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Frightened Control Freaks: An Interview with Daniel Clowes

The recent publication of The Complete Eightball, a lovingly restored two-volume collection of the first eighteen issues of Daniel Clowes’s seminal comic book series, gives readers old and new a chance to reassess the great cartoonist’s work, allowing them to trace back the roots of later masterpieces like Ice Haven and The Death-Ray, and to enjoy some of the caustic, experimental, and just plain strange short pieces that Clowes later largely left behind, at least for now (but see below). Next year should be another major year for Clowes: he plans to publish not only his longest graphic novel to date, Patience, and it will also see the release of the film adaptation (based on his own script) of Clowes’s graphic album Wilson.

Clowes spoke to me on the telephone during the last week of May. In our conversation he discussed the nightmare of putting together The Complete Eightball, cultural alienation, control-freak artists, and Woody Harrelson’s casting in the film adaptation of Wilson. He was patient and gracious.

Daniel Germain and Katie Wheeler helped with the transcription.

Clowes

TIMOTHY HODLER: So whose idea was The Complete Eightball?

DANIEL CLOWES: It was a hundred percent Kim Thompson’s idea. [Laughs.] Kim, for all his lack of salesmanship and marketing skills, the one thing that he was always hammering was, “Let’s just reprint everything as many times as we can and in as many formats as we can and make some pittance from each iteration of it.” The minute that he got the idea that he probably wasn’t gonna do any more Eightballs, at least for the time being, he was like, “When are you gonna do The Complete Eightball? When are you gonna do it?” And I kept saying, “Nah, that’s the last thing I ever want to do.” [Laughter.] I knew it was gonna be a nightmare to put together. And then right when he first got sick, but before I knew about it, he brought it up and all of a sudden I sort of saw how it could look. I wanted it to look like if you had bought all the copies on eBay and had them bound in some deluxe private edition. Once I got that in my head I was a little more into it. It was still something I didn’t really want to do for several more years, but somehow when he got sick, I sort of felt like I have to do this. I have to do the last project Kim and I were talking about. To fulfill his demented fantasies.

Was he able to work on it at all or did the project start too late?

He was able to gather information about what artwork we had and what film — all that stuff is so old that most of it’s non-digital. We just had the old-fashioned negatives and film that should have been held on to by somebody, but it all got scattered among various printers and it was just impossible to track down. The whole thing was truly a logistic nightmare.

So your instincts were correct about that.

Absolutely, yeah. [Laughter.] Eric Reynolds, who sort of inherited it, said to me several times that he’s never going to do another project like that ever again [laughter]. He lost about five years of his life in the process.

So was that the main thing, just finding all that stuff?

A lot of the work was from about issue seven on. It was very early digital stuff where they just didn’t know what they were doing at that time, so they would scan it at 300 dpi instead of 1200 dpi and, you know, shrink the x margin and not the y margin, and just do all kinds of just obscene stuff to the artwork. I didn’t want to reprint that stuff. Some of those covers are missing half the lines because they were scanned so poorly. But of course I had also sold almost all of that original art, so we had to track down the owners numerous times and then try to con them into sending us the artwork so we could rescan it. It was just an incredible laborious process.

Were all those people cooperative or was anyone reluctant to help?

There were a couple people that were not helpful, but for the most part everybody was unbelievably nice about it. I have to give Alvin Buenaventura all the credit for that, because he did all the legwork and tracked it all down and in many cases drove sixty miles to go pick up the artwork and it was no fun.

So many of these stories have been reprinted in various books: Ghost World, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, etc. It’s interesting to revisit them in their original context, with the ads and the backup stories and the letters. It kind of changes the way you read it.

Yeah. That was what Kim convinced me was the valid reason for doing it. I never looked at those comics after I finished them. I just stuck ‘em in my closet. To go back and kind of read through them you really get a sense of how the issues themselves were something very different than the stories that came out of them.

Were there any sort of things that you were really happy to revisit or surprised by or anything you’ve cringed at?

