An Interview with Dan Clowes

[Originally published May 13 2010 for books.torontoist.com. I’ve posted this Dec 21 2022 but backdated the post date to the original publication date.]

Dan Clowes, screenwriter, the author of Wilson, and one of the handful of truly iconic figures in what was once called ‘alternative’ comics, spoke with me over the weekend at TCAF.

Dave Howard: I’m familiar with a lot of your work, pretty much all of your work, I’m a big fan, and I’ve noticed that you do, I think, great stories that have one main central character, or one main central point, almost as if there’s an interior and an exterior being set up right away. Would you say that’s a fair way to look at your work?

Dan Clowes: I did Ghost World  and that was tentatively about two main characters, and then the one took over, her dominant personality crowded out the other character. And Ice Haven, the intent of that was to have no main character, it was all six or seven characters interacting. I felt if that book had a failing that was it, I needed one protagonist to rise slightly above the others. And so anything I’ve done after that, I’ve tried to figure out who is the guy I’m most concerned with. I really just think drama and fiction tend to work better when you have one character that’s somewhat dominant to all the others. And I think the audience needs to be following just one person. I’m always interested in creating believable characters, characters that are so believable I start to feel they are real, rather than somebody I’m manipulating. When you have a whole bunch of characters intersecting, it’s hard to focus all your dissipating thoughts on all those characters. When you have one main character you can focus your energy into, they tend to come alive better.

Howard: I look at your work and I often think of French Existentialism because there’s a lot of the absurd, and, especially with Ice Haven, there is no one final reality. With French Existentialism there is no overarching meaning, there is nothing to strive for, and I see that when I’m reading Wilson. It seems there’s a bubbling up of these strains of thought that have long been in your work.

Clowes: I go along with that up to a certain point. I think all the assumptions we make about the way things are should be examined, and just the very notion that people’s happiness is often based on things that are fragile or even… entirely fabricated. I can see people need a survival mechanism to plug on with their lives, but I still think that’s an unhealthy thing. And that if we can examine what we really know about what makes us happy, and what in life is actually meaningful, then I think that’s a better starting point than to just assume that some structure that we’ve been given is actually valid. 

So I go along with that up to that point, but I also think that – I have my own personal world view, which isn’t that therefore all in the world if futile and all is meaningless. I think that there’s clearly happiness in the world, and that we have to figure out how to find that on a basis that isn’t involving self-deception or the exploitation of other people. I think that we have to take that more seriously, in order for all of us to find some peace in the world. Wilson’s playing that kind of a game, he’s thinking bigger things than the average person that he’s talking to. He’s sort of seeing in little subtle indicators things that to him suggest this sickness of the world, and he can’t believe other people aren’t seeing the same things.

Howard: And that increases his isolation?

Clowes: Yes.

Howard: I notice in most of the other characters, we see almost everyone sitting alone or they have a laptop on a table. I feel there’s some disparaging comment about technology and isolation, especially when Wilson is trying to talk to his grandson over the internet and he finally breaks down and waves a Tommy the Tank Engine toy, as if he’s willing to buy into something he doesn’t believe in, in order to make a connection. 

Clowes: Well I think that, personally, I feel that all this technology that’s designed to connect us together has certainly made me feel more alienated, and I don’t say that as someone who is outside of all that, I use cel phones and email and all that kind of stuff. But, when you’re walking down the street, everybody who passes are all in their personal world. It’s not necessarily that people used to necessarily say hello to each other, but there was some kind of connection that people had passing each other on the street that no longer exists. People don’t even notice each other. I feel we’ve learned to indulge ourselves to such a high degree that we’re so used to having our ego satisfied every second of the day.

Howard: You don’t have to put up with other people?

Clowes: Yeah, you can just talk to your friends, you don’t have to talk to other people. I was just thinking today how most comic conventions, when you go to, say, the San Diego comic convention in America, it’s so indulgent. It’s like everybody gets to hang out with movie stars and stuff, it’s not based on anything other than – to me it’s like going to a junk food convention, and you just eat nothing but crappy food for four days. I tastes good but there’s nothing about it that has any value. And yet we’re so used to being indulged with that. It’s not good to eat Twinkies for every meal for three or four days.

