From the TCJ Archives

The Daniel Clowes Interview

GROTH: Can you talk about some of the artists that you follow and like in comics today?

CLOWES: Yeah, probably the same old guys.

GROTH: Yeah, the usual suspects.

CLOWES: Yeah, I just read Drew Friedman’s interview today, and it’s all just the same guys that he likes. Cross me off the list. You know, the Bros, and Peter Bagge, and Chester and all those guys.

GROTH: Let me see if I can come up with a couple of names that might be a little unusual … Do you like Matt Groening’s work?

CLOWES: Yeah. I think it’s funny. I think maybe he should’ve stopped doing the strip when he started doing The Simpsons, because — I don’t know if this is the case or not — but I just always have this feeling like, he can’t possibly have time to do this strip, and I always imagine him playing this whole mind game with himself, like, “People would be angry with me and think of me as a sellout if I stopped doing the strip, so I’m going to keep doing it.” But I always imagine that he just doesn’t have the time and that he wishes he could get out of it somehow. Somehow that hampers my enjoyment of it. But I don’t know if that’s the case or not. But yeah, I think he’s a funny guy. And out of anything I’ve seen on TV in the last five years, I think The Simpsons is actually pretty funny, all in all. Although it’s only funny for a TV show.

GROTH: How would you compare the quality of The Simpsons with the quality of Matt’s strip?

CLOWES: I think the early strips are a million times better. But as I say, when people say The Simpsons are funny for TV, I think that’s true, but I also think it’s unfortunate. You shouldn’t have to qualify something — I mean, you don’t say, “Peter Bagge’s Hate is funny for a comic book.”

GROTH: Exactly. How about Lynda Barry? Do you follow her stuff?

CLOWES: I like her stuff to some extent. She has some skills that I admire. I think she’s really good at writing that child’s voice; you really hear that as being a real child. She’s got a real knack for those speech patterns. But I can only take it for so long, and then it gets on my nerves to such a degree that I can’t read it anymore. I mean, it’s just too much of the same thing. I’d like to see her do something different. But I think she’s funny.

GROTH: Did you read her strip in Raw? It’s basically a longer version of what she does in her weekly strip.

CLOWES: Yeah, it’s kind of playing the same variation over and over with a few little things added. Her drawing style kind of grosses me out, too. It’s kind of cutesy.

GROTH: Well, here’s a tough one: Are you familiar with Ben Katchor?

CLOWES: Yeah.

GROTH: What do you think of his stuff?

CLOWES: I like his stuff a lot.

GROTH: Did you read the book?

CLOWES: No, actually the book came and went so fast I never even got a copy. But I’ve read some of his stuff in Raw, and I’ve read some of his strips, and I really like the way he captures the lighting of New York. He’s sort of a master of that early morning lower east side lighting. There’s no other place where it’s like that. It’s an amazing thing to be able to capture on paper like that. And I like the whole low-keyness of the strip; so much of comics is shouting and running around, and the fact his is just about an old man wandering around at dawn is appealing to me.

GROTH: Did you like Pekar’s work?

CLOWES: Sure. I think Pekar’s a really good writer. His stuff always interests me. Just like everybody else has said, “The better the artist is, the better the story is with Pekar.” And some of these artists have been pretty abominable, but when he matches up with somebody who’s capable, somebody like Frank Stack, or Crumb, or Friedman, it’s pretty top-notch stuff.

GROTH: How about comics that sort of straddle, at least from my point of view, alternative and mainstream comics, like Concrete and Cerebus? Do you look at those comics at all?

CLOWES: I tried to read Concrete a couple times, and it really didn’t grab me.

GROTH: There’s an unfortunate niceness to it.

CLOWES: Yeah, and the art didn’t grab me, it looked kind of Marvel-ish to me. But, as I say, I only read a couple of issues, and it’s just not my cup of tea, really.

GROTH: Did you follow political cartoonists or daily strips, like Trudeau’s Doonesbury?

CLOWES: Well, Doonesbury used to be OK when it first started. But I think now it’s really, really bad.

GROTH: Is that right?

CLOWES: I can’t really judge it on the content because I don’t see it often enough to really see what he’s going after. But the whole thing he had before where he had the same panel repeated four times seemed like a cheap gimmick, but it actually worked well. It built up a certain rhythm that was effective, and I think the way he’s got it now with close-ups and camera angles and stuff completely makes the whole thing fall apart. It just doesn’t work.

GROTH: It’s almost as if he hired Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer …

CLOWES: Yeah, I mean, it’s so incredibly unnecessary. If anything, you should start paring down your stuff; you should never embellish it with stuff like that. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

GROTH: Do you love Calvin and Hobbes?

