DANIEL CLOWES and I both have terrible head colds. I ask him a question over the phone and he breaks out into a cough.
"Three coughs means, 'yes,'" he manages to get out.
I'd been a tiny bit apprehensive about talking to the creator of borderline misanthropic characters like Ghost World's Enid Coleslaw and countless sardonic others that populate his illustrious 40-year career. But Clowes is charming, amenable, and quick to laugh as we talk about his new graphic novel, the cosmic time-travel love story Patience, his first since 2010. It's his longest work, 180 pages, hardbound and packaged like a Technicolor dream.
Well, this is his first new material in five years. Last year saw the release of the two-hardcover-book Eightball collection ["Behind the Eightball," Books, April 15, 2015], Clowes' seminal comic anthology that ran from 1989 to 2004. Compiling it, he did a bit of time-traveling of his own.
"Right in the middle [of working on Patience] I had to go in and deal with The Complete Eightball. When I agreed to do that I was just like, 'I get a free check in the mail. I don't have to do anything. I've already done all that work.' But it turned out to be the most time-crushing hours and hours of trying to track down original art... all the stuff that had been sold to some random guy at a comic convention in Atlanta in 1993. So it became like an episode of Matlock or something, tracking down clues.
"It was very much like the [new] book in a lot of ways," Clowes continues. "Tracking down your past."
Patience is a shadowy, lysergic trip down nostalgia lane. It opens in 2012, when a young and poor Jack Barlow comes home one day to find the love of his life, his wife Patience, dead on the floor of their apartment. The cops pin the murder on heartbroken Jack, until it becomes glaringly obvious he didn't do it. Fast forward 17 years, and gray-haired Jack has hardened into a bitter man, stuck in the headlights of vengeance. In this near-future of 2029, he stumbles upon a way to travel back in time to try to stop Patience's murder, but with hardly any clue as to where to begin, like a less-capable Lee Marvin. In his clumsy way, Jack jumps from 2006 to 1985 to 2012 as he investigates Patience's past in a search for the murderer.
Beautifully colored, bright with a slightly yellowed overtone, Patience is full of Clowesian magic—visceral portraits, melting reality, and clean, beautiful artwork. Like riding a Robert Williams painted pony into the sunset, it's a trippy experience, and disconcertingly tender amid its bursts of violence. The story is also topical, covering income inequity, the rise of a blustering presidential candidate, and the dubious tactics employed in murder investigations.
"It's all sort of issues that are present always, because those things are always true. A lot of them seem to have just now come into the consciousness right as the book is coming out. Like the political candidate is this obvious phony demagogue. I don't know who that would remind you of?" Clowes says. "That's sort of what you hope for when a book comes out—whatever the sort of themes that are running through your head for five years aren't completely out of date or out of sync with the era."
I pull out the old interviewer's chestnut: If you had the chance, would you kill Hitler's mother? Clowes starts laughing. At one point in Patience, Jack asks a fellow bar patron, "Hey buddy, if you could go back in time and shoot Hitler's mom, you'd do it, right?"
"Five or six years ago I was interviewed for a magazine in the UK, which had a little interview page. This woman wrote me these questions and it was, 'What would you do if you could travel back in time?' And I wrote this long, thoughtful answer that was like, 'I'd like to think I'd go back and kill baby Hitler and discover the divinity of Jesus, but I know I'd just go back to my childhood and go to the stores that have been out of business since 1972. I later found out the whole point of the [article] was that they wanted concise, short answers, so when the piece came out... it just said 'I would kill Hitler.'"
We both laugh, and I tell him I have to go transcribe his interview while under the influence of cold medicine, so who knows what a typographical mess it will be.
"So it will just say, 'I would like to kill baby Hitler.'" Yep.
by Daniel Clowes
In conversation with Eric Reynolds, Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Sun March 13, 2 pm, free