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Dan Clowes Talks About Nerdy Superheros, 9/11, and Spite Wars

Dan Clowes is a comic book artist, a screenwriter, and a damn fine man. He won the PEN Literary Prize for Graphic Literature this year, and is the author of Ghost World, Mister Wonderful, and the Eightball comics, among others. On October 11th, The Death-Ray will be released in a classy hardcover format, so get ready for that, because it’s an incredible meditation on the idea of justice in a world that cannot simply be divided into black and white. We called Mr. Clowes yesterday and had a discussion with him about Spiderman, the Iraq War, aging, and what is was like to grow up in Chicago in the ’70s. The results are below. So read on, dear readers, and tell us your thoughts and darkest secrets in the comments section.

What are you up to?

I’m busy filling in the little tiny black areas on the page with a pen, which is the most mindless thing anybody could ever do with their life.

But ultimately satisfying?

Yeah, it’s like knitting or something. You have those moments like, How did I get here? Why am I sitting here doing this? It’s like my job is doing crossword puzzles.

What are you working on now?

I’m kind of working on a bigger, longer book that I don’t want to talk about or it’ll jinx me. The minute I say, “Oh, I’m doing this,” then the next day I’ll realize I don’t want to do it and I’ll look like an idiot. I’ve done that so many times where somebody will call me up and I’ll mention it one time because I’m excited about it and of course it falls apart and I’m stuck explaining myself for the rest of my life.

The curse of Wikipedia.

Yeah, don’t even talk to me about that.

Well, I did read that The Death-Ray was being made into a film – is this accurate?

Yeah, it’s something we’ve been working on for a while and it’s right now looking like there’s some possibility of that, but again, I don’t want to jinx myself. That’s not untrue – let’s say that.

In Rumsfeldian terms. Nice.

To quote the great man.

I was reading an interview with the AV Club and you said you “kind of” wrote The Death-Ray when you were 16. How did that happen?

I didn’t actually write it down on paper — it was conceived in my head. I guess that sort of counts as writing. As a teenager I read the early Spider-Man comics, where he becomes a skinny, angry, disturbed superhero, and I thought, “That’s kind of how it would be.” As a kid you look at Clark Kent whose still a big jock with glasses and think, “I don’t relate to him at all.” But the original Spider-Man was really 120 pounds and a total loser, and I was so inspired by that. It entered my unconscious and as teenagers will do I thought, I am going to create a completely different kind of superhero. I think I drew a couple of covers and then gave up. At the time I remember thinking, “Why wouldn’t my superhero have a ray gun? That would be so helpful!” It was mostly about the emotions of this kid who felt wronged by the world for no apparent reason. But as for things you come up with when you’re a teenager, it was very powerful to me and had an emotional hold on me later on – I thought about it all the time. I couldn’t quite figure out how to tap into that emotion and then one day I thought, I should do a superhero story. That would be like the dumbest thing I could possibly do and therefore a good idea (laughs). And then I thought, “What superhero story could I do?” And that’s the only one I could ever do – it stuck with me for 30 years.

How does this story parallel the events in this country after September 11th?

It definitely is informed by the buildup to the Iraq War. That was all that was going on as I was working on it, and like a lot of people, we all had this anger and fear and frustration at this inevitable move. We could all see it happening and we could all see that nobody was going to be able to stop it, and we all knew what an idiotic blunder it was going to be [laughs] and just a hubristic show of force by this country, which seemed like it was not a vital player anymore but kind of a dying cranky old man, and that’s kind of where the older version of the Andy character came from, I think. He was sort of the perfect stand-in for America as it existed in 2004, this kind of fading irrelevant cranky bastard whose not going to let it all slip through his fingers without one last catastrophe.

But also the idea of responsibility and justice ties into all of that. It’s not just that he’s a curmudgeon, but that he views himself as the only person who sees things clearly.

I think I’m certainly guilty of that and I think probably everybody is. That’s sort of the danger of having this global power coming through the filter of one perspective. I’m always convinced I’m absolutely right about everything and then it dawns on me that everyone around me feels the same way. [laughs] That’s frustrating, because I’m right!

I just saw the documentary Shut Up Little Man! How did you get involved with that?

When I did that I thought that no one will ever see this, I’m just doing a favor for these guys so they could get some grant money or whatever. I never thought it would get released.

Well, the joke is on you because it’s at IFC.

I heard that, yeah. It actually opened down the block in Berkeley, where I live.

When did you first find out about the duo from Shut Up Little Man!

There was a guy years ago who was glaringly omitted from the film because they couldn’t find him – he went by the pen name Seymour Glass, from the Salinger book, and he did a zine called Bananafish. He was always finding these interesting things in the pre-Internet era and send them out to little counterculture mavens like myself. He was living in San Francisco and was one or two steps removed from those guys. He sent me a few tapes in 1990 or so and that was what I wanted to listen to while I was working. At the time I was listening to a lot of tapes of old radio shows, you know, sort of trying to find stuff to occupy me when I’m spending hours blacking in little corners of the page with a pen, and that was sort of the perfect old time version of an old radio show. It was like a situation comedy almost.