CLOWES: I’ve never really understood all the fuss over Calvin and Hobbes. I mean, I think it’s kind of a cute little strip, but you know, I’ve heard people say it’s on the par with the early Peanuts, and he’s not fit to hold Charles Schulz’s jockstrap in terms of that stuff. The early Peanuts defined this whole language of comics that people since then have been trying to imitate and never have. I’m a tremendous fan of that stuff. I don’t see anything in the paper these days that holds a candle to that.

GROTH: Newspaper strips just seem to be in such a miserable state.

CLOWES: It’s a dead art. It’s not the kind of thing anybody should try to go on to. I don’t feel any relationship to anybody who does strips. I mean, I’m sure they wouldn’t be aware of my stuff, and I shouldn’t be aware of their stuff, except that I’m an incurable reader of anything in comic strip form.

GROTH: Why do you think newspaper strips are so dead now?

CLOWES: It seems that with syndicates, the whole credo is that it’s OK to bore people, but it’s not OK to offend readers or scare anybody away. So they’re looking for something they can merchandise and put on greeting cards. And they’re not really interested in putting in anything that actually might make somebody laugh, or think, or be interested.

GROTH: Ah, but what about Cathy?

CLOWES: Well Cathy’s the exception, of course!

GROTH: [laughs] OK, now speaking of Cathy and Cathy-type strips, what’s your position on Ernie Bushmiller?

CLOWES: I’m pro-Bushmiller. For a long time I thought I was the only guy who liked Nancy and now of course everybody loves it.

GROTH: You’ll probably be invited to write an intro to one of the books.

CLOWES: Yeah, I’d be honored. I mean, I don’t like to get up on my soapbox and pontificate about Bushmiller as much as some of these people because I think that defeats the whole purpose. But to me, Nancy had an amazing atmosphere to it that I found kind of scary and off-putting, and really interesting. So yeah, I love Bushmiller, and this new guy who does Nancy should be shot.

GROTH: For betraying the Bushmiller ethos?

CLOWES: Yeah, that’s just awful dreck.

GROTH: When you were growing up in the ’70s, did you read Feiffer at all?

CLOWES: I never really saw too much Feiffer. My dad had a couple of the paperback collections, like Sick, Sick, Sick and I forget the other big one. But I had those as a kid, and I didn’t really “get” why they were supposed to be so great. It made sense to me kind of, but I didn’t really feel the hubbub over it.

GROTH: Did you like Carnal Knowledge?

CLOWES: Yeah. I think that’s sort of a masterpiece.

GROTH: Do you see a lot of films?

CLOWES: Not any more, no.

GROTH: You did at one time?

CLOWES: Yeah, when I first moved to New York, I made a point to go out and see all these art films that I’d never seen. And in New York there are all these revival house-type theaters, or at least there were back in the late ’70s. So I was going to a lot of that stuff. But in the last couple of years, the idea of going to movies is not that fun to me. Especially for any new movies. Usually whenever I see anything new it’s because somebody dragged me in.

GROTH: Do you own a VCR?

CLOWES: Yeah.

GROTH: Do you rent a lot of movies?

CLOWES: No, very rarely. I have a lot of trouble sitting and watching TV; I have to do something when I watch TV. So if I rent a movie, it usually requires my full attention, and I wind up not getting it. I wind up just watching half of it and drawing in my sketchbook or something.

GROTH: I have the same problem. I solved it though, by eating during the movie. You have to eat a long, slow meal, though.

CLOWES: The last two movies I saw were The Player and Barton Fink, which are similar movies, and which I had the same objections to, in that they had some really good moments which were generally the Hollywood moments, where they were doing this ruthless parody of what these individual guys had to go through as directors in Hollywood. But then they both had to couch their movies in these trappings of a mystery/crime plot. The Player had this mystery-murder plot, which seemed to me to be totally pointless. And Barton Fink had this supernatural serial killer guy who was shot down in a bunch of flames in the end, and all that stuff just really rubs me the wrong way. I mean, I wanted the whole thing to be about Hollywood. I didn’t want to see this other stuff that seemed to be just a hook to capture the audience.

GROTH: Yeah, well, I’m dreading the time when you start getting compared to the Coen Brothers.

CLOWES: I’ll blow my brains out at that point. I really thought there were some amazing scenes in that movie, of the Hollywood studio executive guy. To me, that’s the stuff I love, that makes me laugh. And then all the stuff with John Goodman I found boring and trite and contrived. And I thought The Player was a little better than that, but it still had to have the mystery plot to hook the audience.