Howard: How do you feel about the state of comics now? To me I feel the graphic novel is replacing the novel. The novel is one of the chief ways I think an individual can express a critical view that can be seen or read by others, and so in turn influence or critique the dominant culture. I see the graphic novel replacing the novel, and that the novel is sort of starting to dissipate. 

Clowes: I definitely feel the novel – especially the novel with high aspirations – has a lessening hold over the culture. If a Thomas Pinchent novel comes out it’s not discussed by everybody as excitedly as it would have been 20 or 30 years ago. But I don’t know that the graphic novel has replaced that. Maybe it has the potential to, at this point, which it certainly never did in the past, but I don’t know that any graphic novel has had such a cultural impact at this point.

Howard: I guess film is the way.

Clowes: Film and video games – just the nature of the way the internet is put together, it’s fragmented. It’s almost as if there’s no phenomenon anymore that takes over the culture the way it used to. When I was in high school, there were like, maybe, fifteen big rock bands that everybody knew about, and that your only choice was to listen to those guys. That’s all the record stores had. It was just very focused. Every single person would watch certain TV shows and so on Monday mornings, everybody had watched, you know, The Partridge Family or something. There were certain touchstones we all had and that doesn’t exist anymore. Everybody has their own little narrow field of interest, and so there’s nothing that has that big impact any more. Except for the very nature of that fact that everything is fragmented, that in itself has a big impact.

Howard: What about someone like a Lady Gaga?

Clowes: Yeah – the fact that I’m even aware of her – because I’m completely divorced of any connection to pop music, because it’s not intended for me, we’re not thirteen year old girls. But the fact is that, if I know who Hanna Montana is, or something like that, then it’s somehow done it’s job. But I also don’t feel overwhelmed by any of that stuff like I have with other trends in the past. Like when Madonna was in her heyday, I just felt like we couldn’t avoid her, and now I can avoid any of that stuff pretty easily.

Howard: Do you think that’s a cultural thing or maybe just age?

Clowes: Even when I was younger, I certainly wasn’t interested in mainstream culture, that’s all there was, but now I can very easily tune out all reference to things I don’t want to deal with.

Howard: You’ve said in a interview recently, and even in your talk last night, that your interest in being locked in a room drawing comics is waning, and you’re more interested in collaborative work like film

Clowes: You know, I didn’t mean to say that if I did, I meant that I like to have another outlet, I like to go back and forth.

Howard: Oh I see.

Clowes: I’d say more than ever in my life I enjoy drawing comics and I really like being in my room drawing comics, but I also recognize that at a certain point I have to escape it and do other things, or it gets too claustrophobic. It becomes like a hall of mirrors, you have no perspective. Just even going on a little tour like this, for me, I’ll go back and it will feel like a different world.

Howard: How about making film? You are doing screenplays for some new films now, are you finding that the way that you approach the screenwriting is the same sort of basis that you would approach the comics? Can you use a film script to write a comic?

Clowes: No. No, it’s a very different process. Although the stories I would be interested in would be somewhat the same in both comics and film. I’m looking for good characters, dramatic situations, and some X factor that holds my interest. That’s sort of the three elements I need. Those would be true in both comics and film. 

Comics I have much more confidence I can make something work. I feel like if I have a good idea I know I can get that across to the best of my abilities, whereas with screenwriting it’s still a process where you’re writing with the hopes that someone else will understand what you’re writing. It’s not the same as writing exactly what you want to get on the page. It involves writing what will transmit your thoughts to another person who will then get that on the screen. That’s a very different thing. It requires somewhat a paring down of detail, because you have to give other people room to reflect what you’re doing.

Howard: Do you think you would ever do this kind of collaborative work with a comic?

Clowes: I wouldn’t say never, because I could imagine doing anything – there are many things that I never thought I would want to do that I later did. But, it’s hard to say how that could ever be appealing for me. I could imagine if someone wrote a really great story, possibly in another medium, and adapting that, maybe. That’s something that might interest me, but I can’t imagine teaming up with somebody and drawing it together. I could imagine maybe writing something for somebody else, but it would have to be something so different, it would have to make sense. A Mike Beyer or something like that.

