From the TCJ Archives

The Daniel Clowes Interview

GROTH: Well, in writing the Dan Pussey stuff, where exactly do you get your source material? Do you actually know superhero comics fans and artists?

CLOWES: Well, a lot of that came from the last couple of years of Lloyd Llewellyn. I was going to all these conventions, and you can’t help but overhear the most amazing things! The conversations I was hearing around me were just idiocy being spouted around me at all times. And I thought, “Why has nobody ever done a story about this?” The thing that never occurred to me is that I would do these stories and that the very people these stories are about would like them the most.

GROTH: How do you respond to that? Do you find that a little depressing? That they don’t get it?

CLOWES: I don’t know. I mean, I guess if somebody did a story about somebody like me, and made me seem really objectionable and not a good person, I would probably deny that this was about me.

GROTH: Well you might see it and be pissed off rather than deny it was you that was being satirized.

CLOWES: Yeah, I probably would be pissed off. Yeah, I hope that I would be pissed off and defend myself in some way. But usually people can’t see themselves in this.

GROTH: Because you really are attacking everything they are and stand for.

CLOWES: And I’m attacking 99 percent of the people in comics. And not even just comics; I mean, I’m attacking anybody who’s involved in any kind of media in America, pretty much. It applies to everything. It applies to movies and television and books and magazines and all of it. But, you know, what the hell.

GROTH: Yeah, but you get called by the media, by people in Hollywood.

CLOWES: Yeah, well, they just think it’s making fun of the nerds. That wasn’t really my intention. Although that was part of it. I mean, I wanted to be kinda mean ’cause I’m really sick of these people dominating my life. I’m sick of the whims of nerdy comic fans keeping me from making millions of dollars. ’Cause if they would use their brains at all, they would buy my comic instead of the crap they buy now. ’Cause it’s obviously superior. [laughs]

GROTH: Now you say that with a laugh, but do you mean that?

CLOWES: Well, I mean that they would be more interested in mine than they would admit to. I think there are a lot of people out there who, if they were really honest with themselves and only bought comics that they really wanted to read and that they thought might be interesting, a lot of them would buy stuff like mine and Pete’s and Chester’s and the Hernandez brothers’ and stuff like that. But I think they are so caught up in what they think comics are and what they like about the superhero stuff that comics like mine just don’t appeal to them. They just reject it as a scary idea. But I think if they were really honest with themselves they would like it. I bet a lot of these guys buy this stuff, this Todd McFarlane or whatever, and they just go home and throw it into a box, and they never look at it. When you see a 30-year-old guy buying this stuff, he can’t really be reading it — or maybe he can.

GROTH: Do you think they’re going home and reading Dostoyevsky?

CLOWES: No, I don’t think that. I think they’re going home and watching mainstream kind of movies, and they’re not so hooked up in all this genre stuff.

GROTH: Yeah, it’s possible, although mainstream movies have almost caught up with comic books in terms of sheer awfulness.

CLOWES: Well, they’re bad, but there’s not the sameness of character. Well, there is the sameness of character, but in a different way. Movies like John Hughes movies are tremendously popular, and that’s just your bland family kind of thing. But a guy like Dan Pussey might pay to see a movie like that but he wouldn’t really want a comic like that. He would want a comic about Batman, just because that’s where he’s comfortable. I have a lot of trouble figuring this out. I see this a lot.

GROTH: Well, the spectrum in movies and TV is probably from A to D, where the spectrum in comics is from A to B.

CLOWES: Or just A.

GROTH: You said that Dan Pussey symbolizes not just comics but mass media in general. Can you expand on that?

CLOWES: We just touched on it in Hollywood. It’s just that the entire structure of the media in America is not set up to produce works of greatness or even of singularity of vision. We were talking about guys like Jack Webb and Sam Fuller, and I think that the reason they might be so appealing to me is that they come from an era where they could get their vision on the screen, for what that’s worth. Most of these guys today, working in Hollywood, they’re completely co-opted from minute one, and to get anything on screen they’re having to make decisions by committee and to give the audience what it wants. And comics are just the ultimate example of that. These major companies have found this tried and true money maker, like superheroes, and they’re just sticking with it and just shoving it down our throats. They have no real reason to try anything else. What’s the point of trying to do good adult comics? It’s not going to make any more money than superheroes are. You’re going to have to change the whole structure of the whole system if you want to make that go. Why bother if you’ve got this audience built in? They don’t seem to be dying down. What’s the point?

GROTH: How do you answer a question like, “If the audience wants it, then that’s what they ought to get?” There’s no real reason for a person …

CLOWES: Well, maybe the audience doesn’t know what it wants. Maybe it wants that because that’s the only choice it’s got. If somebody’s driving down the highway and they have a choice between McDonalds or some little Mom and Pop diner that might be really good, they’ll probably go to McDonalds because they feel comfortable with it and safe with it and that’s the way we’re trained to think. And that carries over into everything. I don’t know what the solution is.

GROTH: To what extent do you buy into the proposition that the media manipulates people to a nefarious degree? How manipulative do you think the media are?

CLOWES: Very manipulative. Recently my TV broke, and I hadn’t really watched TV for about a year. I’m someone who watched a lot of TV when I was a young kid, and I was really immune to it. Going about a year without watching TV was really strange for me, ’cause I’d go to someone’s house and I’d see a commercial and I just could not believe the crassness — they’re just blatantly lying to you. And I felt like some hippie who took acid for the first time and was watching this for the first time and the veils of deceit all suddenly fell to the ground and I could see it for the first time. It’s kind of amazing to me, how can you just sit there and take this shit — it’s just yelling lies at you. It’s pretty amazing. I’m not a sociologist, I can’t go into how much that affects people, or if people were always like that and people will always go for what is comfortable and familiar rather than what is different and maybe better or worse.

GROTH: Do you think that things are simply going to continue to get worse? Is there going to be some sort of Apocalypse? I’m not sure where it’ll end, this crassness and vulgarity and stupidity.

