Daniel Clowes is one of the most successful and best-known cartoonists of his generation. A graduate of New York City’s Pratt Institute, Clowes’ first comic series was “Lloyd Llewellyn,” followed in 1989 by “Eightball,” both of which were published by Fantagraphics. It was in the pages of “Eightball” that Clowes serialized stories like “Pussey!” “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” “David Boring,” “Art School Confidential” and “Ghost World,” the latter two of which were turned into films by director Terry Zwigoff.
His new project, out next week, is “Mister Wonderful.” The story originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2007 and 2008 and for this edition, Clowes has reformatted the strips in addition to redrawing some panels and adding new material. The strip is the story of Marshall, a character that Clowes described as “the quintessential reader of the New York Times Magazine” and a blind date that leads to a strange, uncomfortable and ultimately very touching evening.
Clowes is in the midst of a busy period of his career. His graphic novel “Wilson,” published last year by Drawn and Quarterly, was optioned by director Alexander Payne in a deal that also has Clowes writing the screenplay. In addition, D&Q is releasing “The Death-Ray” this fall, a new version of the story that originally appeared as “Eightball” #23. Clowes also serves as art director for Fantagraphics’ upcoming collections of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip “Barnaby.” Clowes was kind enough to talk with CBR News about the new edition of “Mister Wonderful” and the many other projects he’s working on today.
CBR News: Daniel, what are you working on today?
Daniel Clowes: Oh geez. I’m working on like ten things at once. It is quite crazy these days.
It’s one of those years where all of those things I promised years ago all suddenly happen. They all seemed so far in the future. [Laughs] Now I actually have to do them.
Let’s start at the top of the list with the collection of “Mister Wonderful.” I remember reading it in the New York Times Magazine when it came out a few years back.
You were the one. [Laughs]
I think there were a few of us, at least.
There were a few. It was mostly my relatives and a couple of my friends would occasionally indicate that they might have read it. I got the idea that very few people actually read any of those strips religiously. I don’t think anybody read all twenty episodes of any of the strips.
Was that part of the thinking behind putting together a collection, just to get it out there for people to read?
Well, sure. You do the work, you want people to read it. But I was thinking of it as a collection, like when somebody does a collection of old Sunday strips that have a continuity. Like a collection of “Terry and the Pirates” or something like that.
You’ve taken the strip and broken it into two, sometimes three pages in the book. How did you decide on the format for the book?
I think they’re all turned into two [pages] for the most part, though I guess in a few cases I redrew panels to make them bigger. When I first began, I had the notion that it would be collected at some point and I liked the idea of this long horizontal format. My son had a book by Maurice Sendak that’s almost the exact same size and format. Every time he would dig it out, I would be struck by how unique that format was. It’s a rare size and shape for a book. I had that in mind from the very beginning.
When I finished the strip and sat down and read them all the way through in the original sequence, I had that feeling you get when you read those old “Terry and the Pirates” collections. There’s this built in delay between the last panel of one strip and the beginning of the next strip. You’re building in the suspense where the reader is anticipating what’s going to happen for an entire week. I wanted to not have that as much as possible in the book version and so I tried to put in things that would create that space but not interrupt the story. That was a big challenge in putting it together in book form and it wound up taking a lot more effort than I would have imagined.
Was it interesting having almost another draft of the story, if you will?
That was really interesting. It was like getting the opportunity to re-edit a film after you’ve put together one version. To be able to sit down and think about how to make it work for a different format. It was really challenging and very technical in a lot of ways, but it allowed me to put in these little free moments, little things that aren’t necessarily integral to the plot, but that give space and dimension and humor to the story.
Using that extra space, the landscape pages, the Tim and Yuki strip that appears halfway through, really gives the story a chance to breathe.
Sort of like you film a movie of all interiors and then you’re allowed to shoot some Vistavision exteriors to give it a sense of occupying the real world. That’s why I made them consciously these very panoramic shots. I had such a limited amount of space to tell a story in the Times. I wanted to tell a story of a certain length and density and twenty pages was the absolute maximum they were going to give me, so I had to really do all kinds of tricky things to fit the story in there. It doesn’t give any room for establishing the world and that’s what I felt like I could add to the book.
That’s interesting because reading this and other books I kept being struck by how many of your stories are about isolated individuals who aren’t just that way because of their personalities, but they’re physically isolated and there’s a lot of emptiness.
