Graphic Novel Friday: Interview with Daniel Clowes

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The Complete Eightball by Daniel Clowes

Daniel_ClowesCartoonist Daniel Clowes has won every major comics award several times over, including the Eisner, Ignatz, and Harvey, and his career earned a PEN Literary Award for Outstanding Body of Work in Graphic Lit in 2011. Oh, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Ghost World.  Interview opportunities like this are rare, but Mr. Clowes is currently making the media rounds in celebration of The Complete Eightball: 1-18, an incredible two-volume 25th anniversary hardcover collection from publisher Fantagraphics. Collecting the first 18 issues of the acclaimed (and difficult to find) indie series, the project is comprised of over 500 pages of subversive comics that made Clowes such a force in the comics scene and beyond. Mr. Clowes nicely took time to chat about the new collection, what has and has not changed in his process since Eightball, superheroes, and the book that changed his life.

Alex Carr: For the 25th anniversary of Eightball, you and Fantagraphics are bringing back into print the original, serialized approach you took to stories such as Ghost World, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, David Boring—all of these narratives that would later be collected into their own, separate “graphic novels.” But what about some of the lesser-known works? Is there any Eightball esoterica that you are looking forward to reaching a larger audience?

Daniel Clowes: To see the whole package together is what I wanted out of this project. When it originally published, I had this idea that every line on the page should be drawn by hand and by me without any outside participation at all. I wanted, for better or worse, for it to reflect what I could do, who I was and who I was trying to be as an artist. So, all the little things, like the letters pages and even the ads for other comics I would draw myself, layout, and do the lettering. Having all of that together in a cohesive package is a very different experience than reading only the individual stories themselves—just Ghost World, for example, or only the Dan Pussey stories. You’re experiencing it all and all at once, and the stories affect each other that way.

For me, just having the letters pages back in print lets you see what the world was like before the internet, where everyone was not in constant communication with each other; where people would sit down and write you 15-page letters. From a complete stranger—I still find that astonishing.

AC: What was it like to create without an immediate response? Did you ever wish you could hear more from your readers?

DC: You know, it had its pluses and minuses back then. The only response you would get would be: a) from the type of person who could find an issue of Eightball, which itself required a bit of sleuthing—it’s not like you could just walk into any store and simply find it with the rest. There were maybe 20 stores in the county that carried it. You’d have to really know what you were looking for.

That was the first hurdle, and then you had: b) [someone] who would actually sit down and care enough to write to the author. So, you’d hear that response, from someone who’s very dedicated. There’s something that’s beautiful about that, not a tweet immediately after someone reads it. It was someone really considering it, and I would try to write back to everyone who wrote to me. I felt like I needed to reciprocate—you felt a kinship to your readers, which is something you kind of lose in the digital era. I felt like I knew everyone who wrote to me, and I still remember all their names.

AC: Wow.

DC: Some of them would come to a signing and introduce themselves. “Oh yeah, I remember you. A letter from 1989!” [Laughs]

AC: You’ve said that re-reading the individual issues for this project was similar to opening an old journal. Given how much time has passed, was there anything in Eightball that you considered “fixing” or altering at all?

DC: Not for this project. When I would do the individual collections for Ghost World or Like a Velvet Glove, there were things I would change—mostly drawings I wasn’t happy with. Very rarely, I would change a little line of dialogue. But with this, I wanted it to reflect the exact look of the issues as they first came out. I even kept in all the printing mistakes: in the collection, I mention some of the things that happened by pure accident [during the original printings], often due to the fly-by-night printers we had to use back in the day. [Laughs]

Ghost World is sort of famously in a blue tone of color, but there is one issue where they just printed it in orange by accident. I don’t know why. So, I kept the orange version in this collection. I really wanted it to have that feel, where everything that is happening is beyond your control, like a force of nature.

AC: In Eightball, you wrote a great satire of working in the superhero comics business, Pussey! Given the current trend of the superhero film, what would Dan have to say about the current state of superheroes? Have your opinions changed, now 25 years removed?

DC: No, mine are about the same [laughs]. At the time, I felt like to had to live in the context of the superhero by being in comics. Most people, when you said “comic books,” thought of that. And I felt like the stuff I was into wasn’t that—it was something else. It was weird that I felt like I had to justify the types of comics that I did—which were just about real life; the types of things television, movies, or novels could be about—whereas if I just did a superhero comic that would just be accepted, you know? Nowadays, the entire culture is all about superheroes. It’s gotten magnified to such a degree that it’s become part of the landscape. I don’t even have an opinion on it anymore [because] it’s just become so oppressive in a way.

I feel like Dan Pussey was the winner of all that. Now, he would be on top of the world. It was made for him—and by him.

AC: While the original Eightball is behind you, when you now approach a new project, do any of the old creative rituals remain? Or, is the better question what has not changed in your process since Eightball?

DC: I’ve never been comfortable with my own process [laughs], at least in terms of starting with ideas and turning them into stories. I’ve always wanted to find the way to do it that works most efficiently and is the most energizing and fun. I know enough about myself now to know I have to change it for every project. The actual process of sitting down at the board and drawing and the tools that I use—that’s exactly the same as when I was a teenager in 1975 and sitting at my drawing board. I’d finally gotten the book that changed my life, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way of all things [laughs]. That was the first book that I’d ever seen that said what kinds of tools cartoonists used, where I learned that most comics artists would ink with a brush. I’d always inked with a pen, and when I found out it was a brush I think I almost cried. “That’s impossible. That will take actual skill.” I had to take 15 years to figure it out, to make it look the way I wanted.

AC: Do you ever venture into digital production?

DC: I use digital for coloring. I think it’s great for that. I scan the black and white art and I color it in, and the ease of changing colors and getting that flat comic book color I want—back in the old days, we had to try to replicate that color and it would never turn out right.

AC: You do continue to introduce new elements into your stories. I’m thinking of Mister Wonderful, where the main character’s dialogue is obscured by narration boxes, reflecting the inner monologue we all have with ourselves when we speak. At what point in your process does innovation like this reveal itself to you?

DC: It’s all very organic. It’s not like I’m ever walking down the street and think, “Wow, that would be a great technique to put into one of my comics!” I have a lot of friends who, when you talk to them, you can tell they are a little distracted. They are thinking about very complicated scenarios in their heads while they’re just barely paying attention to you and coming up with robotic answers that sound like plausible answers [laughs]. I wanted to capture that, because I like that kind of character. [This technique] was a way to depict what’s going on inside that type of head.

AC: I also note an increase in double-page spreads recently from you, particularly in Mister Wonderful when Marshall walks in a black space with colorful shapes around him. Is this a technique you will continue to explore in your next work (now known as Patience, due in 2016--ed.)?

DC: Yeah, I actually got very interested in that while working on the book. That story originally published in serialized form in the New York Magazine, where I had to publish episodes in strips one week apart. So, I had to use those spreads to cover the space between each strip in book form, like a punctuation effect, but I then I really liked the way that looked. I also noticed that when my son was young, I would read certain children’s books to him, where they would do the same thing: there would be multiple images on one page and then a big, double-page spread followed. I thought it was a cool thing to put into comics.

 

Many thanks to Mr. Clowes and Fantagraphics for making this happen.

--Alex


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