Send In The Clowes
Long before he co-wrote the screenplay for Terry Zwigoff’s film of his graphic novel Ghost World, Daniel Clowes was directing his cast of characters, including himself, in his comics. He understands the addictive dream-making of cinema, which seeps into his stories, and his storytelling techniques, and triggers recurring themes - the illusions of celebrity, romance and individual expression, the yearning for more than our mundane reality.
Ask Clowes when he was born, and he’ll tell you, "1961, on Jayne Mansfield’s 29th birthday". He knows what it’s like for so many young Americans growing up numbed by consumerism and obsessed with pop culture. Out of this stew he concocted his first solo comic, Lloyd Llewellyn, when he was 23, but its retro-coolness was too glacial and uninvolving and Fantagraphics canned it.
At this low point, with no regular comic and few prospects, he rushed into a marriage which quickly soured. After his wife walked out on him, at an even lower point, he immersed himself in the disturbing films of Bu–uel and other surrealists. To uncork his own subconscious, he took to working half-awake, half-dreaming, unplanned, uncensored.
The result was Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, his first graphic novel serialised from 1989 in his revelatory Fantagraphics comeback Eightball. From its opening in a sleazy cinema, Clowes’ alter ego searches for his former girlfriend, whom he spots in an unsettling movie, only to fall victim to aggressive males, troubling females and another sinister film shoot. His experiences defy reason but pull you in squirming, ensnaring you in their nightmare logic. Only when he’d completed it did Clowes understand what it was about, "the minutiae of my relationship with my ex-wife, and the power struggles that went on." A last painful, purgative love letter.
Eightball unveiled another side to Clowes, his seething documentary-style satires of modern America. In Velvet Glove he imagines the horrors a tacky Hollywood version of his book would inflict, while bitter experience fills Art School Confidential, soon to be a Drew Barrymore film scripted by Clowes and Zwigoff. When his shocking Freudian analysis On Sports was reprinted last year in San Antonio’s top weekly paper, it prompted advertising boycotts and demands from sports fans for the paper to be destroyed.
Clowes dissects the American comic book industry’s history of exploitation through the progress of one Dan Pussey from gullible fan to big-headed pro to pathetic hasbeen. Pussey! is a ‘How Not To’ guide that would make any aspiring comic book artist take his drawing board out and burn it. Clowes is as vitriolic towards the self-indulgent art comix crowd, which he supposedly belongs to, as he is to the mainstream spandex power-players. Beneath the loathing and fury, though, there’s a flicker of empathy for ‘Young Dan’, who shares Clowes’ first name, his year of birth, even his large front teeth, and whose fate might easily have been his. How else could he come up with heartfelt lines like "Why can’t there be more women like Matter-Transformer Lass?"?
Perhaps it takes an outsider to understand outsiders, which may explain why Clowes could realise such convincingly tender yet unpatronising portraits of contemporary American teenage girls in Ghost World. Surviving high-school hell brings two opposites together: confused, bespectacled Jewish extrovert Enid Coleslaw (an anagram of Clowes’s name) and her quiet, prettier blonde foil Rebecca Doppelmeyer, united in their contempt for conformity. Their fierce, contradictory closeness is tested and broken by the pressures of life after graduation, which force them to grow up and grow apart. Ghost World: The Movie is a different beast, remarkable that it got made at all, but the graphic novel offers a much darker focus on the self-destructive bewilderment of two girls’ waning adolescence.
Clowes works in a subtly different register in his lower key character studies, recounted in the first person and drawn more realistically, culminating in David Boring (Pantheon/Cape). Boring, a former film-maker in high school, lives as if he is directing a movie of his life, detached behind the camera, always casting for his ‘feminine ideal’, until he finds her and loses her. Estranged from his mother, abandoned by his comic artist father, David reads two panels every night, closely, from his father’s Yellow Streak comic, for clues to his parents’ lives and parallels to his own obsessive love story. David Boring rewards close reading too. Clowes is in total control of the precision editing and nuanced narration, which no film could fully capture. It’s the best movie he never made.
Posted: December 11, 2005
The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.