“Likable Characters Are for Weak-Minded Narcissists”: A Chat with Daniel Clowes
The ace alternative cartoonist Daniel Clowes is in town today for a rare appearance, to answer questions about his new graphic novel, Wilson. Wilson offers more of Clowes' unflinching depictions of unpleasant people, and it's his first book that he didn't serialize as a comic book first. The book follows the title character—a bespectacled grump—through his adult life, from the death of his father to his reunion with his ex-wife and the daughter she gave up for adoption. Clowes uses a variety of styles to explore Wilson's inability to relate with others, switching techniques every page.
We asked him how "alternative" his work still is: His 1990s comic-book work has inspired two movies, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, he's been serialized in the New York Times Magazine, and he's an illustrator for the New Yorker. He answered that and others in a short but funny interview, which he kindly squeezed in while working on a New Yorker cover.
Washington City Paper: In Wilson, you obviously purposefully worked in different drawing styles, but stayed constrained in a rigid panel grid. I'm assuming your differing styles were meant to echo the ones a reader would see in the Sunday comics, as you told the New Yorker last year? What was your thinking behind that?
Daniel Clowes: "Constrained in a rigid grid" sounds a little severe; I was really trying to make the strips simple and easy to read. I wanted the surface to be comfortable, inviting, and pleasant. Comics seem to be getting more and more complicated these days, and even the best of them can be a chore to plow through.
WCP: Did you ever consider serializing this on the Web? It reads much like a Web comic at times, due to the vignette style of each page being an isolated part of a larger story, while most still stand alone. Obviously you didn't put it on the Web, but are you thinking of future projects that way?
DC: I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea, but I guess I don't get what the point of that would be. Promotion? What am I promoting? I think I'll go down with the sinking ship that is the publishing business before I re-emerge as a desperate and apologetic Web cartoonist ("C'mon guys—buy some mugs and t-shirts!").
WCP: Wilson's a fairly unlikable individual—apparently incapable of having a conversation that's not about him. He actually seems like a sociopath to me (and I see that the book's back cover describes him that way, too) without any redeeming graces. Why did you create such a consciously unappealing character?
DC: Likable characters are for weak-minded narcissists. I much prefer the Rupert Pupkins and Larry Davids and Scotty Fergusons as my leading men. And I actually kind of like Wilson. He'd be fun to hang out with in short and finite increments.
WCP: You were with Fantagraphics for decades—how come you've published Wilson with Drawn & Quarterly?
DC: I did the book in its entirety on spec without even thinking of a publisher, and when it was done I immediately thought of D+Q. I had promised to do a book for [Drawn & Quarterly Publisher] Chris Oliveros for many years and this at last seemed like the one.
WCP: How did the comic strip in the New York Times Magazine work out for you? Can you tell if it brought you increased exposure, or a new readership?
DC: It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it, but it's very hard to gauge if it actually increased my readership at all. Most people seemed to willfully ignore the entirety of those "Funny Pages" strips, and I have met very few people—even those who read the Sunday Times every week—who even remember what I'm talking about when I mention them.
WCP: You're considered one of the major alternative cartoonists to emerge in the 1980s, and are still identified as alternative, but does that term mean anything when you're published in the NY Times and the New Yorker and have movies made from your comics? Do you see yourself as part of the mainstream now?
WCP: An amazing amount of people cite you as an inspiration. Is there anyone—a cartoonist or otherwise—that you'd like to mention as influencing your work?
DC: Robert Crumb, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charles Schulz are the top three.
WCP: So... the standard question—what do you see as the future of comics?
DC: Mugs and T-shirts.
WCP: Have you visited Washington before? Is there anything you would either like to see or is a favorite of yours in the area?
DC: I haven't been there since about 1972. I'm hoping to have a chance to at least stop by the Smithsonian for an hour or two...
WCP: Finally, from a Croatian friend, "Why did he pick Zagreb as his birthplace in the Lloyd Llewellyn author bio?"
DC: Because it sounds like Zagnut, my favorite candy bar (sadly true). Please apologize to your friend for me.
Daniel Clowes appears at Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW) tonight at 7 p.m.