CLOWES: I have two different tacks on it. I think a part of me thinks it really will get worse and worse until there is a handful of us mimeographing little comic books for each other. I can really envision a day where I have to work in an office and I still draw little comics and fax them to Chester Brown and then he faxes them to me and guys like Glen Bray will collect them all. And the rest of the world will just sort of be watching the same movie every day and reading some giant USA Today magazine. But then another part of me sees the idea of a comic sub-culture growing and growing to the point that there’s almost enough people within our comic subculture to support the whole thing. There would be enough people within in it to buy enough copies to support everybody who is doing things of value. It almost seems to be getting like that. I know that I would say that probably a third of my readers are cartoonists of some kind, or involved in some way.

GROTH: Maybe we can increase our audience base by opening up cartoon schools across the country. Little indoctrination camps.

CLOWES: The interest in cartooning has never waned, and it doesn’t seem to be waning now. And as people get more and more illiterate … I think people like books to some extent, they just don’t like to read, they just don’t like words. They like visuals, and so there’s going to be a place for comics, I think.

GROTH: Well, there certainly is a place for the wrong kinds of comics, maybe, but …

CLOWES: If we can just keep the form of comics alive, I really feel like that there could be a big audience for this stuff. Not a huge audience, but I feel like it could be a hundred thousand people, maybe. That would be a good start.

GROTH: Well, certainly that seems probable in theory, and of course it frustrates me more than almost anybody in the world that it hasn’t been put into practice.

CLOWES: When I talk to guys who run underground record labels, and if they have a big hit, one of their records can sell a hundred thousand copies, and it just seems to me that if they can do it …

GROTH: Comics have been, I think, just about the only art form that has thus far been impervious to expanding its base to a large intelligent readership. Esoteric music, has found an appreciative intelligent audience. Contemporary literature has, but there seems to be so many obstacles in the face of comics. I think that part of that, and we can get into this, is that there aren’t that many first rate comics being produced.

CLOWES: And that’s a vicious circle, ’cause to do that you need people who are completely committed. You know if I hadn’t lucked into all the positions that I have, in terms of not needing to work other jobs and things like that, I wonder if I could have stuck with it. It’s a tough thing to do — you’ve got to have fortune on your side. It’s easy to give up. You work full time doing this thing and getting no response from it at all; it’s very frustrating. I’ve gotten a fairly good response to the stuff I’ve done, and I know people who’ve gotten much, much less than I’ve ever gotten and they just continue to plug away. They should be saluted for that, ’cause that takes a real single-mindedness. That’s the appeal of comics too, that it’s something you can do if you’re just a guy with a piece of paper, you can do it. You don’t need funding and you don’t need a grant and you don’t need Hollywood to back you up. Therein lies its charm, I think.

There are damn few comics coming out that are worth buying. I’m a person who takes a real pleasure in going to the comic book store and actually buying a comic and coming home and reading it. For me, this is a very powerful thing, and I really enjoy it. Unfortunately, most of the comics I like only take 10 or 15 minutes to read.

GROTH: One thing that has disappointed me, considering the ’80s renaissance has been going on for 10 years now, is that so few cartoonists are doing longer works. I tend to think there are intrinsic limitations to doing short works. I think when “Velvet Glove” is collected into a graphic novel it’ll just be one hell of a much more satisfying read than one of your four-page stories, by dint of its length.

CLOWES: About halfway through the “Velvet Glove” stories I said, “I’m never ever going to do this again;” I’m going to stick to eight-page stories, because this is getting hard to keep a grasp of. I don’t really like to re-read any of my work — it makes me really self-conscious — and with the “Velvet Glove” I kind of have to. At this point, I’ve gotten so that I don’t even re-read the comics — I re-read my notes so I don’t have to look at it. It really is stifling. It’s just getting out of control. For awhile, I was going, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” And the knowledge that I could not quit was kind of frustrating. I couldn’t say, “ ‘Velvet Glove’ is over. Too bad.” People would hate me if I did that. So that was kind of frustrating for awhile. But then, as I’ve gotten more into it, I’ve gotten more ideas that could only work in a long story. If people were buying these graphic albums in Maus-like quantities and if you could do a graphic album in a year, 100-page story, and you’re going to make $35 grand or whatever, you could it do that way. But if Gilbert had waited this whole time to do his “Poison River” story and have it read in one sitting, he would have been living on nothing for three years. That’s not going to work, so it’s got to be done this way. I’m not that into these serial installments, although the timing on it is good, because I can get enough energy to do a 12-page installment and then I can rest for awhile and do other things and then I can get back into it with the same energy level, whereas if I had to do it full time I’d get burned out after 30 pages.

GROTH: So doing it as a serial in a periodical with more work is actually a blessing.

CLOWES: Yeah. Eventually, I think it will make a stronger work, but I sympathize with people trying to figure out what’s going on. Then again, it makes everybody have to buy all the back issues.

GROTH: I want to talk about “A Velvet Glove” in a little more detail, probably because I think it’s a fairly important piece of work. I just re-read them all last night, and I read it as an almost completed graphic novel.

CLOWES: Something I’ve never done, actually.

GROTH: Well, my God, let me tell you, it’s an experience.

CLOWES: I bet.

GROTH: Yeah, reading it all at once is just this really concentrated dosage.

CLOWES: I can’t imagine. I’m terrified to do that because I think I’d get so self-conscious that I’d just be paralyzed.

GROTH: You’re serious? You haven’t …

CLOWES: I haven’t read any of the chapters since I guess about the third one. I mean, I have my notes, and if I need to check on something I read my notes. And I know what’s going on. I mean, I have it pretty well memorized. I refer to it, but I can’t actually sit down and read it.

GROTH: Why is that?

CLOWES: I would get so self-conscious. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything of mine that I did in the past. I couldn’t stand it. I mean, I see all the little mistakes and little nuances that I should’ve changed. And it would just completely paralyze me. Actually, I think I’m going to have to sit and read them before I do this last chapter — to make sure I don’t let any little things slip by.

GROTH: Now, is that true of all your work, even your short pieces?

CLOWES: Oh yeah. I haven’t read any issues of Lloyd, ever. I can’t even look at them. If somebody opens them, it’s like they have a book filled with war atrocities open on the table, and I have to close my eyes and avoid it. It’s just crippling, I just don’t want to see the stuff. Someday it’ll be OK, but it’s just too close. I’m getting so I can look at the early Lloyds. I was just a boy back then!

