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Illustration by Daniel Clowes

Childless and Petless

Comics artist Daniel Clowes lives a life of happy misanthropy

By Daniel Cowles

'WEIRD," IS WHAT Daniel Clowes says the first time I call him to propose an interview. By way of introduction, I have to stumble through explaining that my name is, in fact, very similar to his name, and that for years people have been asking me if I'm related to him, if I know him or if I am him--none of which makes much sense if you think about it.

Granted, it's not a lot of people: Daniel Clowes is not exactly a household name. Not unless, that is, your household is occupied by edgy comic-book appreciators, semierudite hepcats or (more recently) movie aficionados.

Clowes is the creator of the highly acclaimed comic book Eightball and its spinoff anthologized graphic novels, including Ghost World and David Boring, his latest. This week, the movie version of Ghost World, already in limited release, opens in San Jose. It's written by Clowes and directed by Terry (Crumb) Zwigoff.

Turns out, much to my humble surprise, he'd heard of me, too--from friends telling him they'd seen his name in some random byline of some Bay Area weekly paper. It was me. "Poor Dan," they must have thought. "Things must not be going too well. They even misspelled his name."

"I thought I'd probably meet you someday," Clowes says on the other end of the line.

Behind the Curtain

IT'S SUPER BOWL SUNDAY when we first get together at the Coffee Mill on Grand Avenue, a few blocks from Clowes' house in Oakland. Even though I've never met him or seen pictures--other than the revealing self-portraits that show up periodically (periodically, get it?) in his comics--when I see Clowes I know it's him instantly.

He'd described himself so I'd know what to look for: "About 6 foot 2 inches. Hair--graying, what's left of it." He had forgotten to add that he'd look like an undertaker, tall, indeed, and thin--gaunt, even--in his mid-length black trench coat, vintage maroon V-neck sweater and black, low-cut orthopedic work shoes.

There's a "man behind the curtain" quality to Clowes. In person, at least the first time I meet him, he's reserved, with a hint of folksy gee-whiz, but also maybe a little cautious, suspicious, even nervous. He regularly pulls at his left eyebrow or occasionally pokes himself a little self-consciously with one of his long fingers. But as anyone who's ever read his comics knows, the low-key demeanor is misleading. Clowes should know about weird.

Clowes started Eightball in 1988, after finishing a seven-issue series on retro-futuristic everyman Lloyd Llewellyn (titled Lloyd Llewellyn). At the time, there were but few players in the market of "underground comics": Los Bros Hernandez with Love and Rockets, Art Spiegelman's Raw, R. Crumb's Weirdo, among others.

The early Eightballs--R-rated descendants of the great Mad and EC comics and magazines of the '50s and '60s--read like raw subconscious poured onto the page. They were meticulously drawn, alternately grotesque or sharply comic, almost always alienated in one way or another.

Clowes chuckles when I ask him how autobiographical his work is--the inevitable question--and when I comment on how it's so often angry, contemptuous and misanthropic.

"Well, it's all me," he says. "Yeah, I'm definitely a very angry person. I'm never happy. I'm never content. I'm never satisfied with what I've accomplished. And most of my anger is directed at myself."

Sure enough, self-mockery is everywhere, from the faux bio in "Lout Rampage," where he describes himself as "an eccentric multimillionaire who likes to shoplift things from stores and then send his butler in to pay for them," to the seething and hilarious "Just Another Day" piece, where multiple versions of the "real" Daniel Clowes are presented, each more vile than the last; or on the pages of Ghost World, where simmering self-loathing is a constant. There, in a cameo appearance, Clowes draws himself sitting pathetically at a table in the back of a comic shop, waiting for someone to come in to meet him. Later, he gets called an "old perv" by one of the characters.

Time Alone

THE REAL Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago. His parents divorced when he was a baby, and he was raised mostly by his grandparents, growing into a self-described "shy, oversensitive kid, who fixated on things and spent a lot of time with [himself]."

His mom owned a garage on the south side of Chicago, which she ran up until about 10 years ago. Now it just sits there. "It couldn't be in a worse neighborhood. When she dies, I'll have to go back there and deal with it."

