The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist

Apparently I owe Dan Clowes a much-belated thanks. That’s the first thought that came to mind as I flipped through The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, the latest in a series of cartoonist monographs published by Abrams ComicArts. (For the record the second thought was Wow, I didn’t realise Clowes was such an butt-man, but more on that later.)

This thought occurred to me about 10 minutes and 38 pages in when I came across a two-page spread featuring images from Lloyd Llewellyn, Clowes’ first comic which was affectionately known as “LLLL” to its cadre of loyal readers. The offbeat series debuted 25 years ago effectively launching the cartoonist’s career, along with, apparently, my infatuation with alternative comics. Though considered Clowes’ juvenilia today, LLLL’s cast of hopped-up 50s hipsters and jittery coffee-fuelled art was like ECT to my teenaged brain; effectively rewiring how I looked at and understood comics.

To me those seven issues of LLLL (six regular issues and a colour special) were proof positive that comics could be sleazy, exhilarating fun without the benefit of capes or cowls. Peering at these images today, in all their nervy Krigsteinian glory, made me realise how Clowes was pretty much single-handedly responsible for making me re-evaluate comics as an art form.

And he was just getting warmed up at this point.

In the quarter-century since Clowes has produced 23 issues of his renowned series Eightball, seven graphic novels (including Ghost World, Ice Haven, David Boring, Wilson and The Death-Ray) and penned several screenplays including his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Ghost World. Somehow The Art of Daniel Clowes manages to cram all of this—along with sketches, original art, photographs, personal artifacts and rare strips—into 224 utterly handsome pages.

Released to coincide with a retrospective of Clowes’ work at the Oakland Museum of California, the book makes a convincing argument to the strength and power of one of comics most successful living practitioners. It also does double-duty as an indulgent trip down memory lane, particularly for anyone old enough to remember Clowes’ early anonymous Uggly Family work on Cracked magazine.

There is a wealth of riches here and the team that assembled this book (co-editors Alvin Buenaventura and Ken Parille and designer Jonathan Bennett) are smart enough to get out of the way and let the reader experience them all organically without a fussy design or overly clever layout getting in your way.

Bennett’s design sense can be evidenced without even opening the book: just remove the dust jacket, which prominently features a meticulous black-and-white Clowes drawing of a woman, and you’re faced with a jumble of art drawn from the artist’s files including half-finished ideas and overlays—not to mention end pages decorated with remnants of Zip-A-Tone, a trademark of Clowes early career.

It’s a subtle but ingenious comment about Clowes’ artistic process and sensibility. Though his finished art is famously slick and often icy-cold, it masks an unconscious hornet’s nest of sweat-soaked neuroses and untidy thoughts (Exhibit “A” being the aforementioned repeat appearances by female derrieres). Not to mention what it says about the cartoonist’s  collector’s tendencies: I mean, who keeps used Zip-A-Tone sheets?

Crack the book further and you’ll find an engaging interview and six essays (seven if you include the introduction by George Meyer), each thoughtful, comprehensive and complementary. The centrepiece of these is undoubtedly Chris Ware’s piece about his long-time colleague and friend. Though a cartoonist by trade, Ware is also a superbly entertaining writer and this critical and personal essay does not disappoint, offering up humorous personal anecdotes, insight into Clowes’ personality (which is often interpreted as aloof) and a practically clairvoyant take on his work. The cherry-on-top is Ware’s appraisal of Wilson, which includes a tantalizing clue to the book’s enigmatic ending—one which completely eluded me.

The visual content here is equally rich and deeply satisfying. There are rare strips (including one based on a failed show Clowes pitched to HBO), thumbnails, layouts, New Yorker covers, business cards, character sketches, Christmas cards, unused OK Soda art and photos of the original “Laffin’ Spittin’ Man.” Even a hand-painted colour guide for the obscure Clowes one-pager “Needledick the Bug-Fucker” makes the cut; thank God for that.

This will sound like critical gushing, but in the end The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist manages to have it all. It’s a deliberate and exacting art book that approaches its subject with the respect he has earned. But it also serves as a comprehensive overview of the cartoonist’s life and career; one that is ensured to make Clowes’ fan-boys around the globe drool.


44 Responses to The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist

  1. llllllll says:

    …and fan-girls, too! ; )

  2. BradM says:


  3. Ken Parille says:


    Thanks for this nice review. You mention two of my favorite parts of the book: Chris Ware’s essay (my favorite essay on Clowes ever, I think), and the “Needledick” color guide.

  4. BradM says:

    No problem Ken. I really loved the book — from the moment I cracked it open, i was hooked. These kind of projects can go horribly wrong, so it was good to see it so well handled. I felt like you guys were including stuff that you knew Clowes devotees would flip for — like Needledick the Bugfucker. Hilarious.