GROTH: Right, the underage defense.

CLOWES: Yeah.

GROTH: You’re like Robert Mitchum — he’s never seen one of his own movies.

CLOWES: Yeah. That’s part of it too — once I’ve done it, I’m not really that interested in it. I got it out of my system. And it’s not going to be that entertaining for me to read. I know all the jokes; I know what’s going to happen.

GROTH: Do you ever worry about repeating yourself?

CLOWES: Oh yeah. I’m sure I have, actually. I don’t know, all artists wind up repeating themselves at some point. So I can’t worry about that too much. But a couple times actually I’ve caught myself doing that, and I’ve gone back and checked something and I realized I had an exact line of dialogue duplicated somewhere. But I’ve caught myself every time. I mean, nobody’s told me if I’ve duplicated myself.

Eightball #7 (November 1991)
Eightball #7 (November 1991)

GROTH: Well, “It’s a fallen world” I think you’ve used twice.

CLOWES: Well, yeah, that’s kind of a catch phrase. I mean, stuff like that I don’t mind.

GROTH: That’s so appropriate in almost any context.

CLOWES: Yeah. I actually got that from a Christian comic where this character’s flying over America, and he says something like, “Boy, America’s a beautiful country. All the greenery, and mountains and meadows … too bad it’s a fallen world.” And I thought that was such a cool attitude, like nothing matters, like, “Boy, I have the greatest life, with a wife and two kids and a great job. But it doesn’t matter — it’s a fallen world.”

GROTH: Well, I don’t want to ask you what “Velvet Glove” means, but can you talk generally about what you’re trying to do with it?

CLOWES: You’re getting pretty personal! [laughs]

GROTH: Well, in “Velvet Glove,” it looks to me like you’re using a detective genre structure, with the recurring motifs and repeating imagery, and clues that one has to pay attention to and keep in mind.

CLOWES: Yeah, it’s a mystery to some degree. But I’ve never really been that into mystery stories. I guess I always enjoy things with a mystery to them, until they’re solved, and then they become really disappointing.

GROTH: Exactly.

CLOWES: I guess I had trouble with the idea of writing something like that — when you know what happens at the end. It would be really hard to mystify my audience when I knew exactly what was going to happen. That seems real manipulative and contrived. So I’ve been trying to write it while keeping myself mystified as much as the readers. I mean, I’m sort of one step ahead, but I’m not really that much clearer on it than they are. I’m trying to keep myself as entertained as I hope they are. That’s the basic idea, to write and excite and entertain myself along the way.

GROTH: “Glove” is the longest thing you’ve done.

CLOWES: Oh, by far.

GROTH: Did you have the whole story in mind? Did you know how it was going to end? Did you have that in mind before the time you started it?

CLOWES: At the time I started it, I had nothing more than the first chapter. I had a whole bunch of different ways I could go — I certainly had ideas, so it wasn’t like I just did that and then if nothing had come I would have been stuck. I mean, I had a million ways I could have gone. But I really wanted to keep it wide open, and it just worked organically from there. I’ve gone back to some of the ideas I had at the beginning, but a lot of them have been completely abandoned along the way. About halfway through I started to get pretty solid ideas of what was going to happen. And I’ve been going along with a skeletal framework that I’ve come up with at that point. But other than that, I’ve really been veering off into a lot of different directions all along the way. Stuff that I never really anticipated doing. But I just finished the second-to-last episode today, so that’s all stuff I had pretty much in mind for a couple of months now. And the last issue is pretty well stuck in my head.

GROTH: So in lieu of asking you what the cosmic meaning of it is, what in general are you aiming for in it?

CLOWES: Well, on the one hand, I’m trying to step into my own subconscious and trying to see what kind of images and ideas excite me and scare me and affect me emotionally. I’m trying to find things that I have a reaction to, whether good or bad, and just trying to poke that. Like if I have some painful reaction, I’m trying to make it more painful, to go into it rather than avoid it or dull it in any way. And I’m also trying to write an honest narrative, a narrative that works by its own rules and goes under its own steam rather than thinking, “Well, this would be neat if this character did that,” and contriving things along those lines. I’m just trying to let the characters be themselves and do what they would do, and not really control them. Just let them act according to their own humanity — or lack thereof. And then, on some level, it’s kind of a social satire, a comment on the way I see the world in my bleakest moments.

GROTH: Such as the fact that you’re obviously not fond of cops.

CLOWES: I think I have a fear of authority figures, or just some kind of distrust of anybody who puts himself in any authoritarian position. But again, that’s not something I’m really that consciously aware of. It’s something I’m trying to learn about myself.

GROTH: Well, there’s definitely the sense of an ongoing nightmare about it.

CLOWES: Yeah, a lot of stuff is taken directly from dreams I’ve had. A lot of it is just daydreams, where I’ll be sitting there, and my brain gets into a subconscious state where I can just have these thoughts that are uncontrolled by common logic, and then I start to see things in a different way. It’s sort of the same thing as when you wake up from a long dream and you, for one minute, see the absurdity of the world. I mean, sometimes I’ll wake up and think, “My whole life is drawing little pictures of made up characters on pieces of paper.” It just seems so insane to me at the time. Then as I get more conscious of what I’m doing, I think, “Well that’s a legitimate thing to do, that’s OK, that’s not a bad thing.” But for that moment, it seems so absurd. I’m sort of trying to see the whole world in that light.

GROTH: Do you think the ending that you have worked out now is going to be satisfying?

CLOWES: Yeah. I’m not one of those people who are really hung up on endings. I mean, a lot of people seem to think it can make or break something, just whether the ending is good or bad, and I’ve never really felt that way. I’ve always felt that the ending was just an equal part of the story. I’ve always hated it in Hollywood action movies where the ending is simply a bigger version of the action that’s gone on before. Like the alien is a little bigger or there are 20 monsters instead of five. That just always struck me as being really a cheap way to do an ending. It’s just a buildup and a payoff, kind of like a bad orgasm. I’m not sure I really want to do that with a story like this — it has to have its own kind of ending. The ending I have, I’m pretty happy with it. But it’s certainly not a feel-good ending.

GROTH: Right. Maybe a feel-bad ending?