Is it just about an exterior reflection of their inner lives? Is it what you prefer drawing? What is it?
I have no real answer other than that’s what I’m interested in and that’s my worldview. That’s just the inherent state of my life as an isolated individual. I tend to respond better to a sparser landscape. I find when there’s a lot of density, it doesn’t feel right for my work somehow, so I tend to pare things down to the essential, almost symbolic elements.
Reading “Mister Wonderful” after “Wilson” came out last year I kept thinking how “Wilson” feels like a response to “Mister Wonderful” in some ways.
They are certainly in dialogue with each other. The people who know Oakland where I live would recognize that “Mister Wonderful” takes place about four or five blocks away from where all of the events of “Wilson,” for the most part, take place. I imagine they’re two guys who have sat at the same coffeeshop and have certainly crossed paths. The way they express themselves in comic form is the diametric opposite of each other. Marshall in “Mister Wonderful” lives completely inside his own head and all his thoughts overtake what’s happening in the real world. It’s all about that give and take between what you’re thinking and what you’re saying to yourself in your brain. How that affects what you’re seeing out in the world. Whereas Wilson never has an unspoken thought. He’s talking to himself and we don’t quite know if that’s just a comic device or if he is slightly out of his mind and is walking down the street carrying on conversations with some imagined reader.
Beyond that, just in terms of form, “Wilson” is told in single page units that tells a larger story, but can be read individually.
Yeah that came somewhat out of working in the Times. I liked the idea of working in those one page increments. I felt like I sort of understood the rhythm of how a humorous or dramatic situation works in a one page format. I felt like it was something that could be used to bigger effect. When I first started “Wilson,” I liked the idea that people might just read one or two of the strips and not necessarily read the whole book, but they would get some satisfaction out of just reading one at a time. With “Mister Wonderful,” I also wanted each strip to have something to it. So that if somebody was picking up the New York Times Magazine in the middle of the run and read the thirteenth or fourteenth strip, even if they had no idea of what was going on, there was something that they would connect to or would find amusing or that might make them at least keep reading the strip.
“Wilson” is also a much more stripped down work.
“Wilson” wasn’t intended to be read in the New York Times Magazine, that’s for sure. [Laughs]
What kind of editorial direction or approach did the Times have for the strip?
There were no words exchanged about, “Yyou should tailor it for our audience,” or anything, but when I set out to do it, it seemed crazy not think about who was reading it. Which is very rare for me. Usually when I’m starting one of my own books or one of my own stories, I don’t think at all about who’s going to read it. I really have no idea who reads my books anymore. I have very little connection to the mass audience who reads these things. I’m free of that worry. But with “Mister Wonderful,” I really wanted to deal with knowing exactly who my audience was and that’s something I found interesting and really wanted to explore.
The way I first began the strip was I imagined the quintessential reader of the New York Times Magazine. A mid-forties or fifties, kind of Marshall-type. Basically the character of Marshall is my ideal New York Times Magazine reader. The guy who does the crossword every week and used to read William Safire and all that stuff. So I took it from there figuring that my character who’s based on my imaginary New York Times reader might actually be somebody that the real New York Times readers could actually connect with.
Was the density of “Mister Wonderful” because you were trying to tell this story in the limited space they had?
I had to get as dense as I could possibly get while still being readable and not off putting. I didn’t want to have too much dialogue in any given panel and I didn’t want to do all the things that scare away the novice comic reader, confusing panel layouts and things like that. I wanted it to be something that people could comfortably ease into but that still had enough room and enough panels in each strip to tell the kind of story I was interested in telling.
You said that you don’t know who your audience is anymore. Back when you were doing “Eightball,” did you know who your audience was?
Back in the early days of “Eightball,” you almost felt like you got letters from every single person who was reading the magazine. [Laughs] This was the pre-Internet days. People would send you their magazines that were inspired by what you were doing. You just felt like you knew this small audience that read these things. Those comics in the beginning were only selling like five or six thousand copies.
I could be sitting at a comic convention and somebody would walk in the door and I immediately knew they were going to walk over to me. I could just tell one of my readers from somebody who was there for Marvel. And at a certain point that changed. I remember seeing my quintessential reader walk into a comic convention once and I started straightening my collar and getting my pencil ready to sign their book and they went straight over to some other guy who I’d never even heard of. I could tell that the audience had shifted and I no longer had a grasp on who my readers were.