  5. BradM says:

    And yah — i can;t imagine this book without that Ware essay. Best use of “douchebag” ever.

  6. Blake Sims says:

    I loved this book, such a great testament to Clowes’ work.

  7. idleprimate says:

    It is a gorgeous and comprehensive book. it inspired me to search out Clowes books I hadn’t gotten to. It’s really nice to go through both at the same time. I very much agree with the strange dichotomy of the cold-slick-aloof surface of the art with the swarthy-neurotic-needy emotional devastation it contains.

    utterly gratifying purchase. i recommend it to the long time fan or as an introduction.

  8. Mike Hunter says:

    Brad MacKay:

    I mean, who keeps used Zip-A-Tone sheets?


    (Fine critique, BTW!)

  9. james says:

    Yeah, I have a folder full of them too. But you can’t use them because art directors will say “what program did you use for that?” They can moire in scanning, very nastily if any little piece is set out of alignment with the others.

  10. BradM says:

    Thanks! Can yoi even buy Zip-a-Tone anymore??

  11. Ken Parille says:

    Alvin has a great sense for these kind of things. He really wanted the book to work as an image archive for people new to Clowes as well as longtime readers. And he wanted the text to provide helpful biographical, cultural, and analytical contexts for thinking about Clowe’s comics without getting in the way of the images.

  12. Jeffrey Meyer says:

    It might have been nice if the captions had indicated whether the art pictured was original art or printed work, as well as the dimensions of the pieces. I realize that the former is pretty easy to figure (especially for those familiar with Clowes and the medium in general) but the latter seems a misstep to me — and aren’t both fairly standard procedure for art books that are taken seriously? At the very least an index of sources, dates and sizes could have been included.

  13. TimR says:

    My local art store has some old “Chartpack” brand toning sheets (I think that’s what it was called.) I bought some. But they don’t work the same as the zip-a-tone I used long ago. I’d have to look at it again, but I think it wasn’t transparent (on the sheet), so you could not pre-cut it precisely and then place it on the drawing. I’m not really sure how it was ever used. But if anyone wants some, let me know…! (And/or tell me what I’m missing…)

  14. Charlie says:

    I’m pretty sure Zip-a-Tone, that particular brand, is no longer made. In one issue of Eightball, Clowes actually had an obituary notice of sorts for the end of Zip-a-Tone. He said that he didn’t like other brands and that he’d stocked up on all the Zip-a-Tone he could upon hearing the news.

    I don’t know how exactly it was used but I don’t think those Zip-a-Tone sheets shown in the book are used up, like they’re scrap now. They’ve had shapes cut out of them but there’s still more of the sheet left to cut up and use.

  15. Charlie says:

    While we’re all talking about this, can anyone tell me too what that is on the front inside cover? That fingerprint-looking pattern thing. Is is it just some sort of pattern or the backing of some sort of art product or something like that?

  16. BradM says:

    No idea. Alvin? Ken?

  17. Kim Thompson says:

    For what it’s worth, Jacques Tardi (in the big interview I just conducted with him that’s gonna be in #302, plug plug) mourns the disappearance of cut-and-paste tones too; he tells me he enjoyed the nearly sensual quality of working with it on such books as IT WAS THE WAR OF THE TRENCHES. He hasn’t worked with gray tones for about a dozen years (his last ten books have either been clean black-and-white linework or color), but his next book will feature a return to layers of gray — albeit this time done with a computer. It’s a fallen world!

  18. Jeffrey Meyer says:

    Pick your answer:

    A. Original art is identified as such.

    B. Not needed.

    C. Image date and source typically appear in captions.

  19. John Farwell says:

    there’s several (or even many) articles online on how one can ‘do’ zipatone with photoshop -and that’s one singular feature of photoshop that leaves me wishing i used it. (i must [*gulp*] confess to being one lone holdout & sticking with paint shop pro 7…)
    i’m stubborn.
    & being so, have worked around it.
    for my own purposes, PSP7’s native image file format, *.PSP serves, & i never bothered to make transparent PNG files of my ‘zipdot’ files that i use in conjunction with my fill bucket as tile files. the native PSP format is simply one step easier to having such transparent files… so, the PNG zipdot files i have made are *not* transparent. (I made them first before realizing i’d want transparency.) i use the PSP files instead.
    i post these here simply to show pattern characteristics. it ain’t rocket science, yeah, i know.
    i’ve recently longed again for zipatone & this article underscored it.
    these files are not large but rather i was playing around with already reduced images. i’ve yet to scale such patterns up to scan size… & will soon now.
    at any rate, here’s my play images:

    the zip file in the list is something i’d long ago uploaded & have yet to use it. i think such brushes as it holds may be in the photoshop brush format (as opposed to PSP7’s… i dunno if it’s even different in nature.) so i added it to the list.

    back in the day, i used zipatone made by a coupla different manufacturers, but don’t recall any that *weren’t* transparent. what a PITA that would be.