CLOWES: Well, not even that, I just want people to feel like this is the end of the story. I don’t want them to think, “Well, there’s all this other stuff that I want to find out about,” but I don’t really need to resolve every little mystery I’ve raised. A lot of them shouldn’t be resolved. I mean, that’s the whole point of a lot of mysteries — that they will always be mysteries.

GROTH: Yeah, with “Human Diastrophism” there was a sense of finality, of closure, but certainly not the sense that things were resolved. In fact, quite the opposite.

CLOWES: Right. I’d like to get across the idea that people can make up their own solutions for a lot of things, and by other information given in the book, they could figure out fairly well at least what I had in mind, and then maybe add stuff from their own imagination or however they see it. I’d like for them to sort of play a part in it.

GROTH: Do you get sick of being compared to David Lynch?

CLOWES: [laughs] Oh, yeah. I really like Eraserhead. I think it’s a really good movie. And then everything after that has its good points and bad points, and I think the stuff he’s done the last couple of years is really abominable.

GROTH: Yeah. Did you watch Twin Peaks?

CLOWES: I watched the first two episodes, and then I missed the third one, and then I tried to watch the fourth one, and I was so disinterested that I just never tried again. I don’t know, I can see a certain similarity there.

GROTH: Yeah, well especially with Eraserhead, because there’s so much dream imagery there.

CLOWES: Yeah, I was certainly affected by that when I first saw it. It made me go out and see other films like that. I saw a lot of experimental films after that.

GROTH: Were there any authors that influenced your writing “Velvet Glove”?

CLOWES: No, not really. I hear comparisons with people like Borges, Kafka …

GROTH: Maybe Burroughs?

CLOWES: Yeah, Burroughs. I don’t know — not really. I would say I was more influenced by satirists and guys like Terry Southern, because that was the kind of stuff I was reading more when I first started, and I was really into the idea of this ultra-black comedy about American culture. And it might have gotten away from me after I started, but that was really more the idea I had in mind.

GROTH: You must like Dr. Strangelove?

CLOWES: Oh yeah, that’s one of my favorite movies.

GROTH: The “Velvet Glove” ends in #10.

CLOWES: Yeah, the next one.

GROTH: Are you planning another long serial, or are you just going to take a break from that and do one later? Do you have anything in mind?

CLOWES: I keep waffling on that because I have a bunch of ideas that could possibly coalesce into a major story; they could all work together as elements of a big story, or I could make them all into individual stories, or I could combine them into shorter stories. So I don’t really know what my feeling is on it. I really like the idea of doing these longer narratives.

GROTH: Well, it should be tempting to organize all that.

CLOWES: It is really tempting. The temptation is to do some really major work out of it. You think of a guy like Robert Crumb who has done so much incredible work that you would never think of anything as being his “magnum opus.” I mean, I guess it would be the “Whiteman Meets Bigfoot” story. I think that was about 30 pages. That’s probably the longest thing he ever did.

GROTH: I’ve talked to Crumb about just that, and I actually, at one point, encouraged him to do a longer work, and he just said he absolutely could not do it.

CLOWES: Well, it’s a tough thing; I can see that. And there’s a real appeal in getting something done and then starting something new. You really have a clean slate every time you start a new story. I mean, I’ve got to say I’m really kind of getting bogged down by the art style of the “Velvet Glove” story, because it started out being as realistic as I could get it. And now I think I’m better at drawing than when I started, so I have to almost tone down some of the stuff so it doesn’t look so much better than the first couple of chapters.

GROTH: I was going to ask you about that, because you’ve been doing “Velvet Glove” for two years. I wanted to ask you how your technique has evolved and what you might have had to do to conform to your earlier look.

CLOWES: Well, luckily, I spent six months doing the first Eightball. I spent an extraordinarily long amount of time since there was no real deadline on it. I put a lot of work into it and really worked out a lot of the drawing. So it’s not so bad. And then the second one I have a few problems with, but it’s not too bad. And what I’ve basically done is just simplified things a little from what I could be doing. But it’s also just this style I selected in the beginning. It’s not something I’m really that into any more. Like, all the proportions are accurate, and I’m more into exaggerating things at this point. So, with anything I do after this, I would think about what style I’m going to do throughout the whole thing, or even figure out a way where it doesn’t even have to be the same style.

GROTH: Do you think you would ever do what Gilbert and Jaime have done, which is go back and add pages and change work?

CLOWES: I have some problems with doing that, just because I think that once I got started, I would wind up re-doing entire pages.

GROTH: [laughs] Which would be bad.

CLOWES: Yeah. I mean, there are a couple of panels that really make me cringe when I see them, so I would be inclined to just re-draw a few faces. There are things that are just personal things where I have problems with the way I drew folds on a guy’s pair of pants. There are a few little mistakes I made along the way.

GROTH: Can you talk a little about the evolution of your drawing style? For example, you have a very meticulous line. It looks like a very painstaking line. I don’t know if that’s in fact true …

CLOWES: I was looking through some old stuff I did while I was still in college the other day, and I was thinking about when I was about 21 — right before I was about to graduate from college, I guess. I abandoned the style I had always drawn in all my life, which was a more illustratorly style, almost a Wally Wood style, if he was a magazine illustrator. It was very tonal and painterly in its own way. And I really wasn’t that good at that style; I was kind of faking my way through it. I knew a lot of the techniques, but I didn’t really, really know what I was doing. A lot of it was tricks I had learned from other illustrators. And I just threw that all away, and I decided I would draw on just bristol board with a rapidograph, just keep it as simple as I possibly could, and just concentrate on the idea, just use flat color, and stuff like that. So I just began anew at this point, and really built up everything from then on. It sort of went from drawing these linear figures to trying to learn figure drawing and learning how to actually draw figures correctly and then adding things like lighting and tones and staging and camera angles and things like that. And once I felt like I’d mastered one element, I’d add another. I don’t feel like I’m all the way there, but I feel like I’m getting there, to this goal I’ve set for myself. But it would have been about 10 years ago that I started doing that.

GROTH: When you lay out a page, do you pay close attention to composition?