You did “Eightball” for a long time and over the last few issues — “Ice Haven” and “The Death-Ray,” and even “David Boring” to an extent — you really seemed to be moving away from that format.
Yeah. I was so connected to that idea of doing an underground comic. Really what I was trying to do with “Eightball” was an issue of “Zap” or one of those Robert Crumb underground comics. I was just so deeply connected to that, that it was hard to ever think of a way to not do that. Especially with the last two issues of “Eightball,” those made absolutely no sense as comicbooks. I just couldn’t not do them as comics back then. [Laughs] It took many years after the last “Eightball” for me to come to grips with not doing them as comics, because really once they came out, it felt like they were neither here nor there. They were these comics that should have been books. I don’t know. It was very hard for me to reconcile. When I started working on “Wilson,” that was the first time I felt comfortable doing it just as a book and not having it saddle stitched, which is really the only difference between a book and a comic.
Do you ever see yourself going back to “Eightball?” If not doing it the same way, then doing something like what Seth did last year when he returned to “Palookaville?”
No. I think the great thing about those early comics, “Eightball” and “Yummy Fur” and all that, was it was the pre-Internet days. We had letters pages and we were a fulcrum for this community. You felt a certain responsibility to mediate that. There’s no necessity for that at all anymore. If I was going to do a comic, I wouldn’t put in a letters page. There’s no point to it. Beyond that kind of thing, I don’t know. If I were going to do a bunch of short little comics, I might consider doing another issue, but it would never be the same as those early comics. It would have to be a whole new thing.
Speaking of those two issues, “Ice Haven” came out from Pantheon in paperback just the other month. “The Death-Ray” comes out from Drawn and Quarterly in the fall. Are you doing anything different or adding anything to it?
I’ve done a lot of illustration work. I’m not changing the story at all. It felt like there was enough time in between that story having been finished, that it almost seems archival to present it as it was printed. If something’s a little more recent, I feel like it’s fair game to tinker with it. But somehow that one I felt like I shouldn’t be changing anything. A few color corrections, but other than that, it’s basically as is.
What’s the format of the book?
It’s a big book. It’s going to look like a European album in size. Hardcover. Printed much better, I hope, than the original.
You’re also the art designer for the collections of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip “Barnaby” coming out from Fantagraphics. I’ve never read it, and most people my age have never run across it except for in a history of comics book. What do you enjoy about the strip, and what is your role as you see it in this project?
He was just a wonderful writer. People talk about [how] comics are just now getting the acclaim of magazines and things like that. If you look on the back of the early Barnaby reprints, he was getting glowing reviews from people like Dorothy Parker and Louis Untermeyer and the intelligentsia of the day to people like W.C. Fields giving him pull quotes for the back of his books. He had achieved what everybody in the graphic novel generation would dream of achieving back in the forties. It’s a timeless strip. I’m convinced that Charles Schulz was deeply influenced by “Barnaby.” There’s a lot of similarities there that I’ve never really seen discussed.
It’s probably the best written comic strip of all time. The artwork is disarmingly simple. It’s the kind of thing that I would normally not be attracted to. He uses typography instead of hand lettering and very simple diagrammatic drawings, yet they are perfect, and work beautifully in a way that anything added to it would detract from it. My goal with the design of the book is to follow his very severe minimal design style and try to live up to that. And to do it in a way that nobody would look at the book and think of me in any way. I want to be totally anonymous behind packaging these books. I just want them to be appealing to the audience they deserve.
When is the first volume scheduled to come out? Can we expect it this year?
You got me. I have no idea. [Laughs] I haven’t done a lick of work on it, so I’m hoping it’s not that soon. I think they’re having quite a bit of trouble finding good copies of all the strips.
What else are you working on?
Well I’m writing a “Wilson” movie for the director Alexander Payne. And I’m going to have a big show of my work at the Oakland Museum of California in March 2012, which requires a lot of work. There’s two or three other projects that I’m really not allowed to talk about, including a long-ish graphic novel, which I will not say a word about because it’s very far from being done, but I’m into it.
As far as “Wilson,” you’ve written other film scripts and adapted your own work before, but the book would seem to require taking the idea in a different direction for the film.
Well, we’ll see. I’m not sure what direction we’re taking it in yet. We’re still talking about it, rather than actually sitting down and writing things.
You also have a show in Switzerland this month which means you get to be out of the country when the book is released. Was that intentional?
No. I planned it two years ago when I had no idea when the book would be out. [Laughs] That’s just how it happened.