Superheroes have taken over the world and Daniel Clowes is confused. Clowes, a creator of weird and wonderful indie comics for more than 30 years, thought he had seen "the death of mainstream comics" when he was in his teens.
"They were relegated to this bunch of outsiders," he says. "Shut-in collector types stuck in unending adolescence. I would have never guessed in a million years that our mass culture in 2015 would be all based on the comics I read when I was 15 . . . It feels like I'm lying unconscious in the Matrix or something. It feels like there's no chance actual reality involves an Avengers movie." He laughs. "When I meet people who are really into those movies, I find myself thinking less of them in some way."
Clowes, a respected comic-book creator, New Yorker cover artist and occasional film-maker, comes from a different tradition of independent comic-book creation. He creates beautifully drawn, funny, melancholic, bizarre stories about isolated teenagers, science-fiction beatniks, overbearing oafs and weird small towns.
Most of his generation learned about narrative from television, he says. "I have vivid memories of watching The Twilight Zone in 1964 when I was three years old and being scared out of my mind, and I have great memories of watching the early 1960s Batman show, which I took absolutely seriously even though it was an absolute put-on."
He read superhero comics but was more influenced by early Mad magazine. "It had all these in-jokes and lots of Yiddish words and it just seemed so intriguing. You could imagine these crazy New Yorkers making each other laugh and sharing it with the rest of the world and not caring if people got the jokes or not. That really appealed to me."
He also encountered the underground comics of the era, specifically the meticulously drawn, anarchically plotted, erotically charged work of Robert Crumb, which he read far too young and thought of “as abject pornography”.
“At first I was really creeped out,” he says. “It wasn’t until a few years later when I expanded my thinking about comics [that] I started to think, ‘Actually, you know who’s really good? That perverted dirty hippy guy.’ And the more I looked at his comics, the more they seemed like these singular works of art.”
These miserable wretches
Clowes wanted to study cartooning but his parents convinced him to go to a “more respectable” art school. There his teachers told stories about comic artists they knew, “these miserable wretches who work their asses off to crank out these comics every month . . . just scraping by . . . and they hate every minute of their lives”.
He chuckles. “And that was largely true.”
His room-mate got a job at Cracked and hired him to draw strips. He also wrote a story about a character called Lloyd Llewellyn and sent it to comic book publisher Fantagraphics, hoping someone at its Comics Journal would write to him with a critique. "Weeks passed and I assumed they'd thrown it in the garbage," he says.
Instead they had decided to publish it as a monthly comic book. “It was in the middle of the Reagan era. [Llewellyn] was supposed to be a throwback to 1958. This was prior to all that swinger culture that came later. Nobody was interested in that era then.”
Lloyd Llewellyn was cancelled, but Fantagraphics gave him another monthly comic, Eightball. "I think they felt bad for me," he says. "They're an amazing company and many, many times they've published things they know full well nobody would ever buy, but they feel this should exist in the world. God bless anybody who'd do something like that."
What was the idea behind Eightball? "I wanted to do a one-man anthology," he says. "I thought I'd get two or three or four issues out of it before being shuttled off to oblivion."
Instead it ran from 1989 to 2004. Many of his graphic novels originally appeared in its pages. His work is alternatively hilarious, satirical, fantastical and heartbreaking. He specialises in askew realism, gritty fantasy and existential loneliness.
Of Wilson, a recent book about a self-obsessed bore, he says: "I wanted a bull-in-a-china-shop sort of character who enters any scenario and makes it his own . . . my goal was to try to find a way to love him as a human being . . . I feel that's my most perfect book."
Of Death Ray, a strange superhero story based on a character he first drew as a teenager, a lonely schoolboy who derives powers from cigarettes and can erase people from existence, he says: "This might be as close to the way I think of myself as a teenager that I've ever drawn."
Ghost World, a story about two bored teenage girls in a small town, broke out of the comic book clique. The main character, Enid Coleslaw, was inspired by his wife and other female friends, though the name is also an anagram of "Daniel Clowes".
“There’s a part of me trapped inside that wishes that I could be forthright and blurt out things the way Enid does.”
With his friend Terry Zwigoff (who also made a documentary about Robert Crumb) he made Ghost World into a film starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. They made a second
film, Art School Confidential, and he has scripted several unmade film and TV projects. At that time, he says, he needed to do something other than comics. "I was feeling burned-out."
Comic-book creation is hard work. When I ask him what it was like re-reading his material for The Complete Eightball, he says: "Well, first of all, I see that I didn't leave the house very much. All this work I did, for this vital time when I was a young man and full of life, and I spent it sitting in a room drawing comics. On the other hand I have this stack of paper to show for it." He laughs. "So I guess, you know, at least I have that."
Since Eightball started, his strange, thoughtful work has found a place in the world. His love story, Mr Wonderful, was serialised in the New York Times. He regularly draws covers for the New Yorker and is lauded in broadsheets. "It used to feel like I was forced into the context of the superheroes," he says. "Now I don't feel like I am, so the fact that the superhero thing has taken over the whole culture doesn't really have any impact on me."
What did have an impact on him was Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf stealing his story Justin M Damiano for his own directorial debut at Cannes. LaBeouf claimed his plagiarism was a high-brow art stunt and it became a big news story.
“It was horrifying,” says Clowes. “[Every day] I’d have 10 phone messages from all the major media outlets: ‘Can you be down here at the studio at 3?’ I’d say, ‘I have no interest in doing that’, and they’d say, ‘This would be so much publicity. This would be huge.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want any publicity. I’m fine’.”
“So many people were like, ‘This is the greatest thing that ever happened to that guy. I’d never heard of him until this happened.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t want you to have heard of me. You, the guy who would say that, are exactly the type of guy I don’t want to ever know about me’.”
Did it sell more books? “Not one. It really seems like not a single person makes the leap of, ‘Oh, this guy was plagiarised by Shia LaBeouf; I’m going to buy his books’.”
Clowes is happy to labour in obscurity. He has a wife, a 10-year-old son, a functioning "bionic heart" (a relic of a serious heart problem eight years ago), a big project he's forbidden from talking about and The Complete Eightball in shops now.
"I've never met anybody in my life who'd ever heard of me," he says. "I've never been on a plane and gotten to talking to somebody who'd even heard of Ghost World . . . It always feels like my work is lingering on the outside margins and, believe me, I want nothing to do with the inner margins. I feel like I've got my little coterie of readers and I'm sort of fine with that."
He doesn’t want to be in the mainstream? He laughs. “No, I don’t. Frankly, it wouldn’t do anybody any good.”
- The Complete Eightball is published by Fantagraphics