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The evolution of Daniel Clowes

We meet the graphic novelist who created Ghost World to talk about getting lost in solitude, his new book and that day Shia LaBeouf wrote his name in the skies

“A cosmic timewarp death trip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love” is how Daniel Clowes describes his latest graphic novel, Patience. Ostensibly a noir crime caper masquerading as science fiction, it tells the story of a young couple of outcasts who find each other after a lifetime of hurt. In a tragic twist, their lives are ripped to shreds by forces out of their control and one of them undertakes a quest through the fabric of time to make things right. But, Clowes being Clowes, Patience bears little in common with time-hopping rollercoasters like Looper, Terminator and Back to the Future. In fact, Patience is unlike any story you’ve ever read before. When the last page has turned, it feels like you’ve been spat out of a psychedelic wormhole.

Creating weird worlds, subverting genres and confounding expectations is what Clowes does best. Since his comics first appeared in Crack Magazine back in 1985, he has become one of pop culture’s foremost graphic novelists. Alongside Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Seth, and Chris Ware, Clowes’ off-kilter stories have helped turn long form comics into a universally revered art form. Books such as Lloyd Llewellyn, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, David Boring, Pussey!, Mr Wonderful, Ice Haven, and The Death-Ray have become bona fide cult classics. But there is one story that his name is indelibly associated with more than any other: Ghost World.

Debuting in his comic book series Eightball, Ghost World tells the story of Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, two apathetic teenagers who mock everything and everyone around them. Ignoring modern fads for vintage clothes and records, they have become prototype outsider icons for young girls who don’t identify with cliched mainstream ideals of femininity. In 2001, Clowes adapted the strip into a film with director Terry Zwigoff starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. Regularly cited as one of modern cinema’s definitive youth culture movies, Clowes’ screenplay went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. Fifteen years later, the film and book continue to inspire legions of girls navigating the stormy waters of adolescence.

“If I knew it would have taken this long I would have never ever begun. I would have thought of something easier to do!” – Daniel Clowes on Patience

For a quiet, unassuming man who baulks at the idea of his books being published electronically, Clowes was aghast to find himself engulfed in a digital media firestorm thanks to Shia LaBeouf in 2013. Unbeknownst to the artist, LaBeouf had directed a short film entitled Howard Upon its release, people online noticed some uncanny similarities between it and Clowes’ 2008 story, Justin M Damiano. Timelines were flooded as people called out the actor for plagiarism. LaBeouf promptly removed the film and refuted the claims, saying that he merely “got lost in the creative process”. After a handful of social media apologies, on New Year’s Day 2014 LaBeouf hired a skywriter and scrawled in the air above Los Angeles, “I AM SORRY DANIEL CLOWES”… even though Clowes lives in Oakland. “I've never spoken to or met Mr LaBeouf” the artist responded at the time. “I actually can’t imagine what was going through his mind.”

Wilson, Clowes’ last graphic novel, was published in 2010. It tells the tale of a grumpy yet lovable nihilist who goes off the rails following the death of his father. A film adaptation starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern is being released this year, directed by Craig Johnson. Clowes wrote the screenplay but chose not to work directly on the movie, focusing instead on creating covers for The New Yorker, releasing an anthology of his Eightball work, organising major museum retrospectives of his work, and, of course, his labour of love – Patience. “I began the book thinking, ‘I’m going to take two years on it at the most,” he says with a laugh. “Then it just grew and grew and all of a sudden five years have passed. If I knew it would have taken this long I would have never ever begun. I would have thought of something easier to do!”

We meet Clowes to talk about Patience, Myspace and Shia LaBeouf.

Dazed: The first frame of Patience is a close up of an ejaculating penis. Were your publishers shocked when you showed them?

Daniel Clowes: Oh, they’ve published pure pornography before, so they’re happy to do anything. (laughs) It’s funny – I had that artwork on the top of the stack the entire time I was working on the book in my studio. People would come in and see it and nobody ever got what it was. They thought it was an abstract image – it was pretty large. Then when I shrunk it down and coloured it, everybody was like ‘Ooooh now I see what it was, I just thought it was some shapes’.

Do you get a kick from spinning people out?

Daniel Clowes: That’s not my only goal, but I do want readers to get lost in the book so that they kind of forget that they’re turning pages and reading a comic book. I want them to live in the world of the story, so it has the effect of waking up from a dream when they’re done. That’s kind of the best I can hope for.

I’m still recovering...

Daniel Clowes: Oh good, well I hope it takes a few days.

Was it hard to keep a grip on reality?

