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Authors & Ideas: A talk with Daniel Clowes about the likable curmudgeon 'Wilson'

Clowes' latest character is a breath of fresh bitterness in a completely original graphic novel that takes a page from 'Peanuts.'

May 30, 2010|Scott Timberg

He's the kind of guy who waxes rhapsodic about his love for the human race but curses people who don't smile at his dog. He's full of odes to the sweep of life and won't stop sharing them with the strangers he accosts in coffee shops. He has no job and no family, and he's both totally oblivious and smart enough to know how insufferable he is.

He's Wilson — the main character in Daniel Clowes' new graphic novel "Wilson" (Drawn and Quarterly: 78 pp., $21.95) and, it's worth remembering, not Clowes himself. But so far he's been good for this cartoonist who broke into the mainstream with "Ghost World" and has defined a whole subgenre of post-Crumb, post-Spiegelman "alternative comics" since. As unlikable as Wilson is, the book helped pack Skylight Books a few weeks ago and has already become Clowes' bestselling work. Which is impressive, because this bearded, self-righteous, middle-aged slob may also be the author's least likable protagonist in a decade or more.

"I didn't intend to go in and try to push the envelope on how unpleasant I could make him," a slim, bald and darkly handsome Clowes, 49, says over coffee at a Los Feliz cafe. "It came from within: I thought I'd make something both personally meaningful and something an audience would find interesting."

In person, Clowes — who has created an oeuvre marked by hard-edged social criticism, over-the-top satire and obnoxious, confrontational characters — is almost disappointingly well-adjusted: He's intellectual without being weirdly intense, skeptical without being bitter, observant without being harshly judgmental.

But in some ways, Wilson shares Clowes' DNA.

"I think we have a similar worldview," the author allows. "And his sense of humor — finding humor in the razor's edge between tragedy and comedy — there's a lot of resonance between me and him."

By the time he was 4 or 5, Clowes was drawing little comics on the cardboard that the dry cleaner wrapped around his father's shirts. He grew up middle-class outside Chicago and attended Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn art school that he later skewered in the strip "Art School Confidential." While writing and drawing pieces for Cracked magazine in the mid-1980s, he began to work on his first continuing character, the lounge-culture-loving detective Lloyd Llewellyn, and by 1989, Fantagraphics was publishing Clowes' occasional comic "Eightball."

Clowes was inspired by Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," as well as the advances made by Crumb and Spiegelman. "I wanted to take the sensibility of the underground," he says, "and apply it to longer narratives."

Clowes' early comics, collected in "20th Century Eightball," show just how grim and socially uncomfortable Clowes could be. "Where do I get off being such a smug, egotistical, critical bastard!?," a Clowes-like artist character muses in "The Party in Color." "They're the ones who are happy and well-adjusted, not me." Two strips later, this character hangs himself.

Clowes' breakthrough came with "Ghost World," the comic about two hyper-critical teenage girls searching for authenticity in a fake-retro cityscape, published in book form in 1997. The 2001 Terry Zwigoff film, starring Thora Birch and an up-and-coming actress named Scarlett Johansson, earned both Clowes and Zwigoff an Academy Award nomination and vastly expanded Clowes' audience. Although the 2006 film of "Art School Confidential" did much less well, it was a time of growth for non-superhero graphic novels in general.

Throughout his work, Clowes shows an interest in seeing through psychology and pop culture, which he attributes both to literary influences such as Nathanael West and J.D. Salinger, as well as to the culture he grew up in. "I sorta feel like when I was a teenager in the '70s, a lot of unmasking was going on." It was true of the punk rock of the time, as well as of the absurdist, idol-smashing comedy of Steve Martin, Andy Kauffman and Monty Python.

"I felt like the cover's been taken off these things and nobody's going to ever fall for it again," Clowes recalls.

Materialism, artifice and personal ostentation were especially well-skewered. But by the 1980s, people were driving showy cars again; rock songs had synthesizers. Comedy became guys in suspenders telling jokes for yuppies. Phoniness was back with a vengeance, and it fueled to Clowes' work.

"When I started doing 'Eightball,' I didn't feel there was anyone saying these things that seemed so obvious," he says. "But once you realize Bob Barker is ridiculous, it gets less funny to point it out for the 3,000th time."

"That's kind of Wilson's problem," Clowes adds. "He's living that way, but no one else is."

"Wilson" is the first book Clowes has assembled from all-new material and not from serialized comics. It's also his book most influenced by "Peanuts," including the way each page comprises its own strip. As with "Peanuts," these discrete chapters have no connective tissue or transitions between them.

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