I'm not going to lie. I was pretty nervous to interview Daniel Clowes, the critically lauded and loved author of such graphic gems as Ghost World, Ice Haven, and Mister Wonderful. Not only is he considered one of the god-fathers of underground comics, but he also tends to write about fairly cynical, misanthropic, and angry people. His new work, Wilson, is no exception to this rule; it's the tale of a middle-aged narcissist and his egotistical interactions with the world. Needless to say, I was was greatly hoping that I wouldn't say anything stupid, piss him off, and send him into a tirade of why journalism in America (or something to that extent) is morally bankrupt.
I am very happy to report that nothing even close to this happened in the interview. Daniel Clowes is an incredibly pleasant fellow with a delightful sense of humor and a true intellectual passion for the art form he works with.
In the interview we spoke about his writing process, a strange place called "Oakland California", and how a series of jokes can lead to one helluva a narrative.
Mr. Clowes reads at the downtown Powell's, this Sunday (May 16) at 7:30 pm.
Check the whole interview after the jump, and see our review of Wilson here...
Mercury: How's your day going?
Oh it's ok, I just got back from a book tour for a week, and it's one of those days where it's like, 'uh-oh I have like 3600 emails to answer! All urgent.'
So you're back in California then?
Yeah, for a couple days at least.
Is that where you do most of your work?
That's where I am, yeah. That's where I live.
Well, can we talk about Wilson?
So I've been flipping through it again today and looking at some of these brief strips for a 2nd and some a third time...
... that was sort of the idea, I was hoping people would read it, like, 4 times. Get their money's worth.
Yeah, looking at it, I see that there is a lot of subtle foreshadowing that takes place. Especially in the beginning of the book, where upon first reading, I wouldn't have even picked up on the joke going on. But then on 2nd reading (after knowing the trajectory of the story) there's a brand new joke.
That's good. I'm glad. Because I kinda wanted it to start out as through you are just reading a bunch of jokes in a row and there's no cohesion to them at all and when you get to the end and you're like "oh these were all related, all these seemingly unrelated little introduction things."
Yes, it was fun to pick up on that the 2nd time around. And it made me wonder, do you write from a script at all?
Ya know, I don't usually have an entire script with all the dialogue and descriptions and all that, but I have to have kind of a clear progression of events before I'm comfortable starting anyway. And I have to have an ending. I've learned the hard way that if you don't have an ending you're in big trouble. Ya know, you get there and you're like "oh an ending will come along" and that never works. So, I have to have at least one I could use if desperate. And I often change it, almost always, it's modified at least but I always have to have a fall back or I'll start to panic about half way through.
So was this particular ending to Wilson one that you had in mind as you were getting near to the end of the writing process?
You know the only change I had in my intent was that the book had a lot more stuff, and I just wound up cutting and cutting and cutting. I wanted it to be really pared down and trim as possible. So I had a lot more at the end, but I really just pared it down to the essential three of four.
Ah, I see. I also was actually surprised by how quickly the book punched along, and yet how much impact it had.
Well there are years in between a couple of the strips. It implies a lot more than is actually there. At least that was what I was trying to do.
And there was kind of a rhythmic aspect to each page, each page was one comic-strip that had a punch-line, and in a way I thought it to be a kind of graphic poetry?
Interesting. Very interesting. Kind of like a meter.
Yeah it seemed like it had a clip to it.
Well my original impetus was, having read collections of daily comic strips, of peanuts for example. You know it's [each strip] intended as a daily joke, it's not intended really to be read in a book. But if you read, ya know, a hundred of them in a row, it has this certain... you know you get into that rhythm, you expect it, you expect that beat to be on every page. And yet there is this certain unspoken narrative in a strip like that. They're always kind of topical to whatever's going on. You have the summer strips, and then the Christmas strips and it kind of has the feel like you're reading a narrative even though there really isn't one imposed on it. And that was sort of my first thought when starting this book; what if you actually had a narrative in mind in a comic-strip collection? But I like the poetry idea better. That sounds much more respectable.
Well it actually made me wonder whether or not you read any poetry?
I do a little bit. My wife is a Professor of English at Berkeley, and her thing isn't poetry, she has some, she's more about novels. We have a lot of it lying around, because she has certainly had to read it over the years. So every once in awhile I'll pick up Keats, or something, and read.. the good thing about poetry is that you kind sort of just read as much as you want in one night and then the next night you can switch to something else.
That's interesting as I notice that I can flip to one page in the book and see the kick just a page has by itself.
Well I realized that whenever I look at a book, especially any book with pictures, I flip it right to the middle, like I take it off the shelf and flip it right to the middle, and if it kind of grabs me then I'll keep going, and then I'll go back to the beginning. And so that was kind of my hope, that someone would take it off the shelf, open it to the middle, and say "oh this is just a bunch of jokes, it's funny" and then maybe get suckered in.
And then you hit them with the rawness.