  20. C. Guzmán Cardona says:

    That’s great stuff. I’ll make sure to look into what brushes have been made for Photoshop CS5 that somewhat replicate what you’ve rather succesfully attempted here. Thanks.

  21. Hey Charlie, Instead of answering your question regarding the source for the front endpapers pattern, we’ve decided to turn it into a contest… Details to be posted sometime today at

  22. Matthias Wivel says:

    Well, he employed someone digitally to layer grey tones on the last two Nestor Burma books he did. And how correct he is: the manually applied zipatone in the first two, and War of the Trenches, is so much more vibrant.

  23. John Farwell says:

    it’s either a new trend or i’m simply noticing it now. in this example though, the guy’s apparently using a photoshop brush for the effect with a tablet with the pressure setting set for opacity:

    he reminds me of the look of craftint doubletone (that Roy Crane used to use so famously).

  24. Kim Thompson says:

    I don’t think that’s quite correct. On WAR OF THE TRENCHES he applied Zip-a-tone, yes, but I think on the first two BURMAs he used solid overlays which were then photographed and halftoned. This retains some of the liveliness of the Zip-a-tone version because of slight errors of cutting and alignment, but the tones are cleaner (except in earlier, cruddy American printings, ahem — wait ’til you see the new edition of ours coming out in June) and there’s less of an opportunity to tinker with effects like scratching or painting over some of the dots.

    As evidence, I submit an original page of TRENCHES with the Zip-a-Tone added:

    … and a page of the second BURMA book with nary a graytone in sight:

    Granted, it’s possible Tardi applied the BURMA tones only on a photostat or something.

  25. Contest posted with hint. Enter to win or check back in about a week for the answer.

  26. Charlie says:

    Ha! I just saw that. It makes me wish I had put more thought into my wording, too many “somes” with all the “something” and “some sort of.”

    I still have no idea what it is at this point but following the hint I’m going to go through the book again and see if I can work it out.

  27. Matthias Wivel says:

    Ah, I hadn’t appreciated that, thanks. Looking forward to seeing the Fanta edition of 120, Rue de la Gare!

    In any case, both methods have worked better for him than the digital grey tones in the last two Burma books. (And I seem to remember he says as much in his interview with Numa Sadoul).

  28. Jeffrey Meyer says:

    Nice to see that my response was posted out-of-order and not in “reply” where I originally posted it, no doubt related to Parille removing entirely his smug non-answers to my initial questions above, thereby eliding the entire issue, reducing my subsequent follow-up to a non sequitur, mooting the argument and insulting the person with whom you’d rather not deal.

    As for the questions I originally posted, I can’t believe you would say that dimensions of original art, in an art book, are “not needed.” Unbelievable… but just as preposterous is turning the matter of unlabeled endpapers into a silly contest. Anything to avoid admitting the book isn’t perfectly as you intended it, or that it might not meet the most basic standards of any other art book.

    Score another for Team Comix, where everyone is the last one picked and proud of it.

  29. Charlie says:

    I don’t think the book is perfect, it falls a fair way short of what I was hoping for, and I also thought Ken Parille’s comment (which I saw before) came off as curt, but giving dimensions for original art I don’t believe is “standard procedure” as you’ve suggested. I have a number of art books here from Taschen, none have dimensions listed. The $120 “definitive” Tom of Finland XXL book, for one, doesn’t include dimensions. Thinking now, it seems to me the only time you can really expect to see dimensions is when you’re dealing with million-dollar works. I don’t fault the book for not including them.

    I understand the good in dimensions though, and so I agree with you that the comment that the reply that they “not needed” was quite ridiculous. When you know a picture’s dimensions you have an understanding of whether it appears delicate because it’s greatly reduced or because it’s actually delicate. It gives you an idea of how close the line you’re seeing is to the line the artist made and it’s good just to know the size an artist is working at, there’s many benefits.

    The rest of Parille’s reply was right though, no? Original art is clearly labeled to me, as is the year and source. I really don’t know how you were missing that. What exactly were you or are you having a problem with, I’m curious?

  30. Charlie says:

    My comment from just a minute ago was in reply to this Jeffrey Meyer comment, to be clear.

  31. Kim Thompson says:

    I’m looking forward to doing 120 RUE DE LA GARE, one of my favorites which was semi-botched by iBooks (the translation wasn’t bad as I recall, but they left out a lot of text in production, leaving weird holes in the pages)… but it’ll be a while until I can get to it since I gotta do TOLBIAC first and that won’t be until 2014 at the earliest. And if I do LE CRI DU PEUPLE that might have to be the only Tardi book that year rather than our now traditional two or three because it’s a monster.