Did that shape your characters or was it background entertainment?

It was sort of both, that was the beauty of it is that you didn’t have to pay attention to the plot. If you waited a minute at any given time there would be a line you just couldn’t believe. Like I could sit down with a pencil for the rest of my life and never come up with a line that good. I would always misjudge people who came over to the house and say, “Oh, you gotta listen to this” and then I’d play a few minutes of it and people would say, “Why are you listening to this? It makes me want to stab my eyes out.”

On a related note, you once described Eightball as an “orgy of spite, vengeance, hopelessness, despair, and sexual perversion.”

(laughs) You gotta get readers, c’mon. I was hoping that would catch on.

Where do you fit into all of this?

The stream of modifiers? That’s not for me to decide, that’s the critic’s job.


Photo credit: Guardian

What are some questions you wish someone would have asked you by now?

Boy, that’s a good question. The one I wish people would never ask is when they go, “Is there anything you just want to say?” Everybody else would go, “Yes. Come see my movie” or whatever and I never do. And then I hang up and think, “Oh, I should’ve plugged my…” I don’t know. It’s very weird to be interviewed. If I ever met a young cartoonist who is really amazing I would say just don’t do any interviews, don’t do any public appearances. Just remain a mystery. Because once you do one, then that becomes your opinion on record. Unless you get it exactly right that first time, you have to keep modifying it over the years, because I’m certainly not the same person I was when I did my first interview. I was probably 26 years old. I was an idiot.

What’s changed since then?

There used to be this thing where artists were much more blunt about criticizing each other, and every once in a while someone would send me some clipping from a zine where someone had said something bad about me and then you’d try to slip in something bad about them in your next interview. It was a whole passive aggressive spite war. But comics is such a sad little field, it’s like who are you going to pick on? [laughs]

I said something mean about that guy Frank Miller one time because I don’t like his comics. I was just goofing around. But then of course I met him and he was like, “I love your comics,” and oh God, I felt like such an asshole. [laughs] It’s usually all just based on jealousy or some misconception about what they’re doing or something. It’s rarely that you really think their work is destructive. Though in Frank Miller’s case I would say that’s possibly true.

Do you enjoy the work of Michel Houllebecq? I’m pretty sure I threw Elementary Particles across the room about halfway through it.

I sort of like it for that reason — there’s something so French about it. No one really does that anymore, because they’d be defriended on Facebook. And now there’s the comments section, which opens you up to a barrage of the other person’s supporters destroying you. It’s like, who needs it?

My next question: What are you assaulted by on a daily basis?

What am I assaulted by? [laughs] I like that question. I try not to be assaulted, I’ve sort of designed my life so I’m not as assaulted as I certainly used to be when I was living in Chicago. You’re assaulted by everything. Just the sense that we’re all dying is an assault. [laughs] I have a 7-year-old son and I’m really hit by that notion that tomorrow his teeth are going to fall out and then in another few years he’ll be taller than me, then go to college, and then I’ll die. It’s endless. It’s really, really difficult to enjoy this moment here, now, rather than obsess on the potential loss of this moment. And that’s I guess what I’ve been dealing with, but I’m an old man. That’s what we do.

I have a feeling you’ve been doing that for a long time, though.

[laughs] Yeah, I guess you’re right. I was actually more of an old man when I was 23 years old. I used to wear cardigan sweaters and shuffle around the house.

How do you think the Midwest has shaped you?

Does Chicago count as the Midwest? I never know.

Since you asked that question I’d say no, now that you’re going to be hoity-toity about it.

Everybody who goes to Chicago now says, “Oh, what a wonderful city,” and it was really not that in 1976. It was really a dying, Cleveland-like shell of its former self. You could walk through downtown Chicago on a Saturday afternoon and not see another person. The crime rate was through the roof. I used to get harassed and my bike stolen on the way to school once a week; it was a really scary urban environment and I kind of liked that – I got used to that low-level danger every time I left the house. I certainly haven’t shaken the feeling of being 15 and walking through the alley behind my house in Chicago just waiting for people to leap out at me.

That’s the thing about Chicago – there are so many back alleys.

In the Bay Area they don’t exist, or if they exist it’s like Jack Kerouac Alley, some commemorative thing that you don’t put your garbage in. That was my playground as a kid. I would through a rubber ball at a brick wall for hours for exercise, it was like a prison yard. [laughs]

Keeps you limber.

Where I got out my youthful energy.

That’s really funny.

Funny is one way to put it, I suppose.

I’m not going to ask you if you have anything else to say.

The perfect set up to the ending.

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