When it comes to comic book arts and culture, San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation as a destination city. As the home of Wonder Con, Alternative Press Expo and Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art, San Francisco obviously embraces creators and fans alike. But travel just twelve miles east across the Bay to Oakland and you enter another passionate and thriving comics scene. With Image Comics calling nearby Berkeley home, it’s not surprising that a robust culture has spring forth and thrived in the city.
Setting the bar high is the Oakland Museum of California, an innovative and exquisitely curated landmark established in 1969. This summer, OMCA showed their love for comic arts by presenting the first ever gallery exhibition of Oakland based artist, Daniel Clowes. Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes features a beautiful collection of sketches, comic pages and never before seen work spanning his entire career including such landmarks as “Eightball,” “Ghost World,” “The Death-Ray” and “David Boring.” From ink drawings to cover from “The New Yorker,” the collection appeals to seasoned fans and new comers to the comic scene.
Accompanied by fellow creator Chris Ware and led by exhibit curators Rene de Guzman and Susan Miller, Clowes brought his unique perspective about his role in the comic world to a panel discussion hosted at OMCA in late-July.
“Driving around Oakland is weird,” said Clowes, whose graphic novel “Wilson” is set in the city. “There is one of every kind of building. When you walk around, you can go down a street and think to yourself, ‘No one has ever had a coherent thought on this street.’ It’s like a movie set.”
Clowe’s description was particularly appropriate as production on a “Wilson” film adaptation is currently underway, directed by Alexander Payne and set to be shot in on location in Oakland. With the city itself reflecting the isolation, occasional grotesqueness, lovable hostility and underlying vulnerability of the comic’s title character, it’s important to understand Clowes’ connection to it.
“Oakland is much more my own than Chicago,” he said. “It’s important to have an environment where my characters can wander.”
It’s easy to picture Clowes drifting among fading Victorians, ’70s office building monstrosities, delicate Art Deco facades and modern glass high rises, all of which awkwardly combine to create the family of Oakland’s skyline. The emptiness of the city inspires the cartoonist, he said, relating a story of showing a friend around Oakland and ending up in the waterfront neighborhood of Jack London Square.
“We were walking around and there was nobody on the street. Finally, in the distance we see one guy kind of wandering, and I thought, ‘That’s kind of like an Edward Hopper painting come to life.’ And I thought, ‘What a lonely, sad place to live,’ and yet it’s kind of enthralling.”
It’s that ability to see the world cinematically, getting lost in mundane and often creepy details, that makes Clowes’ work as captivating on screen as in comics. Preceded by “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential,” “Wilson” will be the third Clowes work adapted to film.
â€¨”The process is fraught with peril,”Clowes said of making the transition from comics to film. “When I write comics, I create visions in my brain, but with movies, all I’m responsible for is writing the script.”
Clowes, who wrote the screenplays for all three film adaptations, described how he had to begin to think in real time versus comic time, which is organized in panels and pages. It’s an easy assumption to make that a comic book would be a natural storyboard, but as Clowes explained, it actually requires a major shift in how he thinks.
“You have to throw your story away and use it as an influence. ‘Wilson,’ the movie, will be close to the comic. It will have the same rhythm, just in a different medium. The script is a finished work of art and it doesn’t have much to do with comics.”
It’s difficult to imagine Clowes, who has been doing his own thing for his entire thirty-year career, changing his style to suit a new medium, and yet he relishes in the paring down of a story, in simplifying it and making it less precious. Although he is now able to relax while immersing himself the process, Clowes relived his struggles on translating “Ghost World,” the first of his works to be adapted for film. “This is like death,” he recalled of his feelings working on the movie. “This is the worst kind of thing.”
While he admits that seeing his creations become films doesn’t hold the same weight for him as seeing one of his books in a bookstore, Clowes does release his inner life-long nerd when he thinks about how comics are influencing film. “If someone had told me at age fourteen, ‘Hey, there is going to be an Avengers movie in 2012,’ I would have said, ‘What can I do to speed up time?'”
Luckily for his fans, despite his enjoyment at developing his projects for the big screen, Clowes has no intentions of abandoning comics for film. He never thought of himself as having any connection to the fine art world, even though he attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and certainly never imagined that his work would ever be in a museum. It seems as though, after all this time, Clowes still doesn’t realize exactly how relatable his work is to other people. As Chris Ware interjected, “Dan is single-handedly responsible for inspiring a generation.”
“I never responded to any other form of art besides comics,” Clowes said of his inspirations. “I liked other artists, but I found myself always reducing them to comics. I’d look at an Ed Hopper and think, ‘You know, this would be really great with word balloons.’ To me, doing anything else was never a possibility.
“I always have to make my work exciting,” he continued. “I always have to keep myself guessing about what comes next. I can try different things, and even if it always comes out the exact same, I know that I have the freedom to try something new.”
Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes will be on display through November, 2012 at the Oakland Museum of California. For those who attend, the exhibition book “The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist,” the first monograph of Clowes’ work, is available through Abrams ComicArts.