You know, luckily it’s all so old that I’m just beyond the cringe era. I find there’s about a ten-year window of cringing, and then it just become part of my juvenile work. You’re able to separate yourself at a certain point. I mean, there are certain things, certain drawings I look at and I know that at the time I knew that I should fix it and just didn’t have time. I regret any time I let some ridiculous, arbitrary deadline dictate the way that the artwork looks. Back in those days you had really no reason to get it out by a schedule [laughter] but Kim was always like, “We’ve got to get it out for the Dallas Fantasy Fair!” [Hodler laughs.] He always had these arbitrary deadlines and you’d go there and you’d sell twelve copies and think why did I cut all those corners to get it out for this? [Laughter.]

Do you miss the days of going to the Dallas Fantasy Fair?

I kind of do. That was kind of the greatest comic convention, ’cause for some reason they would fly me, the Hernandez brothers, Peter Bagge, Robert Crumb, everybody that you wanted to know to Dallas, where there would be no fans [laughs] so we would just talk to each other. It was like being trapped. It was like the comic-book cruise I didn’t go on where you were trapped in a hotel. I don’t remember ever leaving the hotel the whole time when we were in Dallas.

Yeah, why would you?

Yeah, it was like 300 degrees outside and—Dallas.

Complete Eightball-boxset 3D

[Laughs.] I really liked seeing the old letters pages again. There were a couple that struck me as funny. There’s one in issue two by this guy named David Peattie—

David Peattie was sort of famous for writing these tut-tutting, disdainful letters. I think he wrote to every Fantagraphics artist. I think he wrote one to Joe Sacco about Yahoo and then I remember he made the point that like, “Is it a coincidence that all of these new Fantagraphics have titles like Yahoo and Eightball?” But he had such a professorial tone that it was always amusing. Gary [Groth] used to really love to forward all the mail. I think he used to write to the Journal all the time. I wonder whatever happened to David Peattie. He was one of those guys you just look forward to hearing from. It was like a badge of honor to get a letter from him.

In his letter, his big complaint was that you never clearly shared your opinion of what you were parodying—you never said, “I don’t like this and here’s why”—which was apparently the big problem with your work. I thought that was kind of hilarious.

[Laughs.] He represented a large mass of the comic book audience at the time, which was not only bewildered by comics like mine, but sort of felt affronted by them. They just felt, “Why are you doing this? Comics shouldn’t be like this. Why do this? Why pollute our little world with something that doesn’t fit into what I expect?”

Another letter I really liked was in issue twelve, from Joe Matt.

[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s a classic. I actually even pared that down. It got even worse.

Oh really? [Laughs.] It’s funny, he wrote that the only story he liked in the issue was Ghost World. All of the short stories in the book, he just felt, why bother?

I sort of remembered that letter fondly, like “Oh Joe, what a character,” and then when I was putting the issue together I reread that letter and I was like, God, what a fucking asshole! [Laughter.]

Well it’s interesting because you kind of did stop doing those short pieces after that issue, at least as many of them, and I was wondering–

It was because of Joe.

No, I’m not asking if it was because of Joe, but just wondering if that may have reflected some part of your thinking at the time in some way.

No, not really. Those strips were sort of fun to do for a while, but at a certain point I felt like, you can’t kind of do this same rhythm every time. I felt like every idea I had like that just felt like a reiteration of something I had already done. It just felt kind of played out.

So you don’t miss making things like “Needle-Dick the Bugfucker”?

If I had an idea like that I would totally do it. But it just had a different feel, you know, there was a different quality to it at the time that kind of worked well in the comic. If I was going to do another issue of Eightball, I’d probably try to come up with some stuff like that, because it works really well in that context but out of that context it needs something to fight against, I think.

Is that something that you miss—having an ongoing title where you could put anything in it, where you don’t have to be as ambitious?