GROTH: Which seemed really irrelevant.

CLOWES: It was completely irrelevant, and it saddens me that people think the audience really needs that. And maybe they do, I don’t know.

GROTH: Yeah, or maybe it’s worse than that, and the filmmakers actually think that it’s a legitimate technique.

CLOWES: That’s what I wondered, because these are smart people. These are movies that are outside the mainstream, or were conceived that way, anyway. Why did they have to make a nod to the mainstream? But that’s my problem with movies — they’re seldom perfect. There are a few directors whose work I’ll automatically see, like whenever Stanley Kubrick makes a movie, I go out and see it. He’s just one of these guys that can make no wrong moves as far as I’m concerned.

GROTH: Have movies in general, or any movies in particular, influenced you strongly?

CLOWES: Yes. In terms of the tone and atmosphere, I think considerably. I’m not sure about storytelling — I’m not sure how well you can apply that to comics. If that’s the case, it’s something I’m not real aware of. But certainly movies like Dr. Strangelove or Lolita, if I were to think of something that was similar to my own work, those would be two examples because they have this incredibly black, mordant sense of humor throughout them to the degree that you’re not even sure if it’s humor. It’s a very fine tightrope walk that they’re walking, and that’s what I’m aiming for, the same feel.

GROTH: Now, you like Jim Jarmusch, I think.

CLOWES: Yeah. I didn’t really like his last movie, the cab one. I found if kind of weak, actually. But he’s a guy who seems to be doing exactly what he wants and he gets around it by writing these movies that aren’t very hard to film and aren’t using big stars, although he had some pretty big stars in the last one. But he has a reputation, so he can get these stars to work for him just because he’s a big, cool director that’s well thought of. But he seems to have found a way to get around the whole Hollywood system, which is pretty impressive. I still think his best one is Stranger Than Paradise.

GROTH: I think so too.

CLOWES: Which is kind of disturbing that I find that to be his best film, and then Eraserhead is Lynch’s best film.

GROTH: Yeah, that’s a bad trend.

CLOWES: I mean, he could still do an amazing film, but the last couple have been so-so. They are certainly a million times better than any Hollywood film. I mean, they have an honesty to them. I feel like he’s kind of doing in film form what I’m trying to do in comic form, or the Hernandez brothers are trying to do. Just sort of paint the whole picture themselves. Although the idea of working in film always strikes me as something that can’t help but be a collaborative effort. I’ve had some friends who were filmmakers and I’ve been on film sets enough to know that you really are at the mercy of the people who are working with you. And it’s really hard to explain to somebody exactly what you want. I certainly wouldn’t know how to explain how to get the correct atmosphere for a “Velvet Glove” movie.

GROTH: I suppose you have to be a bit of a tyrant, a bit of a Sam Peckinpah. You ‘ve only collaborated, as far as I can remember, once in comics, and that was with Peter [Bagge].

CLOWES: Yeah, once since I’ve been a “pro.”

GROTH: Peter wrote and you drew; did you enjoy that?

CLOWES: Kind of. It was the first time I really felt that the writing part was the more important part of the process, and I felt that I was basically just embellishing his words and that he was the true star of the show. It was a lot of fun to do because it was a good story and it was the kind of story that I probably wouldn’t write. And he didn’t feel comfortable drawing it, so I didn’t feel like I was stealing it from him. I think it came out really good. I don’t know, I want all the glory myself. My ego can’t handle sharing it with somebody.

GROTH: An auteur, just like Todd McFarlane. [Editor’s Note: This was before Dave Sim, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Miller disrupted McFarlane’s auteur status.]

CLOWES: That’s right.

GROTH: Wait ’til you hear what he has to say about that.

CLOWES: [laughs] Well, doesn’t he work with inkers and letterers?

GROTH: Well, actually, no — he writes it, pencils it and inks it, and he’ll use a letterer and a colorist.

CLOWES: Oh, so he is an auteur.

GROTH: Yeah, he is! He’s like the Buñuel of comics.

CLOWES: Right, holds his own camera.

GROTH: I think that’s how we always thought of Todd.

CLOWES: Yeah, that’s something that’s real important to me, to create every mark on the paper as my own.

