With Wilson, the graphic novelist has more fun being bleak.
Mon Apr 26 2010
The title character of Daniel Clowes's new Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly) is a middle-aged man, who, like Clowes, was born in Chicago and lives in Oakland, where Clowes currently resides with his son Charlie, 5, and wife Erika.
The title character of Daniel Clowes's new Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly) is a middle-aged man, who, like Clowes, was born in Chicago and lives in Oakland, where Clowes currently resides with his son Charlie, 5, and wife Erika. Clowes is the creator of the long-running, influential comic series Eightball, which he started in 1989, as well as the author of Pussey! (Fantagraphics, 1995), Ghost World (Fantagraphics, 1997), Caricature (Fantagraphics, 1998), David Boring (Pantheon, 2000), and Ice Haven (Pantheon, 2005), among many others. His screenplays include Ghost World and Art School Confidential—both movies based on his comics—and his serialized strip Mister Wonderful ran in the New York Times magazine starting in 2007. Clowes is a frequent contributor of covers to The New Yorker.
So you grew up in Chicago?
I grew up in Hyde Park, which is the weirdest neighborhood in the world. It's a bubble. I mean, I grew up thinking that racial inequality was a thing of the past. Like I truly had no idea what the rest of the world was like. It's like this sort of leftist wet dream of how things could work out. When I go back to Chicago, I can't believe what a great city it is. It's so different than what I grew up with that it's deeply alienating and upsetting to me personally, but on an empirical level I have to say it would be the perfect city to live in. Mayor Daly has done a pretty amazing job just in terms of the design of the city.
So you feel emotionally attached to the ugly version of the city?
I'm totally into the ugly version. When I was a kid, I would go downtown on a Sunday afternoon, and literally there would be nobody within sight except for zombie-like homeless people. And I just thought that was great, that you could walk through the streets of this huge American city without seeing a soul. It felt like an apocalypse movie or something.
In Wilson, the protagonist's father is a comp lit professor. Were your parents professors?
My grandfather [James Cate] was a big deal professor in the '40s through the '70s, and my mom was not a professor [laughs]. She was an auto mechanic. She tried to be the opposite of my grandfather.
Was he friends with all of the literature luminaries at Chicago?
He knew Saul Bellow, who was there at the time, and he was good friends with John Hope Franklin, who was in the History department, and he knew Ed Levi, and I'm guessing he probably knew Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court Justice who's retiring. My grandfather's best friend was Norman Maclean, who wrote that book A River Runs Through It. He was our dinner guest every Friday night. I basically lived with my grandparents most of the time because my mom was busy trying to run a garage.
You went to Pratt, right?
And did you hate it?
Actually, at the time I enjoyed it. But I had a friend who sort of dropped out half way through, and I remember I saw him at a bar and he said, "It just occurred to me one day all I really have to do is put up my paintings in my room, and have my friends come over and talk about the paintings and that would be the exact same thing [as art school]." And I thought, wait a minute, that can't be right, and yet, he was absolutely right! [Laughs]
So what was your first published comics work?
It was a feature in Cracked magazine called "Aren't You Nervous When...?"
How did you hook up with Cracked?
I had a roommate at Pratt who was kind of an amazing guy who could talk his way into anything. And one day he noticed there was an opening for, like, an assistant gopher at Cracked. And he said, Hey, I'm going to get this job! And within three weeks, he was like the editor in chief. [Laughs] It was pretty great.
One of your early books is Pussey!, which makes fun of the comics world.
You know, when it first came out, it was a big deal. That was the thing everybody talked about, and that's what got me all the attention. Because nobody had ever done anything like that.
You mean about comics?
Now it's such a part of the culture to do things about nerds. You know, that's something that's done in every medium now. But at that time, nobody wanted to make fun of that crowd. And I was so resentful of being kind of stuck in that world. I just felt like the comics I was doing had nothing at all to do with the marketplace I was being thrown into, and I'd find myself having to go to these comic book conventions, and sitting next to some guy who was drawing, like, 20th-rate superhero comics, and he'd have a line out the door, and I'd have nobody. I thought I was doing stuff that would draw as big an audience as some really specific weird superhero, and yet, no. I was wrong. [Laughs]
So then what happened?
Somehow there were enough of us—there was me, and the Hernandez brothers, and Peter Bagge, and Charles Burns, and a few others—that we created our own little audience. And the people who now go to MoCCA and shop at Desert Island and all that, that's sort where that crowd came out of. And they were kind of indie-rock college student types, who somehow stumbled onto these comics. I mean, it was not easy to do back then.