Bay area local Daniel Clowes, best known for his comics anthology “Eightball” that spawned a subsequent graphic novel and Terry Zwigoff helmed film “Ghost World,” gave a stirring talk on the history of comics at this past weekend’s Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. Beyond comics, Clowes’ art frequently appears in the pages of magazines like “The New Yorker,” “New York Times Magazine” and “GQ.” Clowes’ partner for the informal chat about comics was PictureBox publisher Dan Nadel.
Nadel began the panel by throwing out several classic comic book match-ups for Clowes to discuss. “The purpose of this panel was to have a nerdfest of sorts, to really talk about comics,” Nadel explained. “We came up with a bunch of questions for Dan that would burrow deep into the essence of comicdom.”
“Al Capp or Ham Fisher?” began Nadel.
“I’ve always been an Al Capp man,” Clowes responded. “I’ve always found Al Capp to be funny and never quite understood the hatred for him. I like anti-hippie, angry old men. I like the idea of this bitter old, one-legged guy whose one of the most successful cartoonists in the world and then he’s angry at the world.”
“Wayne Boring or Curt Swan?” asked Nadel.
“That’s a tough one – I like them both,” said Clowes. Clowes then briefly stopped and asked if they should explain to the crowd who these artists were. “Should we assume our audience is a literate comics audience at the Alternative Press Expo?”
“To me, Curt Swan as inked by George Klein is the most uninflected comic art there is. It’s the closest to looking like it has no style of any art there is, which is a big plus in my book. We are always trying to get away from style and make things look like pure iconography. Wayne Boring is pretty awesome – he’s just the wrong guy to draw Superman, he looked like a big Italian thug!”
Gil Kane or Burne Hogarth was Nadel’s next match-up.
Clowes told a story how the first panel he was ever on was comprised him, Robert Crumb, Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge and Burne Hogarth. Hogarth spent the entire panel yelling at the independent cartoonists on the panel, saying how they were horrible artists.
“He spent almost an entire hour saying how we were the worst artists who ever lived,” recalled Clowes. “It was an audience full of young, hipster kids who wanted to see Robert Crumb and Crumb was not saying a word because Hogarth was rambling on. People started yelling out, ‘Shut up, old man!’ and finally Crumb just slowly leaned back in his chair and did a pratfall. Hogarth didn’t miss a beat, though, he just kept on going. I literally did not say a word on that panel.”
“But Hogarth, for sure!” Clowes said bringing the discussion back to the initial match-up. “Hogarth was the real thing.”
“‘Mad’ or ‘Cracked?'” asked Nadel, hinting towards Clowes work for “Cracked Magazine” in the 80s.
“Oh, that’s not fair!” Clowes said. “I’m not going to go on record as saying, ‘Well, ‘Cracked’ is better than ‘Mad,’ but for a brief moment there in 1985 under the editorship of Mort Todman, ‘Cracked’ was slightly better than ‘Mad.'”
“Don Martin or Al Jaffee?” asked Nadel.
Clowes took this opening to tell a story about the 18 year old version of himself travelling to New York City for the first time, seeking out the “Mad Magazine” offices. He spotted a man near their headquarters and the man “had to to be Al Jaffee, he looked exactly the way he drew himself and so I went up and asked, ‘Are you Al Jaffee?'” Clowes instinct proved correct and Jaffee signed an autograph for Clowes.
“I have a soft spot for Jaffee, but Don Martin is an unsung genius,” Clowes declared firmly. “I liked that he would utterly contrive a joke. The jokes weren’t based on a pun of anything that exists in the world. He would make up a situation and then make a joke out of that. He was starting from nothing and then contriving a joke from that. The situations were so absurd that they had no basis in reality.”
“Eric Stanton or Steve Ditko?” proposed Nadel next.
Clowes spoke about how Stanton drew bondage comics in the 50s while sharing a studio with Ditko. “[Ditko’s] still alive and still living above a strip club in Times Square as far a I know.”
“I actually met Steve Ditko one time, which is impossible to do. He’s notoriously reclusive, you can’t meet him.” Clowes then told a story from his move to New York in 1979. He looked Ditko up in the White Pages, thinking he wouldn’t be listed. Incredulously, he was listed as ‘Steve Ditko, artist’ and Clowes trekked out to his apartment above a sleazy peep show porn theater downtown. After sneaking into the building, he knocked on Ditko’s door. “I was a totally nervous zit covered 18 year old,” joked Clowes.
The door opened just to chains length and Ditko peered out in to the hallway. “I looked behind him and I see all these cool drawings on the wall. He actually said, ‘What do you’se want?’ I had read that in a Jack Kirby comic – they’d say ‘you’se’ and I had no idea what that was until then. I said, ‘Oh gosh, are you Mr. Ditko the comic artist’? and slam! – that was it. That was my big meeting.”
Going back to the match-up, Clowes said “those two [Stanton and Ditko] are so interlocked, I can’t separate them.”
“Wally Wood or Jack Kirby?” continued Nadel.
“Ouch. That’s harsh,” exclaimed Clowes. “If you had to choose…?” responded Nadel.
“I can’t. I won’t! But just as a character, as a person, Wally Wood to me is the romantic ideal of a cartoonist. He’s such a bitter failure. His career is so filled with these fanboy highs and these dismal lows that can come out of that. Just the way he lived and died is so film noir-ishly romantic.”
Clowes admitted Kirby’s writing isn’t much to his taste at all, but his illustrations keep him inspired to this day. “I actually like the ones Stan Lee wrote the best,” he said.
Finished with the artistic showdowns, Nadel asked Clowes why his artwork has become more simple over the years, with cleaner lines and less detail.