There's a juicy tidbit that shows up in some Clowes bios: that his stepfather was a race car driver who died in a crash, Clowes' mom the pit crew mechanic. On paper it's perfect, underground-comic press kit dream material, but he downplays it.

When prodded a bit about the relationship, he offers an unenthusiastic, "My parents divorced acrimoniously when I was young. I was never very close with either of them." I'm pretty sure he'd tell me more if I pressed him, in the spirit of brutal honesty, but it seems pat. And as he says in what soon becomes a familiar refrain: "It's all there in the books."

And indeed it is. In fact, with so much hyperdysfunctional content as grist for the pop-psychoanalytical mill, it's tempting, and seemingly pretty easy, to analyze Clowes based on his work. From the early Eightballs, with their deluge of ideas--as if a dam had burst--to the constant sad burn of Ghost World or David Boring, with its full-blown Oedipal distress, reading his books seems like time on the couch with Dan Clowes.

Asked if he's used the drawing board as a release, he more or less agrees. Though "at this point I know it doesn't help," he demurs, with only the faintest of smiles.

Ghost World was a departure from his earlier work. Depicting a summer in the life of Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, two teenage girls too smart for their own good and awakening widely to the banal truth of American grown-up culture, Ghost World glides along at a low-grade ache that marks late adolescence perfectly captured.

It's realistic compared to the hallucinatory worlds of his early books but still more concerned with the margins than the mainstream: filled with arcane pop-culture references, lonely notes and dark poignant punch lines, and saturated in the cold blue light of our TV culture.

It took Clowes six years to write. When he started, he'd just landed in Berkeley after moving from L.A., and before that New York and Chicago--a seminomadic existence that probably helped to give Ghost World its vague lost-in-time-and-space quality.

"I thought it was the suburbs," he says of Berkeley. "It was the first place I felt safe. I could go out at night and not go like this all the time." (He makes a remarkably effective if underplayed show of darting his eyes back over his shoulder.) Then he tells me a joke: "Where do comic book writers live?" he asks. "Wherever their wives want to." Ba-dum-bum.

Ghost World brought Clowes a broader audience, at the same time establishing him as one of the most important comic artists of the now crowded field, as well as a bona fide literary entity. It also caught the eye of Terry Zwigoff, the director of the painfully beautiful documentary hit Crumb, who was looking around for his next movie.

Clowes started on the screenplay, but writing went "unbelievably slow." But by the time it was done, rewritten over and over again, "it was by far the most perfected piece of work I'd ever done. At least until we started shooting, and we changed everything," he says, in perfect deadpan.

Clowes still marvels at the Hollywood studios' lack of imagination, but eventually he and Zwigoff got the green light from studio execs looking for another teen-angst hit. "Literally the greatest thing that happened to us was when American Beauty became a huge hit. Even though I didn't like it."

Daniel Clowes
The Real Daniel Clowes: There's a 'man behind the curtain' quality to 'Ghost World' cartoonist Clowes.

Planet of the Apes

THE NEXT TIME I see him, Daniel Clowes seems much more comfortable, happier, even healthier. He is dressed this time in more casual contemporary stylings, sporting a few days' growth of facial hair.

Maybe it's because we're meeting at his house, a humble but lovable little Victorian where, as his Pantheon Press bio says, "he lives a childless, petless life with his beloved wife." We sit in his office, him at his drawing table, me on some sort of divan.

The room is amazing: filled with comics, books and memorabilia. A giant Chris Ware (another brilliant Chicago comic writer) promotional model sits on a table near us. We idly talk about movies. I tell him about some terrible film I'd seen the night before, and he says, "I guarantee you it wasn't as bad as the one I saw," which turns out to be Battlefield Earth, John Travolta's Scientology vanity project and a movie Clowes had hoped to mine for low-camp yuks. "It's no Showgirls," he says disappointedly.

David Boring, Clowes' most recent book, was written while he was working on the Ghost World script and well into the subsequent pitch process, so it's no coincidence that it's steeped in movie imagery. Film references are everywhere: sprocket holes on the opening pages; black frames and intertitles; closing credits scrolled movie style.

The movie experience affected Clowes in another way as well. "I didn't see it at the time, but later I realized that [David Boring] is a very frustrated story," he says, and he chalks that up to the mind-numbing on-again-off-again process of getting the movie made.

