“You want to see my studio?”
On the second floor of a green craftsman house in the East Bay city of Piedmont, Daniel Clowes’s work space is a study in organized chaos. Pencils, erasers, pens, T squares, tape, scissors, ink, virgin paper. The blinds are closed. A desk supporting an old Apple sits on one side of the room, a drafting table on the other. Clowes kicks up his feet. A flyswatter hangs an arm’s length away.
“There’s nothing worse than trying to draw and having bugs flying around,” he explains, his voice cracking an octave, a raspy cough erupting. “Sorry, I’m just getting over a cold. Jesus, I sound like a chain-smoker.”
He’s taller than I expected. Thinner too. At 55, the cartoonist has a gray beard that’s thicker than the hair on his head (as depicted in the self-portrait above). His hawkish blue eyes shift behind black frames; you can see the gears in his mind turning. He’s more eager to talk about the Golden State Warriors than himself. Despite years of media attention, Daniel Gillespie Clowes isn’t quite mainstream—he writes and pens beautiful, cerebral comic books in an age when the spandex set has conquered Hollywood—but he’s far more than a fringe demigod.
He’s banked a PEN award, a 2001 Oscar nomination for his Ghost World adaptation (which stars a then unknown Scarlett Johansson), covers for The New Yorker and a serial in The New York Times Magazine. Patience, his most recent graphic novel, took five years to create and became a best-seller within five days of its release. This fall, Woody Harrelson will play a bitter schlub attempting to make peace with his dying father in Wilson, the cartoonist’s third feature-length page-to-screen translation.
As he settles into the conversation, it’s clear that Clowes is not the Howard Beale–like angry man often portrayed in the press. Years of solitude and professional struggles branded him, but a health scare and, just last February, the death of a close friend and colleague seem to have changed everything.
In 2003, his doctor detected a heart murmur. Three years later, when they realized his heart was growing so quickly it would soon kill him, Clowes underwent open-heart surgery that lasted seven hours. “I had that feeling: This is it, I’m done. I was programmed to die at 46.”
The man’s heart was just too big. It was genetics, not stress, but it didn’t help that while he was recovering,Art School Confidential, his second book turned into a film, failed to match the success of Ghost World.
Seated in his studio, Clowes runs a finger down his chest where the scalpel cut him open.
With his Lynchian take on modern Rockwell Americana, Clowes fathered the movement of visual-literary comics. Gaston Dominguez-Letelier, owner of Meltdown Comics, calls him “our greatest living graphic novelist.” Adrian Tomine says he’s “one of the greatest living artists in any medium.” And Chris Ware, author of the Joycean graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, says, “He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Dan is well aware that an awkward drawing is more likely to stay in the memory than a virtuosic one.”
An avid comics reader growing up, Clowes was skeptical of certain mainstream titles. “Superman doesn’t make any rational sense. Even as a kid I thought, If this guy has superpowers, why would he beat up small-time criminals? That’s basically the work of a beat cop.”
I had this feeling: This is it, I’m done. I was programmed to die at 46.
His parents divorced when he was two. Three years later, his stock-car-racing stepfather died in a wreck. Bouncing between relatives, Clowes devoured comics passed down by his older brother. “Mad magazine, Betty and Veronica, all the early Marvel. I still have Fantastic Four number one. I read everything.”
At 18, Clowes enrolled in New York’s Pratt Institute. After graduating in 1984, he built a portfolio that his professors praised but that failed to get magazine editors’ attention. “I put in little ripped-up pieces of paper that would have moved if they’d opened it,” he says.
He spent a depressing time in Chicago and then in small-town Michigan. For fun, he made his own comics. “I didn’t actually think I’d ever make a living doing comics. I thought maybe it would lead to something.”.
It did. Clowes unleashed years of bottled frustration in his 1986 parody Lloyd Llewellyn and 1989’s sublimely kitschy Eightball series. Back then, if you couldn’t pop claws or web-swing, you weren’t breaking registers in the comics game. But Seattle’s Fantagraphics saw what no one else did, publishing both.
Never charting a straight path, Clowes had a Dennis Rodman–short first marriage. But then Eightball started to develop a following, and Clowes drew dozens of album covers for Sub Pop Records—without listening to the music, which he hated.
In 1993, Coca-Cola tapped rising artists Clowes and Charles Burns to design the look of OK Soda. The drink was a flop, but it marked the cartoonist’s first major payday. And he got it because Eight-ball’s Ghost World arc, spanning 1993 to 1997, was becoming a crossover smash. When Ghost World was collected in a stand-alone edition in late 1997, the tale of angsty teen alienation attracted a large audience. “It remains the best-selling book in Fantagraphics history,” says cartoonist turned publisher Eric Reynolds, who estimates the title has sold about 1 million books and comics.
Clowes found a fresh start in California, meeting a Berkeley lit student named Erika Katz at a 1992 signing. They fell in love and married three years later, and this time it stuck. These days, they have a great kid, great house, great life. And it seems that after years on the periphery, Clowes is poised to break through in Hollywood. Maybe. If Wilson isn’t a success, it could signal the end of Clowes’s flirtation with the mainstream. But if the movie is another win, then what?
When I pose this question, it becomes obvious that recent events have made it irrelevant.
After confining himself to his studio for years, leaving only to pick up his son from school, Clowes was faced with a tragedy that shook him to his core. As Patience went to press in February, his friend and manager, Alvin Buenaventura, who had meticulously overseen production on the book, died suddenly at the age of 39.
The two met when fifth-grader Buenaventura approached Clowes at the San Diego Comic-Con in the 1980s. There were no lines at Clowes’s booth—he wasn’t a star then—but Buenaventura idolized him. The two would later work closely together, and Buenaventura became Clowes’s manager–confidant–production savant.
His death “puts things into perspective, that’s for sure,” Clowes says. “To still be involved with the book, to be out promoting and all that—it still feels like I’m connected to him. As that kind of drifts away, I’m becoming more and more aware of having to process that he’s really gone. You find very few people in your life you can really trust like that.”
Does it matter that Patience is a best-seller?
“Well, on that level, certainly not,” he replies. “But it feels like he lives on in the book. By pure accident, on the opening spread with all the credits, I drew his credit on a rock floating off into oblivion. It feels incredibly tragic but also somewhat comforting. When I see that rock floating off, I imagine there’s something about him still floating around.”
Buenaventura was the buffer between Clowes and the outside world, handling everything from travel to e-mails. He left with all Clowes’s online passwords, forcing the artist out from behind the page. But for this very private man to mourn now? The timing seems a cruel cosmic joke.
Why does Clowes’s work resonate? Why did Ghost World strike such a deep chord? And why is Wilson, 77 pages of vignettes centering on a fractured family, so powerful? Maybe because, unlike the Marvel and DC hordes, Clowes’s characters are powerless to stem the tide of change. They’re all flawed, relatable. No wonder his fan base includes literary types, confused kids and film execs. And what of his reputation as an angry recluse? It turns out the one most responsible for that label is Clowes himself.
“People have an impression of me that I’m either an ivory-tower elitist, an intellectualist looking down on everyone or cynical and depressed. I was pretty angry; I still am. As a young man, I held an optimism about the world. When so many things that should not happen do, you see the frustrations of humanity beat you down, and it makes you angry.”
It’s clear, however, that among the sly humor, the visible affection for his family and, perhaps most important, the vivid panels of Patience, that primal optimism is still alive.
“In my case,” Clowes says, “I came out on the other side.”