Daniel Clowes: When I first started I thought that drawing comics was therapeutic. That by working through these issues it would somehow help me understand myself. I don’t know if that’s ever necessarily happened. It certainly hasn’t alleviated my anxiety or anything like that, but I think you have to make your work about the things that are running through your mind on a daily basis.

Do you think that the solitary pursuit of writing graphic novels manifests the alienated characters that you’ve become synonymous with?

Daniel Clowes: There’s no doubt. You have to be solitary by nature, or at least enjoy spending many hours a day by yourself. I guess you could work in a room with somebody else but I don’t know how you could really focus and do the deep personal stuff that I’m interested in doing.

Have you ever been scared that you will get lost in your head and never emerge again?

Daniel Clowes: That happens. There are days when my wife is at work all day and my son is at school and I’m sitting here alone deep in a world of total fantasy. Then all of a sudden they come back and it’s reality again. It’s hard to shift gears. Whenever my family goes out of town for a few days it really gets to me just living in my own head. It helps getting out of that every hour to just not get lost in the weeds.

Do you find reality hard to navigate because you have such an overactive imagination?

Daniel Clowes: I feel anxious about a lot of reality because I don’t have any control over most things. Everything feels really chaotic and hard to wrap my head around. I find it very soothing to work on comics where I have complete control over every little thing and I am obsessive over not letting anybody have any part of it other than doing the printing or whatever. Every single other aspect of it is all done by hand, by me, and it would drive me crazy if that weren’t the case.

Patience is haunted by the events in her past, as are many of your characters, most prominently Enid from Ghost World. Do you feel haunted by the success of Ghost World at all?

Daniel Clowes: (Laughs) No, it’s not a bad thing. I am pleasantly shocked that Ghost World still has an audience, and it’s mostly young women. To me it’s like reading a Victorian novel. The two characters use dial phones and don’t have computers or Facebook or any of the things that is just the reality of day-to-day teenage life today. The fact that girls today can still kind of relate to them is remarkable to me.

You must feel so proud about creating something that has had such a positive effect.

Daniel Clowes: Oh yeah, it’s nothing but wonderful. I certainly didn’t think about that when I was doing the book. I wasn’t trying to inspire anybody; I was trying to tell a story, just trying to get it out there. I don’t think you can ever set out to be inspirational; it just has to happen naturally. I recently did a signing in Los Angeles and there was a woman there and she said she’d grown up in a really repressive small southern town and had nobody that she could relate to at all. She had gone into a used bookstore and found a beat-up old copy of Ghost World and she said it kind of opened her up to seeing that there were other people that felt the way that she did. That’s about the best thing that you can ever hear as an author. She changed her life after that and got away. Now she’s thriving and an artist herself. A story like that is enough of a reason to do an entire book.

If Ghost World was set in 2016, what social media platform would Enid and Rebecca use?

Daniel Clowes: They were intended to be sort of retro, like they were not right up to the modern era, so now they would ironically be on Myspace or some other outdated site. That story would be so boring to draw now, because I’d just have to draw people texting! I’ve seen comics that do that and it seems modern and effective but it sure doesn’t seem very much fun to do.

Enid Coleslaw is an anagram of your own name. How did you get the tone of being a cynical teenage girl so right?

Daniel Clowes: I had similar speech patterns to typical teenage girls when I was a teenager. I think the difference between the genders isn’t as much as we all thought back in the day. Certainly, teenagers now would absolutely feel that to be the truth. I was a very quiet kid who really played close attention to the women I had a crush on back when I was in high school and college. I really studied and absorbed their speech patterns and I could just hear the voices of those characters in my head so strongly. My wife had been sort of an Enid type when she was growing up and she told me all these stories about her and her friends and it sort of co-operated with the way it felt about the truth of those characters.

Many people have taken the ending of Ghost World when Enid gets on the bus as a metaphor for suicide. Is that the case?

Daniel Clowes: It certainly never dawned on me, but maybe on some unconscious level that’s what I was thinking. I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to shoot down any theory necessarily, but I was somewhat shocked when that became the opinion of more than just a few people. It becomes sort of accepted as one of the answers for that. I thought it was much more of a hopeful ending.

Why do you think alienation is so attractive to read about?

Daniel Clowes: I think we all feel that way and we are led to feel that nobody else feels that way, so it’s comforting to know we are not alone in those feelings.

Cause and effect is a big theme of Patience. It got me thinking that, through no fault of your own, you made Shia LaBeouf into a performance artist. How does that make you feel?

