have to be a lot more spontaneous and keep the thrill of possible catastrophic error alive the whole time. Which means I do have to re-draw things every now and then, or finesse my way around things. But after you do it for long enough, you can figure out how to make things work or minimize your anguish around mistakes.

Fantagraphics is putting out a collection of Nancy strips, many of which came from your own collection.

I found it baffling that I had the best collection of Nancy strips. I bought a bunch of them off eBay in like 1998. It didn’t take any special effort. I just found some dealer that had a whole bunch of them, and I bought all of them I could get my hands on. And when it came time to do the book, they were looking all over and they couldn’t find them anywhere. And I had almost all of them.

What form did you buy them in?

It was some crazy collector who cut them out of the paper and wrapped them in Saran Wrap in little blocks, so I have blocks of every year. And I’m missing a few, but I have pretty much everything from 1943 through 1969 or something like that.

How would you characterize yourself as a comics collector? Do you have particular areas of interest?

I’m not one of those completists who’s got to have everything by everybody. In this case, I just really wanted to read these Nancy strips. I was trying to find stuff I couldn’t get otherwise. If I’d known they were going to do these collections now, I would have just been happy to just wait for them. But for years, the only way you could read a lot of these old comics was to just get the original tear sheets. So I have stacks and stacks of old Sunday pages and things like that.