Those were really ambitious in a way, to do those comics. That was a tough fight to get the tone of those exactly right. It was no less difficult than doing longer works. In some ways, it was more difficult. But I don’t know, it’s just not where my heart is these days, doing those kinds of comics. I could easily imagine getting back to it someday. I tend to look over my career and see how I go in little phases and veer one way and then all of a sudden i get tired of that and I veer back another way, so it could very easily happen.

Yeah, “ambitious” is not the right word. I just meant “not long.”

Yeah, yeah. An example is Ice Haven. Ice Haven was originally going to be that. It was going to be all just funny little gag strips. I had done David Boring and been drawing in the same style over and over for three years, and I thought, I’m going to do one issue which is just all one- and two-page gags that have nothing to do with each other. And then it turned into something else. That was a time when I was trying to do that and it didn’t happen.

I was wondering, did you ever get any fallout from “The Young Manhood of Dan Pussey”? [This is a story in which hack superhero cartoonist Dan Pussey meets obvious parodies of various “alternative” comics figures, including a Gary Groth stand-in called Mr. Anger, who edits I Hate Comics magazine, and an Art Spiegelman-like figure named Gummo Bubbleman.]

Well, you know, it was a different era. The only fallout is something you’d hear thirdhand. But I heard a lot of negative grousing at the time and Art certainly made it clear back in those days that he had read it. [Laughter.] When the last issue of Raw came out I think he sent me one and signed it “Gummo.” Or no, he signed it, “Bubble Gummoman.” To show that he had read it but not that carefully. [Laughter.] But since then, he and I have become good friends. At the time it was certainly how I felt. I felt sort of alienated by that whole world.

The first appearance of Gummo Bubbleman, in "The Young Manhood of Dan Pussey"

The first appearance of Gummo Bubbleman, in “The Young Manhood of Dan Pussey”

Yes, you’ve talked before in interviews about how you regretted badmouthing the work of Gary Panter in your early days.

My early impressions of Gary Panter were actually based on somebody I thought was Gary Panter. [Laughter.] It was so distinctive, and then there were a couple other guys who started drawing like that, and I started looking at their stuff and sort of felt like, “Ah, I can’t stand this stuff.” Then I realized, oh wait, Gary Panter is actually really good. The guys imitating him weren’t so good.

Do you remember who they were? I don’t know if you want to even say—

There was this one guy named The Pizz, who drew in that style. I remember getting them confused for some reason.

There’s another story in Eightball where I wasn’t sure if you were making fun of Art Spiegelman or not.

[Laughs.] What?

“I Hate You Deeply”. One of the things you say you hate are people who don’t capitalize their names. And the guy in the panel is wearing a vest.

[Laughs.] You know, it was a little bit Spiegelman, but it was mostly Cat Yronwode. Cat Yronwode was the editor of Eclipse Comics, and she used to write these unbelievably irritating editorials for every issue of their comics where she would never capitalize her name and she would spell everything with the British spelling. So deeply irritating. [Laughs.] In this very self-congratulatory tone.

You also had a lot of advertisements in Eightball for various side projects and strange merchandise. Early on, you sold hand-painted “girly” ties, for example. Do you remember how many of those you ended up painting?

I was trying to figure that out recently. I know I made at least five. I know where three of them are, but god knows about the rest. I should have kept a record, but who would have thought that back then? But I was happy. That was the most money I’d ever made: selling $500 worth of ties. [Laughter.] And I would go to the AMVETS in Chicago, which was like a Salvation Army, and I learned that the best ties to get were these really sleazy ‘70s acrylic polyester ties that you could paint on really easily, so all of them are on this really creepy tie material. [Laughter.]

Did you keep any for yourself?

No. I had done one as a gift for a friend and everybody was like, oh, that is so cool, you should sell those. And I thought hey, that’s not a bad idea. I was so desperate to figure out any way to make a living at it. But the common response to that was people would send me a dollar. They thought the ad said a dollar, because they just couldn’t conceive of anything costing a hundred dollars relating to comic books. [Laughter.] And so they would say, I want one of your girly ties, and they’d send me a dollar. I would always keep the dollar and I would write a letter back explaining that I was educating them against postal fraud.