“I really wanted to draw simply, but I thought I needed to learn to do the full thing before I could simplify,” Clowes responded.
Nadel then asked about the accuracy of the story that Clowes keeps a drawing by Robert Crumb above his drawing board of Crumb pointing down at him, reminding Clowes that Crumb is king.
“It’s in my kitchen, actually!” answered Clowes. “I had an art show in Amsterdam and I walked in to the gallery one day and I saw Crumb. He was in town with the Cheap Suit Serenades and I saw him hunched over a book in the back of the art show. Later I looked in the book and he had done this masterpiece drawing of him saying, ‘You think you’re so great, Clowes? Well, I’m still the king and don’t you forget it! Fucking little punk.'”
Clowes said he doesn’t feel that way about younger cartoonists himself, however, because it’s such a struggle to make it at all in the industry.
“Crumb was always a little weird to me,” Clowes continued. “The first time Crumb talked to me he advised me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t draw comics for very long. Draw them for four or five years and then take like five or ten years off and do pottery or something. I wish I had done that.’ I thought, ‘That’s great advice.’ I mentioned it to [Ghost World director Terry] Zwigoff and he said, ‘He was just trying to get you not to draw comics!’ He was very competitive.”
Clowes said that the Hernandez brothers, however, were a great help to him when he was coming up as a cartoonist.
Clowes then riffed on the San Diego Comic-Con as it was during the 80s. He would find himself surrounded by independent artists and Marvel artists at the same table, or hanging out with Adam West. Now SDCC is so large you never see anyone, Clowes mused. “But I can’t say I really miss it, I’m just glad I lived thought it.”
Nadel brought up the album covers that Clowes did in the 90s, but Clowes admitted that he never actually listened to any of the albums he drew covers for. “To this day, I couldn’t tell you what The Supersuckers sound like. I’m sure I’m missing a lot.”
Clowes then reminisced about the community he helped bring about during the publication of his “Eightball” comic anthology. He rememberedintroducing several couples to each other through the letters written to the comic, including popular “Vice Magazine” cartoonist, Johnny Ryan and his wife. A woman asked what Ryan was like in a letter to Clowes and Clowes wrote Ryan’s future wife back, “Oh he’s a dreamboat, you’re gonna love him!”
“In the pre-internet days, that was all we had, that kind of a thing. I would buy ‘Hate’ or ‘Yummy Fur’ or any of those comics, and the first thing I did was read the letters page. It was our way of finding a community at that time. I felt like we knew every fan by name back then. We would talk about the fans. We were obsessed with them as they were with us. It was fun.”
Clowes revealed that “The Death Ray” would be coming back in to print, but couldn’t reveal any specific plans just yet. In fact, Clowes said he would love to come out with a complete collected edition of all the “Eightball” comics, complete with letter columns.
Discussing the EC horror comics, Clowes told the audience he was shocked by how far comics could go back in the 50s. “The stuff in there is literally on the level of a “Saw,” the goriest stuff you can imagine, and yet this is an era you couldn’t say ‘God’ in a movie or couldn’t say ‘shoot.'”
“You could never come up with anything nowadays that could ever be as far away from the mainstream as that,” said Clowes.
Clowes then disproved a theory that his latest graphic novel, “Wilson” was based around a baseball game, saying it was not his intention at all. However, Clowes did admit to having an obsession with baseball in his youth, so perhaps the baseball connection was being weaved subconsciously in his writing.
“Is comics history a constant presence for you as you’re working?” asked Nadel.
“I realized at a certain point that the thing that keeps me drawing comics and the thing that has always moved me along is that comics history is really disappointing,” Clowes responded. “It’s not the same as the history of novels, history of art, history of movies, the body of work is pretty spotty. The things we imagined don’t really exist. We imagine that Alex Toth did really amazing comics in the 50s that really worked, that were like Howard Hawk’s movies, but he didn’t do that. He never made a comic you could read. It’s terrible, and I say that thinking that he was one of the greatest genius’ of the 20th Century.”
Opening up the floor to a quick Q+A session, a fan asked Clowes if he finds himself influenced by the history of comic books being a refuge for artists spurned from the big magazines. Clowes said that when he started, no one thought comics were a wise career move, but he liked that he could do his own thing and no one would bother him.
A fan asked Clowes about the writing process employed during the creation of “David Boring.” “That story, I really had a lot of stuff figured out that wasn’t on the page. I had this theory that the more you know about a world, that it will come through in some way, whether you know it or not. It seeps in subconsciously.” Clowes pointed to getting dates of events accurate, even looking up the phases of the moons for each day in the book.
Someone asked if his film project “Master of Space and Time” with Michel Gondry had moved forward at all. “I actually announced that that wasn’t going to be made at the 2006 San Diego Con.”
“It was going to be a $150 million art film. There was no way to make it commercial. We tried any idea we could come up with,” said Clowes. “It just got less and less commercial. Until there’s some technology where we can make a $150 million movie for $12 million, it will not be made.”
Clowes was asked where his recent style of character comes from, as he’s used in books like “The Death Ray” and “Wilson.” He said he started out having characters give an internal point of view in the early 90s, because no one was doing that. Now, with the internet, everyone gives their own unique opinion on everything, so his characters are more public and move away from an internal dialogue.
The last question of the panel was whether Clowes feels the movie or comic book versions of “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential” were truer to Clowes’ original vision.
“Certainly the comics are my vision. That’s me. Nobody reads my comics until I’m done. Literally, the printer is the first person to read what I’ve done. There’s absolutely no outside influence at all. There’s no way to make a truly personal vision in film. The screenplay might be, but not the actual movie.”