Howard: About Wilson, you’d said that part of your approach in breaking it up into little one page vignettes, one strip per page, was so you could re-edit the work more easily. Are you finding now that there are other techniques or approaches to creating comics that you are trying, now that you have worked on a couple of films?

Clowes: Well, I wouldn’t say approaches necessarily. The one example I can think of, in terms of techniques, is making comics that are easier to change around. Certainly when you’re making a film you really have to make every second count because it’s very expensive. Before you make the film you really have to cut away absolutely everything that’s not essential. And the first time I had to do that, I found it at times really painful to lose things that I thought were great. And then later on I realized how useful it was for me to be forced to do that. In comics I was never forced to do that, I could just go on as long as I wanted, nobody was editing me, paper is cheap. And on this book Wilson I really took it to heart to chop away everything that was not essential. Not to keep anything I thought was just exposition or just for the sake of being part of a storyline. There were several points where I wasn’t even sure it was clear how he got from one point to the next, but if it wasn’t interesting I’d cut it out with the hopes that the reader’s imagination would fill it in. I think when you read the book, you feel that there’s much more to it than you see on the page; that was the result of having much more material, in my head at least, than actually appeared in the book.

Howard: You’ve had a huge impact on alternative comics, and when you do things or express opinions, so many people know about it so quickly, it influences a lot of people. How do you feel about being in that role? Or do you accept that role as someone who is influential? Do you think about that?

Clowes: Ten or fifteen years ago I would get a lot of comics in the mail that was very clearly – it was as if someone had read my comics and they were trying to do their own comics but they were so strongly influenced and it was, it felt very strange. Because I know my work is based on my reading of other artists and taking elements from them and so there was this whole generation of artists who jut weren’t ready to do their own work and it was very filtered through my sensibilities and it was – I don’t know, I didn’t take offense at it or anything, I had certainly done the same thing myself.  But then at a certain point there was so much of that, then there started to be intentionally the opposite of that, it was very different from my stuff, and then I sort of felt even more like that was an influence that I had influenced people to do work that they might not have even ordinarily wanted to do, to be different from the massive people who were imitating me.

Howard: The work that you’re doing, it has been part of a paradigm shift around what comics can do, for so many people for so many years. And I think there are people in the industry who will give persona, individual work credit now, because of the success of Eightball.

Clowes: You know there’s lots of works in every field that move things over from one train of thinking to another. And especially in visual art or film. There are filmmakers who are the first to do things, and you know, you look back on those films, and once everybody has followed them and repeated the things they’ve done, these films that have changed the way things were, they aren’t all that interesting. To me what I’m really interested in is creating books that hold up past whatever influence they had on the culture or comics or whatever, so that somebody who’s not aware of what came before or after, could just enjoy it on it’s own merits. That’s much more what I’m interested in. 

I remember my wife had to study Sam Peckinpah, she had to watch The Wild Bunch. They were explaining what a revolutionary film it was, and she couldn’t understand what was so revolutionary about it. They would say ‘Well at the time they never showed violence like that, it was always just a cowboy shooting a guy and he would just fall off the horse and lie on the ground. This movie is real brutal violence.” And I realized she was watching as a modern moviegoer who didn’t care about it’s historical significance that much. She ended up watching it and appreciating it but I remember thinking you can’t really justify this if she’s not getting it as a movie. I don’t… well The Wild Bunch is a bad example because it is a great move, but I don’t want to do stuff that merely… changes the goal posts or whatever …  as opposed to making good books. I’d rather make good books that don’t effect anybody or anything or have this revolutionary impact on the art form, without making a successful – an artistically successful – good book.

Howard: It’s as if you’re doing your own thing in your own way, and that it’s having this effect is just a bonus.

Clowes: I mean all I’ve ever tried to do was to do stuff that I thought was… truthful… that had ‘the ring of truth’, that had that a sort of spark to it that made it feel that it was… urgent in some way. And when I’ve done stuff that didn’t have that, it never worked for me or for anyone else. That’s the one thing I can hope to do. That’s not something that changes the way people thing about an art form necessarily.

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