Yeah, and then they read the whole thing in the bookstore and don't buy it.
[we both laugh]
So you mentioned peanuts being topical, and looking at comic-strips in that way, and I wondered when you started writing this, and whether or not you had the economic climate in mind?
Oh for sure. I think the book began in 2008, which I believe was right after the big crash. And that was the election year, with the beginning of the election really kicking in. And that was certainly the big issue. And around here business were really, all of a sudden, disappearing and everyone I knew was like "holy shit what's going on?". And I think we all were in more of a panic than we are now, now that we're used to it. At the time it was like: is this just going to get worse and worse? It seemed like we were heading towards something really devastating.
And what's funny to point out about the book, is how with Wilson, he's only concerned with it [the economy], in the respect of how it impacting his direct life.
Well of course. He thinks of himself as representative of all men. He thinks that everything he says, that people get what he's talking about, and agree with him, sort of inherently, and yet, ya know, they never do.
Yes, I found that to be a very jarring aspect of the book: how he kind of thought of himself as an 'everyman'.
[Clowes laughs at this]
But there were also times in which, in a weird way, he was an 'everyman'. He has these aspects that a lot of people have, where you lie to yourself, or you make plans that you don't follow through with. But that juxtaposed with Wilson swearing at a stranger for not saying hello to his dog (Clowes laughs again) is extremely terrifying.
Right. I mean don't we all see ourselves as an 'everyman' in some way? I mean, we all see ourselves as exceptional in some way. I think we all think we're connected to people and that if we just knew where to look we'd be part of this welcoming community.
Well do you want the reader to empathize with Wilson at all?
I've found the people who seem to get the most out of the book are the ones who have to begrudgingly admit that they like him or that they kinda agree with him. And then there are readers who are just utterly resistant to him. Where he's just alienating and not someone they want to throw their lot in with. Right off the bat they're not willing to make that leap. I mean they might find it funny but I don't think they're getting as much out of it as those who are generous enough to find some humanity in the poor fellow.
Do you empathize with him?
I find I do more and more. As I was working on the book I found him endlessly entertaining. He was just such a good character to work with. It was never not fun to see what he would do. It was always sort of a surprise. You could just throw anything at him and he kind of has his own thing, it's not something I'm in control of necessarily, he sort of steers where the jokes would go, and so it was endlessly fun to work with him. I didn't really look at him as good or bad. And after the book was done I could see that there are a few points in this story that are really going to challenge a reader to empathize with this guy. But I find myself defending him more and more. I think he's actually right about a lot of things but perhaps he doesn't say them in a manner that is easily acceptable to the whoever he's talking to. But it doesn't make what he's saying or thinking wrong.
Is he based off of anyone in particular?
He's an amalgam of a specific type in this area. There's a lot of people, sort of in the fringes of the bay area. They're never right in the expensive parts of San Francisco, but in Oakland and Berkeley. They're kind of this class of people that exist that are educated and smart as anybody but they've made these choices along the way to not get a regular job and so they tend to, at a certain age, to be bitter and cranky and isolated. But that's basically describing all of my friends and myself perhaps.
Is that why you set some of the book in Oakland, because you knew that person, that character?
Yeah, from the get-go I sort of felt like he was 'The Oakland Guy'. Oakland is a very interesting, kind of neglected place. It has it's own feel to it and I sort of felt like we needed an 'Oakland Guy' to represent us. I'm not sure how the Mayor is going to feel about Wilson being the representative though.
Ok, so here's the question that you are probably getting the most, and it's about the artwork and the ever-changing scheme in the way the pages are drawn. Is there a significance there you want people to draw on?
I mean I think there is a certain significance just in the idea of doing it that way. I wouldn't want anyone though to think that there was some kind of rebus you could solve...
I started trying...
Well that kind of thing is tempting to do. But I wouldn't want to distract from the story by making it not about the story. When I first started doing it I really was going to try and do it in one unified style. I kept trying different styles and I found that I needed to do all of them for it to work. For me it shows that this character is not exactly what you think he is in every guise. And it also was a way to kind of modulate the book. You know, if everything had been drawn in a kind of a goofy funny style, the rhythm I think would have become deadening after awhile. By being able to modulate it in a very subtle way, by changing the style, you can change what might read as a simple joke, into something that reads as tragic or desperate or any number of emotions other than a 'ha-ha" punchline. And that to me is what I was interested in, playing with the subtle tonal shifts of that throughout the book.
Well what's going on with you next?
I have a couple books I'm putting together. One is a collection of this strip I did called Mr. Wonderful for The New York Times Magazine. It's an expanded and complete version of that strip. And then after that, I'm excited think about starting something new.
Do you think you'll continue in this vein of doing a whole book?
Yeah I think so. I think that's the way to go now. It's sort of daunting because it takes so long to get something out before the public and you're sort of working in isolation that whole time. But once you're done it really is cool to have a whole new book you [the public] haven't seen. It is the first time I've ever had that.