CLOWES: Well, I’m more concerned with the flow of the story and with getting the action between the characters rather than making an interesting composition. I want it to be eye-catching and for you to be able to read it. But I’m not really concerned with doing something that is like an old DC comic that has these really weird layouts. Somebody told me there is one artist who would get his friend to draw scribbles all over the page, and he’d work the composition out of that. You know, that kind of thing, where it’s just like they’re lazy or they’re bored, and that’s what they’re trying to do with it. And I’m really trying to create a spark in between the panels, like from one panel to the next, I want there to be a click, for you to feel some kind of a movement or a time being elapsed, or just something going on where that has a meaning, that they’re two adjacent panels rather than just a storyboard.

GROTH: When you write something like “Velvet Glove,” do you write the script out first and then draw it? How organic is it?

CLOWES: With “Velvet Glove,” I pretty much have it all in my head by the time I sit down to do it. A lot of the process of doing comics is very mindless, like doing stuff like lettering and inking. You’re using a certain part of your brain, but you’re really not using the right side of your brain at all. It’s very technical. So I tend to daydream a lot, figure out what’s going to be happening, and that’s sort of what I’m thinking the whole time. So by the time I get started, I usually have everything all in my head, and it’s just a matter of making the panels work out. So instead of layouts, what I’ll do is just write down each panel and then divide that into pages. That’s really all I do. And then when I actually draw it, I just draw it right on the paper the first time.

GROTH: And, in a way, you’re writing it right on the paper, too.

CLOWES: Yeah, usually I write all the dialogue page by page. That’s the process: I write the dialogue, then I letter it, then I pencil it, then I ink it.

GROTH: How much do you re-write? When it’s on the board, is that the way it is? Or do you fiddle with it?

CLOWES: I try not to fiddle with it too much. I used to fiddle with it an awful lot. Like with Lloyd, I used to fiddle with it constantly. And I’d always, 99 percent of the time, go back to what I had originally. At least dialogue-wise, I find that’s the best way to go. You don’t want to get too precious with it — these are comic books! [laughter] So it’s important to get it across very directly and spontaneously, but you don’t want characters to start talking like they’re being scripted. A lot of times, if you read plays in book form, the dialogue always sounds so scripted by the playwright; it never sounds like real people saying it. I guess it takes the skill of the actors to make it sound like it’s real people speaking. But in comics, you’re hearing your own voice read it, so it’s good to have some awkwardness to it.

GROTH: How much re-drawing do you do once you’ve penciled it? Do you erase and re-compose panels much?

CLOWES: No, not too much. I spend a good amount of time figuring it out before I actually put the lines down on paper. Every once in a while I’ll realize I’ve made a major mistake and I’ll just have to completely redo it. But I don’t really alter stuff that much.

GROTH: Is the way you work on “Velvet Glove” the way you work on shorter pieces?

CLOWES: Yeah, for the most part. A lot of that stuff I’ll get an idea for and I’ll just sit down one night and do the whole story in layout form, with the captions and everything just to see if it’s any good. So sometimes during those stories I’m just copying right out of my sketchbook, sort of transposing the whole thing onto paper, so it’s not quite as spontaneous.

GROTH: This is going to be a virtually impossible question to answer — the best kind — but do you have any idea how you impose an originality on your work? In other words, everyone is influenced by hundreds of people. And yet, you find most people are so completely derivative of other people, you can just trace their influences like horse droppings, you know? There is only a handful of people who are really original, but in whom you can also see their influences. How do you impose that original vision on your work? Is it a matter of consciously trying to wipe out the more obvious stylistic influences? Do you have to do that?

CLOWES: No, I don’t think you can do that; I don’t think that will work. In my case, I very consciously try to make my own observations of real life and where to draw from, from real people and things that I really see and hear, and I try not to be influenced by, not so much even other cartoonists, but just by the way people think and create art in general. I mean, you can see why anybody thinks they can write comic books or write TV shows or something, because most of them are of the quality that anybody could do. And there are certain formulas that, you know, the average kid has seen in three zillion sitcoms or cop shows during their life, so they know the formula as well as anybody else. And just about anybody could sit down and write a pretty decent potboiler kind of cop show or stupid comedy show. So I try to make a real effort to see things in my way and be honest to my own observations. I mean, a lot of this stuff I’ve done, I had no idea if anybody was going to have any idea of what I was talking about. And I’m very gratified that I’ve gotten some response to this stuff, because every once in a while I’ll do something and think, “OK, this is the one that nobody in the world is going to get. But I’m just doing this to amuse myself.” And then I’ll get a huge response on it. Like in the last issue I did that story, “Nature Boy.” That was just a dream I had one night that had this real profound effect on me — I kept thinking about it all week. It was the only dream I’ve ever had that really had a plot, and a beginning and a middle and an end to it. And I had absolutely no idea what it meant, except that it just stuck with me so vividly that I thought, “I’ve just got to do this and it will be fun and it will only be three pages, so if people don’t like it, it won’t really bother me.” But I’ve gotten a huge response for that — people say they want to see more of it, and they want to see that character again, and what happens next?

Eightball #8 (May 1992)
Eightball #8 (May 1992)

GROTH: Better get dreaming!

CLOWES: Yeah.

GROTH: It seems to me like one of the secrets of good writing and drawing is almost to banish from your mind all the media crap that you just filter in day in and day out, because otherwise you start feeding on clichés.

CLOWES: Yeah, if you can start seeing that stuff as just this weird backdrop to the world, just this sound that’s endlessly going on that is really meaningless, that helps a lot.

GROTH: Yeah, what scares me is the possibility that if life imitates media, what you see in the media, which has nothing to do with life, is eventually going to be what life is.

CLOWES: Yeah, I find that as a problem when I try to do work about the way the world is. That’s kind of the way it is — it’s based on your immediate impressions of the world. And I have to deal with it; I have to create characters that are themselves based on archetypes that they don’t even understand.

GROTH: Let me ask you a few questions about Dan Pussey. Obviously this was born out of real hatred.

CLOWES: [laughs] Well, not only hatred.

GROTH: Yeah?

CLOWES: Well, it’s sort of a post-cautionary tale to myself, like I’m wiping my brow and saying, “Whew! Thank God this isn’t me!” I think when I was about 15 or 16, if somebody had come to me and said, “We’d love for you to draw Marvel Comics,” I probably would have done it. And it scares the shit out of me to think what could have happened to me had I done it.