GROTH: Could you ever see hiring an assistant to do what are essentially chores for you? I’m not exactly sure what you’d consider chores, but …

CLOWES: Not in comics. If I were going to try to make some extra money doing commercial art, which is the way I would try to make extra money if that were necessary, then I could definitely see doing it in an as expeditious a manner as possible, and I could see hiring people to do all sorts of stuff, to fill in all the blacks and to do the lettering or whatever. I mean, that would be stuff I’d just be trying to get off the drawing board as fast as possible and take the money and run. But fortunately I haven’t had to do much of that stuff, and it even bothers me if somebody … I’ve had girlfriends who wanted to blacken the backgrounds where it was all black or something, and I wouldn’t let them do it because it would bother me somehow. It’s probably the same kind of compulsive disorder that makes people wash their hands 20 times a day. But it’s something that really bugs me, and a couple of times I’ve turned in covers to Fantagraphics with the wrong price or something, and somebody else drew the price, something meaningless like that, and it completely freaked me out.

GROTH: Well, you even letter your own letters page.

CLOWES: Yeah. I wouldn’t mind using typesetting if I designed the page, but it gives me more of a feeling of control somehow if do everything myself.

GROTH: Let me ask you this: most artists in comics are not terribly outspoken in the sense that they write a lot, or speak in front of audiences, behaving generally as activists. Dave Sim is one who does. Believe it or not, Todd McFarlane is another. But very few artists do. Do you ever have the inclination to talk to retailers or distributors, or just raise hell about things that bother you in the industry?

CLOWES: No, not really, just because I don’t think of myself as being a very capable public speaker, or being a very persuasive speaker. And I think if I did something like that, I would probably significantly reduce the orders on Eightball.

GROTH: [laughs] A wise and pragmatic decision.

CLOWES: Yeah, so I’d rather just keep my mouth shut and just let the chips fall where they may, just let others who are more capable speak for me. I find that a lot of cartoonists are like that, and I think that’s part of the reason that they do comic strips — because they’re able to speak in that form more comfortably than they are in a different sort of form.

GROTH: Yeah.

CLOWES: And sometimes I will see that some of these comic artist guys are very articulate and very good at speaking to a crowd and speaking in public, and I wonder if those guys aren’t maybe worse cartoonists because of that skill? Because I have this need to express myself to people, and since I’m unable to do it in any other way, I do it through my comics, whereas these guys are able to do it in a bunch of different ways. And I wonder if it inhibits what they might do as cartoonists.

GROTH: So if I asked you to speak in front of a bunch of retailers, you’d …

CLOWES: I’d rather kill myself. That’s the last thing in the world I’d ever want to do.

GROTH: Which is not to say that you don’t love retailers …

CLOWES: No, it has nothing to do with retailers, I mean if you asked me; to speak in front of Lithuanian nuns or something, people who couldn’t understand a word I said … I just don’t like the idea of speaking in front of a huge group of people. That’s another thing I like about comics, is that it’s an intimate form where you’re speaking to one person at a time. And I’m very comfortable speaking to one or two people at once, but once it gets to be a huge crowd, I sort of lose control of the situation, and I lose the intimacy that I require in communicating with someone.

GROTH: Right. Have you ever thought about writing about comics?

CLOWES: Such as critical essays for The Comics Journal. That kind of thing?

GROTH: Yeah. Novelists write about other novelists all the time, but cartoonists rarely write essays about cartooning.

CLOWES: Yeah, I thought of that when I first got into comics, thinking, Truffaut used to write for the Cahier du Cinema, and Godard and those guys, and I found that really appealing, that they were critics of the form and students of the form as well as artists in their own right. But, I don’t know … there’s nothing that’s ever grabbed me that’s made me want to write about it, I guess. The general editorial view of The Comics Journal is pretty much in line with the way I think about things in the comic business.

GROTH: You read the Journal before we published Lloyd, didn’t you?

CLOWES: I was aware of it, but I wasn’t a regular reader.

GROTH: Where do you see yourself and Eightball going? Do you see a direction for yourself as a cartoonist?

CLOWES: Yeah, I like to think I’m working in some kind of a direction. I’m still not really satisfied with the work I’m doing. I’d like to get to the point where I can conceive of things and put them down on paper exactly as I see them in my head, to be able to do that seamlessly. And I’d like to crystallize my vision to a point where I can write very spontaneously and filter out the good ideas from the bad immediately without letting them germinate for so long. And I’d like to continue to experiment; I don’t want to be like a guy like Jack Davis, where my style looks exactly the same at age 30 as it did at age 60.

GROTH: Do you see yourself cartooning for the rest of your life?

CLOWES: Yes, that’s exactly what I’d like to do. Right now I’m in the ideal position, where I’d like to stay in for the rest of my life, although I’d like to sell a lot more comics. But if I could have my own comic book and put it out whenever I want to for the rest of my life, that would be very cool. I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather do. But I think I’ve got a lot of developing to do still as an artist. But I just want to make sure I keep it interesting for myself along the way and hopefully for my readers as well.