Were girly ties like that a real phenomenon or just some kind of urban legend?

It’s the kind of thing that I only know of from gag cartoons. I’ve never seen one. I think it was a thing. I think you see ‘em in the back of old issues of Adam magazine, these men’s magazines. But I can’t say I’ve ever seen a real one.

They’re mentioned in that Thomas Pynchon book, Inherent Vice.

Yeah, that’s right. I tried to make all the women look really dumpy and unattractive. [Laughter.]

In Ghost World you famously used a particular blue color scheme, which has kind of become the default coloring for a lot of graphic novels in the years since.

It’s been used a lot.

Did you see that Zippy the Pinhead strip Bill Griffith did about the “default graphic novel style?”

Yeah.

I was wondering how you felt about that.

I felt like he was just so clearly going for the full McCloud.

Oh yes, definitely. I just meant more in general, how you felt about your Ghost World colors becoming the default style.

It’s a little weird. I always feel like why? You know—pick a different color! [Laughter.] There’s a lot of good colors. But, you know, it works.

The first page of the original "Ghost World" story

The first page of the original “Ghost World” story

I was just reading the interview you did for The Comics Journal in 1992, which we recently re-published.

God, yeah. That’s not fair.

I know people don’t like it when journalists read them their old quotes, but—

Spiegelman was saying it’s like being a politician all of a sudden. “You used to be for the trade bill!”

Yeah, I’m gonna get you this time.

Yeah, “gotcha!”

There’s one part where you’re talking about Raw, and you said, “I thought that after Raw … I would be able to draw enigmatic comics that didn’t make any sense for the rest of my life and get paid for it.” And at the time of the interview you were very negative about that ever being possible.

I think I meant it in that interview at the time. I really did see Raw as what I wanted to do, and that’s why I had such a visceral feeling when I felt like I’d never be part of that world. It felt like, oh man, that’s exactly where I want to be and I will never be allowed there.

Obviously yesterday they announced that the lead actors have been cast in the Wilson movie. Is that a real deal as far as you know?

It’s a real deal, yeah.

Congratulations.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s the kind of thing— I never ever talk about anything like that, because it can fall apart at a moment’s notice. But the crew is hired and they’re all prepping in Minneapolis and all that.

I never would have thought of Woody Harrelson, but that seemed like good casting once I heard it.

Yeah, I know. I never would have thought of him either, although, if you had never heard of Woody Harrelson and you had no baggage as to who he is as an actor, if you just looked at him physically you feel like oh he’s perfect! [Laughter.] He has the face—I always wanted Wilson to be a little intimidating almost. Like he’s sort of a big, big galumphing guy. And Woody has that.

Absolutely.

And I always wanted Wilson to be exactly my age, that was one of the main things I felt. Like there’s something – everybody has a connection with people who are exactly their age. You have the same TV show references and all that. Woody is born in 1961. The greatest year in history. As was Alexander Payne.

Is Payne still involved in some capacity?

Yeah. He’s making this movie called Downsizing that he’s wanted to make for many years that involves a lot of special effects. He was waiting for the technology to get to where it could be possible. Once that happened, he shifted gears to that but he and his people—who are all incredible—are producing the film.

You wrote the screenplay. Are you involved on an ongoing basis?

No. I wrote the script and they seem to be very into following it closely. They’ve asked me for some visual references and stuff but I don’t want to have anything to do with making the movie. You have to get up too early. I don’t like to work sixteen hours a day. It’s too much pressure and it’s so boring. You just sit there all day waiting for them to set up lights and then it’s three minutes of shooting.

So Art School Confidential is probably the last one.

Yeah. There were many avenues I could have pursued where I could have maybe tried to direct a film, but the more I thought about it the more I thought, man, it’s really no fun at all. I much prefer doing comics.

Have you ever thought about writing prose? You can obviously write.