GROTH: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.

CLOWES: Of course, I’d like to think that I would have done it until I was 17 and then said, “This is ridiculous,” and gone on to pursue whatever I was doing at the time. But one little part of me says, “No, I would have loved this,” and I couldn’t have turned down the money, and it would have changed my life, and I would now be drawing the Hulk or something.

GROTH: Right. And be a millionaire.

CLOWES: Right, exactly. No, I’d be one of the embittered old guys, like Don Heck.

GROTH: Of course, today’s generation won’t be embittered because they’ll just be rich old guys.

CLOWES: Yeah, all those guys, all these hot-shot guys, Todd McFarlane guys, you know they’re not even going to be involved in comics by the time they’re 35 — they’re going to be living in La Costa, sitting next to the pool. They won’t even remember comics. It will be such a weird footnote in the history of comics. Somebody will have a list of all the comics creators who made the most money in the history of comics, and it will be all these people nobody’s ever heard of or seen their work. None of this stuff is going to be remembered, I would hope.

GROTH: Well, one never knows.

CLOWES: One never knows. I haven’t really looked at it, so I’m not really fit to comment on it. I saw the panel they printed in the Journal of the thing from Youngblood, and I hope it doesn’t all look like that!

GROTH: Some of it is worse.

CLOWES: If it was really that bad, I’d almost go out and buy it, just ’cause I’d find it interesting, but …

GROTH: Right. There will be few things as bad as this. Well, let me ask you this: in the Doctor Infinity story that was in issue #6, how much of your satire was based upon what you consider to be an accurate portrayal of the history of comics?

CLOWES: The whole thing. I mean, I don’t think I exaggerated anything. I may have changed stories — I had the story with Doctor Infinity making the inker guy kiss his foot. But I’ve heard stuff that’s pretty similar to that, that’s equally degrading. They’re still doing stuff to that degree. I think I didn’t got far enough — I guess I didn’t want to go too far because I thought people would read it and go, “Oh, it can’t be this bad!”

Eightball #1 (August 1989)
Eightball #1 (August 1989)

Like with the first Dr. Infinity story, the first Dan Pussey story, I have the thing where they’re all living in bunk beds in the back of the studio and he gets them Big Macs for breakfast. And I was talking with some guy at a convention not long after that, and he said, “Is this based on … ” I don’t want to say the name of the company because I’m not sure if I got it right. I can’t really remember it, but it was one of the fly-by-night black-and-white companies that were popping up around that time, like all the ones under the Malibu heading. But apparently, one of these companies did exactly that: there was some guy who rounded up runaway kids and had them doing his inking, and basically made up this bullpen of street derelicts. And when I made that up, I thought, “OK, I’m going a little overboard; this is outrageous. But it’s sort of a parable; it’s not meant to be taken as the literal truth.” But as it turns out, the reality is much worse!

GROTH: Right. I literally heard a story today in the office about a publisher out there who’s paying the artist five dollars a page!

CLOWES: Oh, Jesus.

GROTH: Yeah, I’m not sure what context I heard this; I just overheard it from the next office.

CLOWES: I’m using paper that costs more than that.

GROTH: [laughs] Well, they probably are too! I just interviewed Joe Kubert a week and a half ago …

CLOWES: He has the firmest handshake in comics.

GROTH: [laughs] He was giving me a lot of interesting information about what it was like around 1940 when he was a teenager doing comics in what were basically sweatshops and so on. Do you take the standard line that that was just pure exploitation?

CLOWES: Well, it seems like that to me. When I first did the Dr. Infinity story, I had just read that book The Dreamer by Will Eisner, and he really sugar-coated the whole thing. Of course, he was the guy who made a couple million dollars off of that era, so it was a happy time for him. But it struck me as being a truly miserable, horrible, demeaning thing to be a cartoonist in those times, a comic book artist, anyway. So until I hear otherwise, I will think of it as being like that. Not that it got any better later on. There were moments of coolness, like the EC stuff. They were paying good rates and letting artists sign their work and things like that.

GROTH: Exactly, but that was sort of an oasis.

CLOWES: Right. For the most part, the comic business was a truly miserable thing. I had a teacher when I was at Pratt who was a comic artist in the ’40s, I guess. I think he worked for Marvel, and I was fascinated by this, but to him it was just the low point of his life and he hadn’t even signed his work, and he had been completely embarrassed to have had to have done this. He talked about doing it as though he had done something like painting girlie ties or something really degrading, something completely embarrassing.

GROTH: Well, conditions for the artists have certainly improved over the last 10, 15 years.

CLOWES: I was kind of wondering that. Do the average Marvel guys make a lot of money? I mean, I can’t really figure it.

GROTH: I don’t know how to define “a lot” — I think the average Marvel artist could make $50,000 a year.

CLOWES: Well, see, that’s good money.

GROTH: Yeah, I think that’s a good living.

CLOWES: Yeah, I’d take it.

GROTH: So would I. But you know, of course, there are a handful of people who make hundreds of thousands.

CLOWES: Yeah, I’m not talking about those guys. But just the average hack that you don’t really hear too much about but makes his deadlines …

GROTH: Yeah, and cranks it out on a monthly schedule, you’d think could probably make 50 grand a year.

CLOWES: When I first became more aware of comics, like in the mid-’80s, I think I had the idea at that point that those guys were really not making much money at all. And I really couldn’t understand what they were thinking. Was it really fun for them to do this, or what?

GROTH: The more I look into the history of comics, the more I see that a number of artists were actually making some decent money, although I think the rank-and-filers were probably not. I think Jack Kirby made a healthy income. I don’t think he got rich, but I think he made a nice middle-class income in comics, which is not to say that Marvel Comics, the corporation, didn’t made a whole hell of a lot more. But I think a lot of artists made good middle-class incomes. I’m not sure if that started in the ’60s and there was less money to go around in the ’40s and ’50s or what, exactly. I’m not sure if conditions improved gradually or with a quantum leap in the ’60s and ’70s. But now that there are creators’ rights, people at Marvel and DC are doing quite well. That’s certainly an advance we should all be thankful for.

CLOWES: Yeah, well I’m happy for them.

