Daniel Clowes got his start in the ’80s, drawing comics for Cracked magazine. And he went on to become probably the most respected graphic novelist in America.
His blend of humor, horror, realism and surrealism has won him over a dozen Eisner and Harvey Awards… and he earned an Oscar nomination for adapting his comic “Ghost World” for the big screen.
Daniel’s latest book is called “Patience.” And warning: we’re about reveal some spoilers (as you’ll see, he’d probably appreciate this modern-world warning). The book is about a devoted husband who literally travels through time to save his pregnant wife from a terrible fate.
It’s the longest book he’s ever written and — since he himself is married with a kid — it feels like his most personal. When he spoke with Daniel this week, Rico asked what sparked the idea.
Daniel Clowes: Well, certainly, one of the impetuses — if that is a word — for beginning…
Rico Gagliano: “Impetii?”
Daniel Clowes: … Is it “impetii?”
Rico Gagliano: I don’t know.
Daniel Clowes: I don’t either, that’s an interesting question.
But one of those things for beginning the story… was that horrible feeling of lying in bed at night and thinking, like, “What if I wake up and everybody’s been murdered in their sleep except for me?” And you think, how could you go on?
Rico Gagliano: If your family was gone.
Daniel Clowes: Yeah. Or just if something as horrible as what happens to this guy in the story happened to me. I think I would not even react as well as he does. You know, thinking how something like that would crush you to such a degree that you would become such a shell of yourself.
And so, I was trying to think of, you know, how could you take a character who’s sort of a happy, well-adjusted 25-year-old, and turn him into a very different type of person over the course of 30 years.
Rico Gagliano: But where does the sci-fi angle of that enter into it? ‘Cause I’ll say, I started reading the book… and it’s the type of milieu I’ve come to expect in a Daniel Clowes novel. It’s kind of people struggling to get by… they’re a little bit neurotic… kinda the realistic difficulties of an average life… and then literally, the page turns, and it’s all different.
Daniel Clowes: Well, I sort of naively hoped that nobody would know what was going to happen in the book. I forgot that we live in the modern world.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah. I apologize.
Daniel Clowes: No, I mean, it’s so spoiled by now. You know, I’ve had people introduce me at bookstores now who tell all the story — like up until the very end. You guys didn’t do that at all.
But I wanted it to have that shock of, you know, Janet Leigh being stabbed in the shower. I wanted it to feel like you were comfortably in one of my stories, and then you were taken completely out of what you expected.
Rico Gagliano: But why?
Daniel Clowes: Because I wanted to do that to myself. You know, I wanted to see what would happen if I handled something that’s not at all the kind of thing I normally do, but that I might be interested in as a reader.
You know, I’m always kind of trying to create something that I would actually like to read. And this was the book I felt like I wanted to read. And I had to do it myself, and so I don’t even get the joy of reading it.
Rico Gagliano: Sorry!
Daniel Clowes: And my ideal reader always is the poor kid who goes into a used bookstore — if they do still exist in, you know, 2037 — you know, a kid going in: “What’s this? The spine looks interesting. What’s this?” And taking it off the shelf and having no idea what it is. That’s my dream reader.
Rico Gagliano: Well, that seems as good a segue as any to talk about your youth, and your first encounter with comic books. It’s my understanding that you first inherited a bunch of comics from your brother, right?
Daniel Clowes: Yeah. All the early comics I read were 10 years old at the time I got them. So, they were all from, you know, the ‘50s up to 1962 or ’63. From “Archie” comics, to knock-offs of Donald Duck, to crazy horror comics, early superhero comics…
I mean, I still have “Fantastic Four No. 1” that he bought off the newsstand, that I used to hold over my head in the rain when my grandma was coming to pick me up at a friend’s house.
Rico Gagliano: So it’s not in great shape.
Daniel Clowes: It’s in pretty bad shape. Yeah.
Rico Gagliano: That’s too bad.
I also especially love this detail: that you were reading these comics before you could actually read the English language…
Daniel Clowes: Yeah.
Rico Gagliano: ..So, you found some of the images scary even though they weren’t intended that way.
Daniel Clowes: They all seemed fraught with some kind of insanity. And to this day, I look at these comics, and they’re immediately inspirational and just have this kind of electric quality.