Daniel Clowes: I am just sad that you will never be able to Google my name without Shia LaBeouf turning up. He was never the person I thought of as being intimately connected to. It’s like if somebody murders you then your name is always connected to them. There is something deeply unfair about that. Not to equate plagiarism with murder, or anything.

Keeping with the theme of Patience, if you could jump in a time machine to the moment just before LaBeouf read Justin M Damiano for the first time, what would you do to change his mind?

Daniel Clowes: I don’t know if there is anything I could have said. The thought that it was an OK thing to do is so bizarre to me, especially for somebody who has grown up in the legal world of Hollywood and who understands all this stuff about rights. It’s just inconceivable to me.

Did you find it odd that his skywritten apology was over LA rather than Oakland where you live?

Daniel Clowes: Everything about it made no sense. That was certainly a surreal day. I was on a long hike all day and I didn’t check my email or anything, then I came home and I had all these emails of these pictures. I thought somebody had mocked it up on Photoshop. I thought it was a joke.

Did you feel like a character in one of your novels?

Daniel Clowes: Yeah, I did at the time. It was all very surreal, you realise there are certain people who would love that kind of attention. I was getting offers from TMZ and CNN and all the big networks to speak out and I really didn’t want that kind of attention. I don’t want to be involved with that kind of thing ever again. It was really invasive.

“I think the difference between the genders isn’t as much as we all thought back in the day. Certainly, teenagers now would absolutely feel that to be the truth” – Daniel Clowes

Now it’s been a few years, what was the biggest thing you learned from that experience?

Daniel Clowes: I had to hire these super-expensive Hollywood lawyers to try to deal with it. He, of course, has the world’s most expensive Hollywood lawyers, and it’s only because I’ve happened to make movies and I actually have legal representation that I could actually take care of it. If any big celebrity were to steal a story from a young guy doing mini-comics somewhere who has no money, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. No lawyer would take that case if you couldn’t pay them up front. So they could easily just steal your story and not have any consequences at all, and I found that so appalling that I couldn’t bear it happening to somebody.

So LaBeouf will not have a cameo in Wilson then?

Daniel Clowes: He did not make the cut, unfortunately. Wilson is completely done and will be out this fall. It’s probably more related to the book than anything else I’ve written based on my own work. It’s kind of a bigger story than the book, but with the same characters and same kind of beats to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Wilson and Laura Dern plays his ex-wife Pippy. I wrote the screenplay but I did not participate at all in the filmmaking, by my own choice.


Why not?

Daniel Clowes: I didn't have time as I was finishing Patience, but I also don't really like making films. I like writing them but I don't like getting up at six in the morning and having to be creative while you're sleep deprived. All the aspects of filmmaking are the opposite of the way I like to work. I haven't seen the entire film yet. I've seen a few days of shooting and everything looked wonderful so I have very high hopes. I'm looking forward to seeing it all done in the theatre like everyone else.

Was it the process of working on Art School Confidential that put you off? Terry Zwigoff hasn't made a film since either.

Daniel Clowes: I was already put off after Ghost World. It's exciting to do it you get to meet all these actors because everyone is working hard and making your vision come to life and you have hundreds of people working on it and it’s somewhat addictive to work on it but I just had to face facts that it was not my thing. At one point I thought I would direct my own film and get more into that and then I realised that I would not be happy. I really love doing the comics and that is what I should be doing.

Patience addresses ageing in a very unique way. How do you feel like your own work is changed as you've got older?

Daniel Clowes: I really don't like to look back at what I've done at all. I just keep moving forward and think about what I've done in the past. I can look at the early strips and I know what I was hoping to do and I know what I wanted it to look like. Now I can very clearly see the shortcomings of that and also the inherent beauty of trying and failing at something, but trying so hard that there is a certain beauty underneath the crudity of it. It's a very different thing. I feel much more in control of what I'm doing and I feel much more comfortable drawing anything. It’s a lot more satisfying to draw now. Back then it was a life or death struggle. Drawing street scenes with cars and perspective things like that used to fill me with terror. There is much more of a depth to everything now.

Finally, a question lifted from Patience: if you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler's mum?

Daniel Clowes: I did The Guardian Q&A once, and one of the questions was, “What would you do if you could go back in time?” I said that I’d like to think that I would go back and kill Hitler or I would verify the divinity of Christ, but probably in reality I would just go back to my childhood and walk around my own neighbourhood and see what it was really like. I looked at the printed interview and it just said: 'I would like to think I would kill Hitler'. So that’s my answer.

But what about Hitler’s mum?

Daniel Clowes: I’d like to think so, but God knows how that would work out.

Patience is published by Fantagraphics Books.