GROTH: Let me ask you about what your feelings are in terms of the contemporary comic scene. It’s a really weird period.

CLOWES: It started getting weird when I first started, and it’s just gotten weirder all the time. So it’s hard to say what’s going to happen.

GROTH: [laughs] It will probably just continue to get weirder.

CLOWES: Actually, the weirdest thing to me is that Eightball is doing well.

GROTH: Well, yeah, that’s pretty weird too.

CLOWES: I mean the fact that Hate and Eightball are doing well right now is such a huge anomaly to the rest of the scene that it throws everything off. I mean, if they were doing poorly, I could sort of figure out the whole thing. That really throws a monkey wrench into all my theories about …

GROTH: Your world view?

CLOWES: Yeah!

GROTH: I think tenacity has a lot to do with it. I mean, you and Pete both stuck it out for quite a while.

CLOWES: Yeah, we’ve been willing to degrade ourselves for years.

GROTH: There are very few books that are doing as well as Hate or Eightball. You could probably list them on the fingers on one hand.

CLOWES: I also don’t want to give the impression to everybody that we’re doing that well. Because on the distributors’ monthly list of comics sales, we’re still only 230th out of 500 comics or something. We’re in the upper half, but there are still 229 horrible comics in front of ours. I have people writing me letters and saying, “Now that you’re a big shot … “ and they kind of assume that I’m driving a Cadillac and living in a Malibu beach house or something. I mean, we’re only doing well compared to ones that are only selling 2,000 copies! I like to think there are a lot more readers out there that would be thrilled to groove to our stuff.

GROTH: It certainly seems to be the case in the comics market. I’m not sure if the comics market has gotten more insular in the last few years, or less. I certainly wouldn’t make an argument that it’s gotten more broad-minded.

CLOWES: No, it seems to me that there’s been another crowd developing. And those are the guys who read our stuff. And these are guys who came more out of rock and roll and the underground press and underground music, and they tie more into the underground element of it, rather than the comics element of it.

GROTH: I think you’re right. In fact, I think that market might be emerging more and more — it’s the disenchanted, political, alternative music …

CLOWES: Yeah, these are college kids and disenfranchised teenagers — basically what we were 10 years ago. That’s who I get letters from; I don’t really get letters from guys who say, “I really enjoy The Hulk and also Eightball is good … “

GROTH: Yeah, if you start looking for consistency you’re going to be disappointed. I remember years ago the Bros, and I were on a panel and somebody got up and said he thought Love & Rockets was just one of the great alternative comics, and his other favorite “alternative” comic was Ms. Tree, and all of our jaws dropped to the ground. We didn’t know what to make of this.

CLOWES: Who knows? But right now it’s really hard to say if this audience can be wooed and cultivated or what. I have a friend who works for an independent record label. And I asked him what is a hit record on your record label? And he said, “Well, you know, a pretty good selling semi-hit on the alternative music scene would be something that sells, like, 25-30,000 copies.” But a lot of them would sell upwards of 50-, 60-, 70,000 copies. And this is a band nobody’s ever heard of outside of this scene. So I figure if a band can sell 60,000 copies within this kind of crowd, I don’t see why we can’t do that.

GROTH: Yeah, I hear numbers like that and I turn green.

CLOWES: Because we’re talking about a $2 item as compared to a $13 CD.

GROTH: Well, I think this is once again a case where all the crap the mainstream comics put out actually hurts quality work, because it gives comics an image of brain-dead garbage …

CLOWES: Oh yeah, that’s where all the hatred of the Dan Pussey stuff comes out of. I have nothing against superheroes or anything like that, any genre. I have no real ill feelings about it except for the fact that it dominates people’s minds; it poisons the whole market for the rest of us.

GROTH: Give me a psychological profile of Dan Pussey.

CLOWES: It’s a character that you don’t really see anywhere. In movies they’ll have a nerd character, but he’s generally a smart, well-meaning guy who just dresses funny. Dan Pussey is basically a guy who just has no scope or range to his thought at all. He’s trapped in these adolescent fantasies, and he just can’t see beyond it — or doesn’t want to. He’s basically the ultimate coward. I mean, that’s the way these guys strike me, that they’re afraid to see anything beyond this comfortable little world. This whole superhero fantasy thing is very comfortable; it’s easy to accept the parameters of it. These guys get so upset when Marvel changes around their “universe” because they’ve grown to accept this as a reality that they live in. A lot of times I’ll meet somebody who’s a comic fan whom I’ll meet socially through one of my girlfriend’s friends or something, and they’ll be into superhero comics. And I’ll say I do Eightball, and explain what it is, and they’ll say, “Well, I only like the realistic comics. I don’t like the humor comics.” And I always find it interesting that they are so entrenched in this fantasy world that they see that as reality. Whereas, I’m doing a comic that I think is pretty well-rooted in actual reality. They see that as some kind of frivolous thing that is outside their realm.

GROTH: Yeah, well, I guess you’re also talking about a profound lack of imagination. Literal-mindedness.

CLOWES: But I also find there’s a sense in America of an importance with things being official, and that they have to belong to a certain world that is called official by someone else. I don’t really have it that well thought out, but it’s like, people would go to watch a major league baseball game, but they wouldn’t go to watch the second-rate players play in some pick-up game. That wouldn’t be interesting to them at all, because it’s not official — it’s not major league baseball. It’s something other than that, even though they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference at all between the quality of play involved in it. It seems to be that way with Marvel Comics; people will buy anything with the Marvel Comics logo on it, because it’s part of some universe that they accept as being something that is a real thing — it has stood the test of time, it is accepted by others as being the real thing. But anything outside of that is just unimportant. Frivolous.

GROTH: It’s part and parcel of the conformist culture.

CLOWES: Yeah, it’s like third-party candidates. Nobody’s going to pay any attention to the libertarian candidate because the press doesn’t talk about it. I mean, Perot was able to buy some press and so he got talked about, he became official. Anybody else out there didn’t have a chance.

GROTH: So tell me how you came upon writing “The Young Manhood of Dan Pussey”?

CLOWES: That’s the Raw one? I never get the titles right. I guess it …

GROTH: You and Drew [Friedman] draw the best Art Spiegelman ever.