Not really. It doesn’t really appeal to me. It wouldn’t be as much fun as drawing. Whenever I’ve had to write prose I always find writing the description is really frustrating, because I think, I could just draw this. And also there’s always so much more content to a drawing than to a prose description. I feel like there’s always so much more to be done with that. Plus when you’re writing prose you’re competing against Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and it’s very difficult to do anything that would be ultimately satisfying in terms of really differentiating yourself. At best I could write a halfway decent novel. That’s all I could ever hope for and that would be quite an accomplishment.

It’s funny—a lot of young cartoonists these days seem to be using comics almost as a way to get into TV or animation.

Is that true?

I don’t know, but it sometimes seems true.

In a certain way that makes perfect sense. Hollywood still acquires properties in the way that was developed in the 1920s, basically, where it’s got to be based on an existing property. If you just come in and say, I’d like to do this movie where there’s this old guy trying to get his family back together, describing something like Wilson, they would be so not into it, they would be running from it. And if you bring in a book, it’s a book. Let’s just buy this book. It’s a very strange thing. So I actually used to advise people who would ask me how to get into movies, I would say, do a minicomic. You’d have a much better chance then than you would just walking in blind and saying here’s my idea or here’s my pitch.

So, to go back to that 1992 interview. In it, you talk about a lot about trying to rebel against your parents and—

[Laughs] Typical.

And you said it was difficult to do because they were generally pretty accepting.

Now that I look back on it, my parents were just total punks. [Laughs.] They were just such misfits. My mom still is. [Hodler laughs.] My dad too. They were hard to rebel against, for sure.

You said in the interview that the only way you could do it was through stupidity.

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. The only way I could differentiate myself from my parents was to act stupid.

You talk a lot about trying to differentiate yourself from other students in that interview, too, and to rebel against things in general even to the point that you spent a lot of time listening to John Philip Sousa.

[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know if it was rebellion or just really positioning myself against this culture that I did not feel comfortable with or part of. But now I look back on that era and there were lots of stuff that I really did respond to. I was very interested in National Lampoon and that kind of humor, that kind of smart, mean humor of the ’70s that came as a response to the kind of dull-witted hippie humor that preceded it.

I recently taught an undergraduate course on comics as literature, and one of the graphic novels I taught was Ghost World. Of all the books on the syllabus, it was easily the most divisive.

It always has been.

I was surprised by that. I thought they would be into it. At least a couple of the students were upset by the anti-hippie stance in it.

[Laughs] Really? That used to be pretty much a slam dunk. Ken Parille wrote that Dan Clowes Reader based on his experiences teaching Ghost World, and he put in this glossary that had all these things that I thought, come on, this is really kind of condescending. To explain to kids who Marilyn Monroe is. And he said, believe me, they have no idea, they don’t know. And I guess, yeah, when I was a kid my dad would talk about Carole Lombard or something and I would have no idea who you’re talking about.

Ken’s book was really helpful.

God, talk about what a great privilege, to have someone like that who pays such close attention that he points out things that I never noticed about my own work.

I don’t know if you’ll want to talk about this or not. Your next big book, Patience, is scheduled to come out from Fantagraphics next year. Is there any particular reason you’re going with them instead of Pantheon or Drawn & Quarterly?

There’s no big scandalous reason behind it at all. It’s just when you’re doing these books, I sort of envision how the book is going to look when it’s done, and somehow this just felt like it should be in the home of the people who were publishing all of the old comics, Ditko and the EC books and that Jodelle book from a couple years ago. It just felt like the right context somehow.

That’s interesting. So that’s the kind of book it is?

Yeah. I’m not sure if you read it you’d necessarily get that out of it, but that’s where it felt like to me that it needed to be. In that context. I just couldn’t shake that once I got it into my head and something about working on The Complete Eightball, it sort of felt like it was tangentially related to that. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But that certainly doesn’t mean I’ve had anything but great experiences with both Drawn & Quarterly and Pantheon.