  32. Kim Thompson says:

    Oh, here’s a a preview of Tardi’s next book, drawing his father’s prison camp memoirs:

    The article is wrong, it’s not a 160-page “one shot,” it’ll be a two-volume set that will eventually total close to 400 pages. We’ll have to figure out if we want to go the Casterman route and release it as two volumes or wait and do the whole enchilada a few years down the road when it’s completed.

    I’ve read the first 42 pages and it may end up as Tardi’s masterpiece.

    And yes, it’s using computer-generated gray screens.

  33. John Farwell says:

    as far as “there’s several (or even many) articles online on how one can ‘do’ zipatone with photoshop” goes, i just found this link in one of my old paste files:

  34. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    The best solution to the zip tone crisis is indeed digital–the awesome “Manga Studio,” which supplies a vector solution to the tones, so you can change the density any time, and output them in any format/resolution. Pretty damn handy.

  35. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    Largely useless for anything else, by the way.

  36. LEWD REED says:

    Wow! Glad to hear about the additional upcoming volumes of Tardi. I have a poster adverstising a collected “Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge” from Fantagraphics (ended up being serialized in Graphic Story Monthly) of a cpl decades ago now. This wave of English translations seems to be sticking though, and what an amazingly singular body of work it is. I appreciate especially the non Adele work. Looking forward to your interview with Tardi in the next Comics Journal. Scrolling thru listings of his work in French can be a little intimidating. Thank you for leading us through his world one volume at a time.

  37. John Farwell says:

    I found it via Google. Tain’t free. It’s not even cheap, save for a $50 mini version. Man, in 12 years of using Paint Shop Pro, I haven’t been able to even afford Photoshop alone. I pretty much have always stuck with free software anyway.

    But, with all that said, what you describe sounds great!

  38. Matthias Wivel says:

    Whoa, I thought he was never going to get around to doing that book of memoirs. It’s been brewing for so long. I’m sure it’s going to be great.

    Le Cri du peuple I find to be a difficult book — I’ll be interested to see how that works with American readers.

  39. LEWD REED says:

    I would love to see a translated Le Cri du peuple, but I’m open to reading anything Tardi these days. Im hoping this series will continue for some time to provide readers with the most comprehensive selection of Tardi’s work. Definite short list of all time greats. Any plans for a collection of shorter pieces?

  40. Charlie says:

    I’ve gone through and re-read the entire book now bar for a couple of the essays and I don’t see the answer anywhere. I looked closely at every image and piece of writing, I even studied the rug and other items in the picture of Clowes’ studio and read the book’s index but still no dice!

    Has anyone claimed the prize yet?

    After my re-reading I’m also left wondering now what the inspiration for the ‘David Boring’ God is. There’s an image in the timeline from what looks like a film or TV show but no credit.

  41. Briany Najar says:

    I like to know the original dimensions of art, for the reasons you mentioned, but as we’re dealing with graphic art here, art intended for reproduction, two points occur to me:
    1. Comics never (as far as I’ve experienced) tell you the original dimensions (which is almost always larger than the final print), we can only assume it’s probably about 167% of the printed size (although I’ve heard that Clowes works even larger);
    2. As well as the original size of the images, seeing as the drawing is part of a process that includes reduction, it might be interesting, and certainly relevant to thorough appreciation of the work, to be informed of the intended size of the final printed work, i.e. the comic page.

    Creating art which is to be reduced has a set of considerations, an understanding of the process, that has to be taken onboard when rendering the “original” art, especially with line drawings. I still remember the unsettling sense of alienation that occurred in me the first time I saw one of my drawings reduced on a photocopier, like it was done by a miniature version of me, little fingers, little arms, my body transformed! And so many of the lines were too thin, so much legibility was lost. I realised I had to modify my approach to accomodate this strange mutation, stand further back or imagine my position as zoomed in to the page. The aesthetic alterations incurred are as much a part of the process as the way some paints change colour when they dry, or perhaps even the complex transformation of clay’s plastic qualities when fired in a kiln. These effects are learned, one way or another, and internalised through practise.

    So, really, both dimensions are interesting, but the dimensions of the drawing tell us something about the initial mark-making, whereas the intended print dimensions tell us about the completed artwork.
    The former is incomplete without the latter.

  42. Paul David says:

    Great stuff! I gave up comics in ’92, but one of the few things I knew I’d miss was Mr Clowes’ work (and was happy to see his art in the New Yorker later on).

  43. Bmackay says:

    A contest? Gold. And the secret can now be revealed!

  44. rusty sharp says:

    Such rage.
    It’s not like somebody swiped your rocketship drawing.

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