And, you know, I’ve sort of analyzed it over the years. And it seems like a lot of these guys that were doing the comics I read as a kid came out of World War II, probably had severe PTSD, and then were just told, like, “Crank out these stories!” You know, “Do eight pages a day, just whatever pops into your head.” Which is almost like automatic writing.
So they’re doing these deeply surreal stories, and then just kind of trying to, you know, add dialogue that turns them into a semblance of an actual story. But most of them are just crazy fever dreams that seem fraught with psychological import.
Rico Gagliano: You’ve also done a lot of rock album illustrations. And for a while in the ‘90s, you were kind of the in-house artist for Sub Pop records. I can imagine working with rock bands could either be extremely fun or completely infuriating.
Daniel Clowes: Well, I just loved album cover art. That was sort of one of my favorite formats for artwork, was to look at LPs. And artists like Jack Davis, who was one of the EC artists, used to do these crazy, complicated covers for Spike Jones and albums like that.
And I used to just think, “Oh, that would be so great to be able to do that!” So, early on, I just agreed to do any album that came my way. But the rule was I never had to listen to it. Which I can safely say, I never listened to any of those Sub Pop records even once!
Rico Gagliano: Really?
Daniel Clowes: Yeah. You know, I knew I would think, “What I’m doing doesn’t correspond to this music at all.”
Rico Gagliano: But aren’t you guaranteeing that it will have nothing to do with the music if you don’t listen to it?
Daniel Clowes: Yeah… that was fine with me!
You know, the one time I did have a little bit to do with the band was… I did a video for the Ramones. It was, like, one of their last songs. And I got to sort of talk to them on the phone a few times and hear their notes. And they had just the most deranged ideas of what to do.
Rico Gagliano: Did you take them?
Daniel Clowes: No, no. It was funny because I was, like, so in awe and just so in love with them. But then their ideas, it’s like, they wouldn’t have worked at all.
Joey just had all these ideas that made literally no sense. I remember he wanted to have a reference to “Forrest Gump” in the video, and I just thought, “I can’t. I can’t do that.”
Rico Gagliano: “That’s not me. That’s not the Clowes way.”
Daniel Clowes: “That’s not me.” And it was… I found it so great that he just loved that movie.
Rico Gagliano: We have two questions that we ask everyone on the show. One is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question would you least like to be asked?
Daniel Clowes: Oh: “What do you think of the latest superhero movie?” Like, everybody assumes I have an opinion.
Rico Gagliano: You’ve only done one superhero comic book, really.
Daniel Clowes: Yeah. And it was not informed by modern superheroes. Like,I just got so poisoned against superheroes when I was first starting my career, and my comic would be thrown in the porn box in the back of the comic store while the rest of the store was overtaken by superheroes. I just have no entry into that world without dredging up bad, bad feelings.
Rico Gagliano: All right. Let’s ask you kind of the flip question, which is: tell us something we don’t know about yourself or about the world. A piece of trivia…
Daniel Clowes: Oh, my God! Well, I could you tell you… People always ask me what kind of tool I use to draw comics. You know, “How do you get the lines to look like that?” And that was one of the great mysteries of my childhood, was trying to figure out, like, “What kind of pen do they use to make the perfect lines?”
And I finally, after experimenting with literally every pen ever made by man, I finally learned, “Oh, they use a watercolor brush.” So I went and bought a watercolor brush, and it’s as difficult to use as you can imagine.
But the interesting thing about these brushes is that a few years ago, they were made illegal in the U.S. because they were made the fur of these endangered Russian weasels. They’re weirdly…
Rico Gagliano: What?!
Daniel Clowes: …It’s weirdly called a “kolinsky sable brush.” But that’s a euphemism for “pestilent Siberian weasel,” that apparently the Russians were just trying to get rid of because there were so many of these weasels. And through some trade agreement, we couldn’t import these brushes.
So, it was kind of a blow to find out, you know, this is the main thing I use in my livelihood, and that they were now illegal. So, I had to acquire them through the black market for a few years.
Rico Gagliano: What? You supported the killing of weasels with your work?
Daniel Clowes: As far as I know, they don’t even kill them. They just, you know, pluck a few of their hairs and have a 200-year-old Siberian woman hand-pot them in a little metal thing.
But they are now back on the OK list, so you can once again buy these brushes. But I felt like I was an endangered species for a while there.
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