I saw the interview you just did with Vulture where you talked about your love of Steve Ditko. You said that the Randian stuff in his work was really just on the surface and there’s more going on underneath.

Yeah, it seems like that’s the position that a lot of people who are extremely uncomfortable in the world tend to adopt. It’s a way of kind of controlling the rest of the world that might feel out of control to you. If nothing else Ditko is very much a frightened control freak, like I am in many ways. I can totally imagine becoming like that in some ways.

Nabokov, too, is one of your favorite writers, or you’ve said so before, and he is also a supreme control freak.

Yes, absolutely. That’s totally a trait of an artist that I admire I guess.

I’ve never connected those two people before.

[Laughs] I’m not sure I have either. I’m not sure there’s much beyond that.

VelvetGlove1

[Laughs] Another thing you said in ‘92 was that you were never able to plan out your stories in advance. This was back when you were creating Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Is that still true for you?

I have tried every kind of preparation for stories. I have done it where I have written the script out in advance, I have done it where I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next panel. I find now the way I like to work is just to sort of plan out very carefully the structure and the story, to have that kind of spine as I’m working, but I go on little tangents where I feel like that’s where I should go. To keep it sort of loose so I have a bit of room to experiment with.

That reminds me a little of something I’ve read about Stanley Kubrick, another artist you’ve expressed appreciation for. Apparently, he used to say that movie plots could be divided into six “submersible units” and once you figured out what they were, you could tell your story through those.

Yeah, I remember he was very keen on trying to maintain the initial inspiration that got him interested in the story in the first place. That’s something I really focus on, trying to always go back and look and make sure that I’m still engaged in the story in the way that I was when I all of a sudden felt like I had to start doing it. That’s sort of the toughest thing doing comics, especially over three or four years: trying to keep your enthusiasm at a high pitch. That’s something I really try to focus on and I think it’s sort of good advice for any artist really, to always try to keep your emotion at that level. Because once you’re phoning it in and just trying to fill those pages it becomes deadly to everyone

Have you ever felt that way working on anything?

You know, not really? Not to the extent that I just got so bogged down– Actually that’s not true. I did start a story once, I guess it was right before I did Wilson. I had it all plotted out. It was this multipart epic that I was going to spend the next three or four years on. And I drew six pages of it and it just felt like I was trying to conquer the world and do this story that I just didn’t really feel like doing. It was no fun at all. I could just envision that it would come out and it would be this kind of big book and it would have done well and all that, but it was just awful to work on. Every morning I would wake up and go, oh god, I’ve got to draw that thing. I worked on it for six months or so, just trying to start over trying to make it interesting. It never interested me. I stuck it in a drawer where it sits to this day and I can promise I will never go back and work on it again.

You’ve never looked at it since?

I mean, I see it whenever I open the drawer to get something else in there. I did one six-page story that sort of almost works as a standalone story that maybe I could find a way to run that somewhere someday, but boy…

I don’t know why I’m trying to encourage you to publish something that makes you feel that way.

It’s not that it’s a bad story, it was just that it was conceived in a way that I think was impure.

It was fun to read your pamphlet Modern Cartoonist again, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been eighteen years since you wrote it. At one point in it, you talk about comics having an “aura of unspoken truth” to them, and attribute that partly to the fact that they are held in contempt. “This aura of truthfulness that we speak of comes as a by-product of being thought of as unsophisticated and (culturally, financially) insignificant. The sophisticated and significant cartoonist can for the time being twist this to his or her advantage, ‘having it both ways,’ with the awareness that if he manages to achieve any degree of acceptance alongside the more respectable sort of creator, this not insubstantial quality will be lost forever.” I was wondering if you felt that in the time since you wrote that essay, comics had achieved a measure of respectability.