David Boring presents a paranoid adventure, rife with feverish apocalyptic anxiety that also comes as no surprise, considering it was written in the hysterical period leading up to our own millennial rollover.

Clowes and his wife had planned to go to Easter Island with a bunch of friends for the event--"I liked the idea of being there, and having the whole Western world destroyed--coming back to some kind of Planet of the Apes-like wasteland"--but it turned out to be astronomically expensive. (Then again, what does a little credit card debt matter if the end of the world is nigh?)

A similar scenario plays out on the pages of Boring, where David and some others retreat to a remote island, not knowing whether the world is intact or decimated by terrorist attacks, waiting for toxic clouds or radioactive fallout to come their way.

But the apocalyptic overtones are more than just a reflection of what was going on around him. By the time of David Boring, Clowes' on-page presentation of his own psychic exploration had reached sophisticated levels: the issues, as it were, having surfaced from the depths with a clarity not found in his earlier work.

David Boring--rudderless but well-hung, obsessed by large-bottomed women, at harsh odds with his mother--carries around pages of The Yellow Streak, an old comic book ghost-written by his absentee dad and all he has left of him to piece together.

The pages of the lost book wither over time like memories, disintegrating into fragments until they are finally abandoned altogether. The symbolically rich title of the comic-within-a-comic conjures up a complex picture of heroism, cowardice and stained sheets. Boring's devastating paternal neglect transcends the personal, becoming part of the collective consciousness of our leaderless, fatherless times--the embarrassment and failure of the patriarchy.

There's another theme that runs through David Boring, not as obvious as the movie framework or the apocalyptic backdrop but ultimately more persistent than either. Not once but twice, Boring is shot in the head, and each time he recovers, nurtured back to health by gentle hands, sheltered from the harsh world by soft ocean waves. There is the theme of healing. Trauma and the recovery process. Waking from darkness, figuring out what happened, understanding, accepting.

By the last pages, Boring seems to have moved on. A final, heretofore unseen panel from The Yellow Streak, again multi-entendre'd, appears: A mushroom cloud, the word "Boom!" and "The End" printed in block letters. The end of the world as we know it? The end of grappling with his father's legacy? Certainly, the end of the story. Catharsis.

The Morning After

MUCH AS I TRIED, I was unable to make much out of the name thing, and our displaced consonant. Not even if you include the fact that Daniel Clowes and I were born in the same year, a month apart, he, as he sometimes notes, on Jayne Mansfield's 29th birthday, me on Keely Smith's 29th birthday, or that we live just a few blocks away from each other, or that he and his wife Erika almost bought the house right across the street from me.

And I'm sure it means nothing that the theme song from the obscure '70s late-night sitcom Love, American Style is playing in the grocery store the same day I read a story of his with an obscure Love, American Style reference. In spite of his fondness for the occasional anagram (Enid Coleslaw equals Daniel Clowes, of course), I'm unable to wedge it into any kind of satisfying Clowes-ian moment.

Within the next month or two month, a new Eightball should come out, the first in a couple years, since Clowes has been tied up with the making of Ghost World. It will be composed of a bunch of two-page stories, all woven together, "a wacky romp" as he calls it. After that Clowes returns to the serial world, with "another great big huge sprawling epic."

As I walk away from Dan Clowes' old but sunny yellow house, I take one last glance back to see him and his beloved wife, Erika, standing on the front porch, arm in arm, smiling and waving pleasantly. I can't help but think of the last frame of David Boring, where David and his girlfriend hover beneath the surface of the water in an underwater paradise, locked in embrace. It's the tranquil morning-after of Armageddon eve.

Millennial anxiety has given way to calm bittersweet acceptance, and the impulse to cocoon. Spring is here--Oedipal nightmares seemingly worked through and put to rest. A major motion picture--"the most satisfying thing I've ever done"--is soon to be widely released. A brand-new sprawling epic unfolds on the drawing table. Claims to the contrary, Clowes doesn't look angry, or alienated or malcontent. Childless, petless Daniel Clowes looks pretty happy to me.

Ghost World (R; 111 min.), directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by Daniel Clowes and Zwigoff, photographed by Affonso Beato and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the August 16-22, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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