Getting hit with a brick
Involvement in a weird love triangle
A recent Daniel Clowes cartoon in the New Yorker closed with this punch line: “I mean, think about it—we’re just these weird organisms on a rock in space!” The joke is part paranoia, part truth—the worldview that drives his oddball characters. Clowes is a trenchant observer, and he consistently turns that which is most familiar—the human life-form—into something otherworldly and frequently repellent.
But as his more recent endeavors have shown, the cartoonist has, by his own account, softened a bit toward his characters. In 2007 and 2008, Clowes created Mister Wonderful, a weekly strip that ran in the New York Times Magazine. In deciding the fate of Marshall, its hapless hero, he confesses, “I couldn’t do anything bad to this poor guy.” In the special edition of Ghost World, published by Fantagraphics in 2008 to mark the tenth anniversary of the original hardcover edition, Clowes admits that in re-reading the book, he expected to feel an authorial distance from the heroines’ travails; instead, he experienced an affectionate sympathy. He also observes that Enid and Rebecca’s story has taken on a life of its own, and in so doing has caused the author to “question [his] own existence.”
We first met up for a late breakfast in SoHo in August 2008, to reminisce about Ghost World. Part of the book’s popularity stems from the 2001 film, for which Clowes wrote the screenplay, and our conversation turned to his more recent film and television projects. When we spoke again, by phone, last February, talk of film and TV brought us back around to his exceptional new book, Wilson (published by Drawn & Quarterly), which stages the title character’s daily efforts and irritations as a series of Peanuts-like gag strips. Wilson, who fits seamlessly into the Clowes pantheon of socially challenged characters, seems to have taken his creator’s existential wanderings to heart, and Clowes, for his part, acknowledges feeling equal parts disdain and admiration for this middle-aged loner.
THE BELIEVER: You’ve mentioned in the past that you refuse to relinquish control of the artwork in your books and that you take great pride in having created each line. How difficult was it to take Ghost World, in which you drew every line and wrote every word, and offer it up for a collaborative film project?
DANIEL CLOWES: You have to realize that even the greatest auteur in film can’t have absolute control. It’s a medium that doesn’t allow for that. Immediately, when we started to work on Ghost World, I saw how you lose control right away, even in the very special case that Terry [Zwigoff] and I had, where we had a very sympathetic producer and we were allowed to do pretty much exactly what we wanted. We didn’t have a studio involved at all. But just to tell the set designer what you want, it’s almost impossible to communicate. I’m used to drawing a picture and getting it exactly right. And to try to explain Enid’s room was like banging my head against the wall. Finally I had to do the set dressing myself because they were getting it so wrong. These people are trying so hard, and they’re working sixteen hours a day, and they’re chain-smoking and drinking coffee all day, and they’re like, “We want to make you happy.” And then they get it wrong over and over again and you just want to go, “Oh, that’s fine. That’s fine.” I found myself doing that. You just can’t make a film that’s 100 percent your vision. I have to think of it as something that’s very different than what I get out of creating a comic.
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