Daniel Clowes Bites Back
Daniel Clowes stands atop the great heap of colored paper we call comix, from low-brow to high-brow, yet he remains a sympathetic and steadfast friend to the underdog and the second banana. He comes from Chicago, the second city; he lives in Oakland, second to San Francisco AND Berkley; and he's a fan of anyone "who's not quite as good as the top dog." But despite his affinity for second place, Clowes is a champion. His comix are stunning—darkly humorous, sad, and weird. His long-running serial Eightball is ripe with beauty and transgression and has generated two remarkable films, Ghost World and Art School Confidential. Yet somehow Daniel Clowes remains a genuinely nice and down-to-earth guy. He is among the best and brightest because he refuses to identify with the best and brightest. Instead he's sympathetic to so-called failure. Damn our elitist, self-centered, capitalist culture, and praise be unto the self-deprecating (and immensely talented) souls such as Clowes.
steven lee beeber: I don't know that I would dub you the King of Black Comedy or the Prince of Darkness and Humorness, but you're right up there. Do you think of yourself that way?
daniel clowes: I'm proud to wear the crown. [Laughs]
conduit: In that capacity, do you see life as basically comedy or tragedy?
clowes: That's where the interesting stuff is, in that kind of razor's edge between the two. And to not really commit to one or the other but to keep them guessing as to which side of the tightrope you're on.
conduit: Not to psychoanalyze you...
clowes: Others have tried.
conduit: I'm sure they have. Can you tell me a little bit about your early years and how that ties in with your sensibility?
clowes: Ah yes, back in the very beginning. Well, like many others, I'm the child of divorce, and like many others I spent a lot of time by myself. I had a brother, but he was ten years older than me and he wasn't really around, so I spent a lot time immersed in all of this pop culture ephemera that he had donated to me. We didn't have TV when I was very young, so I spent all my time reading a giant stack of pulp comic books, and sort of avoiding the harsh realities of life that were going on outside my bedroom door.
conduit: What sorts of things were you looking at?
clowes: Early Mad magazine and crazy horror comics and various science fiction digests, which at the time I couldn't actually read. I was about four or five years old, but the covers were so stirring in such an odd way that I've never really felt with any other form of art ever since. I remember just staring at those images for hours and hours trying to kind of parse what they were trying to tell me.
conduit: What kinds of images were they?
clowes: One that sticks in my mind is an issue of Analog, or some similar sci-fi mag, with a bug-eyed alien with mechanical eyelids on the cover--that sort of thing.
conduit: You mentioned that the comic books helped shield you from the bad things going on outside your door. Were your parents still together at that point or divorced already?
clowes: I don't remember my parents ever being together. It's hard for me to imagine them even knowing each other. [Laughs]
conduit: Were you the class clown?
clowes: Never. I was always too embarrassed. I didn't want attention. So I would whisper the jokes to the loud guy next to me and he would tell the joke and get the big laugh. The few times I tried to say it myself were kind of awkward and I would just get weird looks. I was never that guy. I was just always drawing in my notebook, and every once in a while somebody would steal my notebook and then all the kids would pass it around. They were sort of impressed and sort of terrified.
conduit: [Laughs] What was in the notebook?
clowes: You know, just mean drawings of them basically. [Laughs]
conduit: So you were the power behind the throne of the class clown?
clowes: Right, I was like Karl Rove to the class clown.