I think the slant of newspaper articles is that comics have achieved this certain respectability but it’s absolutely not true on a general mainstream level. I still to this day have never met anyone who has read my comics, just in the general populace. You know, I spend a lot of time with sort of average educated people, like the parents of my son’s friends, and they have no idea what I’m talking about when I try to tell them what I do. I always wind up sort of stammering, “Well, I wrote a movie”—well, a movie they’ve never heard of—”and I do New Yorker covers.” “Oh, wow!” That’s the one thing I can say that makes me seem legit.

There’s not even an entry point. They might have read Maus, but they see that as this historical work. That book has almost nothing to do with what I’ve done. That’s like saying to somebody, “Have you ever read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Well, I write novels about this made-up fantasy world.” It’s just a totally different thing.

[Laughs] I guess there’s Fun Home now, too, but that’s still very different from what you do.

Yeah, maybe when the play starts touring the U.S.

How much do you revise?

You know, it depends. I always think I am very spontaneous, but I was just going through a bunch of my notes and found—I think it was the last page of The Death-Ray. I rewrote it 75 times or something. It depends. Sometimes it pops right out the first time.

I find that the time I make the best corrections is while I’m lettering it. There’s something about that process that opens up this certain part of my brain that makes me see what I’m writing in a very clear light in a way that I never get any other time. There’s something about the pressure. It’s really almost like an adrenaline rush.

Are you talking about just revising the script, or the layout and the drawings as well?

Well, when I’m lettering I usually just have the drawings very loosely penciled out, and I do a lot of changing of the drawings. When I’m drawing I don’t even think of it as the actual drawing. I think, well, I’ll work on it. There’s tons of Wite-Out and paste-ups and I do a lot of stuff where I change just the corner of somebody’s mouth to make it look like they’re not quite as happy, just little tiny details like that. Just over and over. That’s the kind of thing I obsessively go back into. I could get to be one of those guys who can’t let a page leave his drawing board for twenty years, just revising it. You have to really fight that.

Are you slower now than you used to be?

I don’t think so. I think I might be even a little faster in a certain way. I mean doing the coloring on the computer, that takes a long time, and that wasn’t something I was doing back then. But I don’t know, it’s about the same. My focus is a little different. Back then, my focus was getting the inking and the lettering and the panel borders to look professional, to get it where the line quality was up to snuff. Now it’s much more on trying to get the rhythm and the pacing to work.

That reminds me of that one Ghost World chapter that was originally printed in the wrong color. It was interesting that you chose to keep that mistake in the collected version.

I tried to put in all the mistakes that were sort of acts of God. It’s a very odd process for what I put in and what I didn’t put in in the final collection. There was one issue of Eightball, I think it was number 8, where it took me so long that the price changed between the time when I actually lettered the price on the cover and when it was about to come out. Kim didn’t even think of asking me to re-letter my own cover, so he got somebody in the office to re-letter it. And it looks like I had a stroke and re-lettered it in the gurney on the way to the hospital or something. It really just looks awful to me, and every time I’d see that issue I would just cringe at the awfulness of it. So I made them go back to my original lettering with the incorrect price, just because I couldn’t bear to look at that ever again. But stuff like the orange Ghost World: that was part of it when that came out and there was something sort of great about it in a weird way. People really took that as meaningful.

I can see that. I don’t actually remember noticing it at the time.

There was only a small number of them that actually made it out.

Oh, so maybe I didn’t even see it. I’ll have to check my old issue.

Eric didn’t even know what I was talking about. [Laughs] That says it all.

This might be a hard question to answer, or there might not even be an answer, but with Eightball was there a story you did where you first felt like you knew what you were doing [Clowes laughs] and that you were doing what you wanted to be doing?

I don’t think so. I don’t think it was until later.

That’s interesting. What was it then? That would be either David Boring or Ice Haven or even later…

I think Ice Haven was the first time I felt like I was in the kind of control I always wanted to be in.

What was it about that book?

It’s not a major leap or anything, but I just look at those Eightballs and I can see the rookie mistakes shine through a little bit. There’s always something a little bit off about it, which is sort of endearing and maybe makes it stronger than it would be if I was super-confident right out of the gate. But I remember working on Ice Haven and feeling this rush of, you know, “I can do anything in comics” that I didn’t have before that.