Eightball #3 (June 1990)
Eightball #3 (June 1990)

CLOWES: [laughs] Which is funny, because I really didn’t even know what he looked like. I was basing it on Drew’s drawings — I never actually met him. I guess I had been to his class, but I didn’t really remember what he looked like.

I guess I just wanted to throw the old social critic thing on everybody. I didn’t want to just pick on the easy targets. I felt like the first story I was picking on a pretty easy target, although a very deserving one. And I figured I may as well turn it on the hand that feeds me and see what happens.

I have a lot of trouble with the earlier issues of Raw — they left me cold. I mean, I wouldn’t want anybody to think of that stuff as being anywhere near as bad as mainstream comics, but I still had some problems with it and I felt it was a little self-consciously arty. I really think the last couple of issues were pretty amazing, like he seemed to have developed an editorship more in line with my own taste anyway, where everything seemed to have a solid narrative to it.

GROTH: Well, I think the smaller size forced him to accept stories and submissions that had strong narratives.

CLOWES: Yeah, and I think the larger size added a pretentiousness to the more meaningless pieces. That really grated on my nerves. With the smaller stuff, I think, you can throw in stuff that’s more experimental and it doesn’t seem like it’s dominating a good chunk of the issue. Plus, part of the whole appeal of the story was plugging a guy with Dan Pussey’s sensibilities into this other world of comics. I was really trying to deal with the idea that there are two distinct comic businesses out there that really have nothing at all to do with each other. A guy like Art Spiegelman wouldn’t understand a guy like Dan Pussey, and vice versa. I mean, they are completely unrelated.

GROTH: Do you know any mainstream artists?

CLOWES: Not very well. I know some guys that I talk to at conventions, but I don’t see anybody socially. There are guys in Chicago that I know pretty well, but I don’t hang out with them or anything.

GROTH: I was curious if you spent a lot of time with any.

CLOWES: No, not really. I mean, it’s kind of uncomfortable for me to be around most of these guys, because eventually the topic of discussion always gets around to, “What the fuck are you doing with your life?!” I mean, either one of us could be asking that question to the other. It’s a fundamental difference that you can’t reconcile.

GROTH: But it’s interesting in that a lot of mainstream artists who just draw what looks like generic sludge to us really love stuff like Eightball and Hate and Love & Rockets.

CLOWES: Yeah, I think that’s probably true.

GROTH: I always find it a little odd that they would like it as much as they say they do. You’d think that they might want to do something of an equivalent nature in their own work.

CLOWES: Yeah, well, not everybody is cut out to do that kind of stuff. A lot of these guys are not writers. I mean, if they’re artists, they’re not necessarily equipped to do writing. They’re just people who can draw. Or, in some cases, just guys who can ink or letter or whatever. And it would just be their own limitations that would keep them from doing it.

But I remember when I first started doing stuff, I would talk to some of these guys, and they would say, “Yeah, as soon as I finish this latest issue of Iron Man, I’m going to do some of my own stuff and do a book for Fantagraphics,” like they thought it was just a given that anybody could do it. I mean, I found that insulting, like I was this minor-leaguer who was not able to work for Marvel Comics so I had to do my own lackey stuff and I got by just by being different or something. That was kind of the insinuation.

GROTH: As if it were just an accident of nature?

CLOWES: Yeah. Like anybody could do it once they were “pros.” But I find it really strange that these guys are so into our comics. Then again I can’t blame them for not wanting to read more superhero comics after drawing that stuff all day.

I’ve had some of these guys call me up looking to buy art, and on the phone you can hear their kids screaming in the background. You can just imagine they’ve gotten themselves into situations where they have to make a lot of money. And if I had been stuck in that situation a couple of years ago, there’s no way I could have done Eightball. I like to think I would have gone into commercial art or something a little better than superhero comics! But God knows, I might be inking Thor right now if it weren’t for birth control.

GROTH: Thank God for birth control. Yeah, it’s my impression that a lot of these guys are just really thrilled to be doing what they’re doing.

CLOWES: Well, it’s like one of those dream jobs when you’re a kid. It’s like being a baseball pro or a fireman or something.

GROTH: I remember talking to Crumb on a panel. He was talking about mainstream comics creators as if they were forced into this slavery, and I said that I thought that they actually like to do this, and he just looked at me incredulously …

CLOWES: A lot of these guys look pretty damn shell-shocked to me. I wouldn’t trade places with any of these guys for all the money in the world! I can’t imagine the burden of waking up and knowing that you had to draw three pages of some mindless superhero thing.

GROTH: Well, when you read our interview with Todd McFarlane — he lives for the moment.

CLOWES: But in the back of his mind, he knows he could just quit and he’d still have $20 million to fall back on.

GROTH: Yeah, there’s definitely a limitless financial security, which must be quite comforting. But on the other hand, if you ask him if there is anything in the world he would want to do, he would tell you comic book fight scenes.

CLOWES: Yeah. Hell, what can you say, you know? God bless him.

GROTH: I think you’re going to have to do another Dan Pussey story after you read his interview.

CLOWES: [laughs] OK! I suppose one of these days I should get around to looking at one of his comics, but …

GROTH: Well, that’s probably an unnecessary torture.

CLOWES: That’s what I assumed. Somebody showed me one of these guys, either him or Jim Lee, and it just looked like every other super hero comic to me. Actually Sung [Koo, proprietor of Halley’s Comics] had a theory about it. I was asking him, why are these specific guys so popular among the kids? Sung works at a comic store, so I figured he’d have a good angle on it. And what he said seemed to make a lot of sense: it’s not that they’re especially good artists, but they’re just a little bit better than the kids who read them. So the kids can understand how it’s drawn and they can understand why it’s good and they have a complete understanding of what’s going on. They think, “I could do this in a few years, but this guy’s better than me.” It’s sort of like they’re good high school artists. Whereas, if they saw a really slick Marvel guy, some old-timer guy like a Don Heck kind of guy, his style would be more remote to them. They wouldn’t know how he made such perfect lines; there would be a professionalism to it that they knew was beyond them. These other guys have this immediacy and amateurishness that’s appealing to them somehow. But I’m going on somebody else’s point; I’ve never actually seen their work, so I don’t know.

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