Can you remember the last great comic you read by someone else?

I actually thought Adrian Tomine’s new Optic Nerve was pretty great. You read so few comics that are just beautifully written, where you feel confident in the writer doing exactly what he’s setting out to do. That was one where I finished it and I just went back and started it again. I haven’t done that in a very, very long time. Actually Charles Burns’s trilogy, I thought that was an absolute masterpiece and it was so neglected by the world at large. I just thought that it was just such an enormously strong piece of work in every way. We know he’s the greatest artist in the world, but to put the story together like that? That’s another one that after I finished it I went back and started with volume one and got a lot out of it.

I did the same thing. I think maybe it didn’t get as big a reaction as it should have because it required a lot of the reader. Or I mean, it’s not really that hard to read if you try, but…

No, it sort of seems more crazy and haphazard than it actually is. It feels like a book that will grow in stature as time goes on.

Are there any young cartoonists whose work you like or respond to?

I never know who’s young anymore. Everyone’s younger than me. I guess Sammy Harkham’s still pretty young. I just read the last two issues of Crickets; he’s got a story in there that I think is really good. I like Dash Shaw a lot. There are a lot of really good people out there. Lisa Hanawalt. There are also a lot of people out there who can draw really beautifully, where I’m not really engaged in their stories, but they’re a lot of fun to look at.

It sometimes seems like that’s the overriding trend in comics right now, beautiful drawings and empty stories.

I can’t tell if that’s just the result of a generation of kids who are raised with this different form of receiving media. Is it that or is it just that they’re coming out of the art world more than they used to? I don’t know, but there is something very strange about that. It doesn’t seem to be attracting people who just want to create stories and aren’t that visually oriented. You would sort of think that would be a part of the comics world that was opening up. At least I haven’t really seen that. Or they could just be doing stories I’m not very interested in.

This is maybe a silly question, but did David Letterman’s retirement mean anything to you?

I used to love the show back when it first started. I remember actually watching his morning show when I lived back in New York, but I haven’t stayed up to watch a late night show in god knows how many years. [Laughs.] Certainly when it first began it had all these great great writers who were all big comics fans, George Meyer and Eddie Gorodetsky and guys like that who were coming up with innovative hilarious stuff we just take for granted now.

And how do you feel about the so-called Golden Age of Television in general?

I’m really into a lot of the comedy stuff around. I mean, obviously, Louie is pretty much the best TV show of all time. I’m really into Silicon Valley. I really think Mike Judge is a genius in many ways. I love that movie Idiocracy; there’s something so great about the way he catalogs all kinds of stupidity in that film. And then on Silicon Valley he has got such a great sense of all the different types of assholes that we have to endure here in the Bay Area.

Judge does seem to have a sensibility sort of similar to a lot of the alternative cartoonists who came up in the ’90s.

He’s one of the very few guys who writes from a position of contempt for the world he is depicting. [laughter] There’s no love there at all. You can tell he has some affection for the main characters, because they’re kind of loser schmucks, but he doesn’t love that world and he doesn’t have any room for finding any kind of humanity in the negative characters. I admire that.

Is there any art that people would consider, um, “heart-warming” that you respond to?

Heart-warming?

Heart-warming, you know, the opposite of what you’re talking about.

[Laughs] I can’t even think of what an example would be…

Maybe Frank Capra or somebody like that?

No. I never really liked Frank Capra.

Walt Disney—

I’m trying to think of what I’ve watched with my son that I found really emotionally moving. It’s weird watching the movies I loved as a kid with my son. I’m truly, deeply moved in a way I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. We watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang recently, which I hadn’t seen since I was six or seven, and I was practically sobbing through the whole thing. It was so emotionally overwhelming, and I could see all the stuff I must have gotten out of it as a kid on an unconscious level. And my son liked it, but he was surely wondering why I was just like curled up in a ball on the couch next to him.

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