Dan Clowes interviewed on Propeller

“Daniel Clowes | Portfolio | Propeller Quarterly” / Propeller Magazine / Propeller Magazine / December 1, 2012

This month Daniel Clowes is on tour to promote his latest book, The Death-Ray (Drawn + Quarterly), which first appeared in 2004 in his long-running comic series, Eightball. In The Death-Ray, an orphaned teen hero named Andy gets super-human powers, allowing him to take revenge, if he chooses, on bullies. Recently, Clowes told an interviewer with Oakpark.patch.com that Andy looks like he did in the 1970s, and, like Andy, he lived with his grandparents and was harassed by other kids. Clowes explained the cathartic effect of this book: “Having the power to erase human beings from your comics (or perhaps to cover them with Wite-Out) is not so dissimilar to wiping them out with a ray gun in many ways.” Clowes has won numerous awards for his cartoons, including the 2011 PEN Center award for graphic literature. He lives with his wife and son in Oakland. His wife does not knit, nor does she like the goose droppings at Lake Merritt, but she does support his use of PowerPoint slides on his book tours. —Alex Behr

PROPELLER: When I went to Powell’s Books last May for your book tour of Mr. Wonderful, I introduced you to my son, who’s around your son’s age. I said I’d give all my old Eightball comics to him one day, but when I reread them, I was like—no way. He has to discover some subversive things on his own. Do you censor things you’re working on from your son?

DANIEL CLOWES: I try to keep the more “adult” stuff out of his line of vision, but I don’t make a big deal out of it. Every once in a while one of his friends will come in the studio and I’ll realize I’m looking at some hideous Italian horror comic to copy the logo typography and have long ago tuned out the image of the nude woman on the cover being branded by becloaked sadists. I’m guessing at some point secret visits to Dad’s studio will be a big draw...

PROPELLER: Some of your talk at Powell’s had to do with The New York Times Magazine’s censorship during the serialization of Mr. Wonderful. It seems like the NYT editors feared that people might cancel their subscriptions, based on one complaint from a Christian in Arkansas, so you were told to take out “offensive speech” (the word schmuck) in the next installment. Your way to protest was an empty dialogue box. Was that satisfying to you, or just a necessary compromise?
CLOWES: “Schmuck” was actually just preemptively censored by the editors, fearing some revolt of Yiddish-speaking subscribers. And no, it wasn’t satisfying. It was the kind of thing that makes you realize why most mainstream culture feels dead and over-processed.

PROPELLER: The NYT must have chosen you in part because you have cachet as someone who takes risks and is from the cartoon underground. Did that seem cynical of them to come back and try to censor you? Did you hear back from anyone associated with the NYT after your book tour?

CLOWES: No, they have long ago moved on from any interest in their failed efforts of the past.

PROPELLER: I first heard of Pete and Ray’s recorded rants through friends in Bay Area bands, like the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, and Seymour Glass of Bananafish fanzine. They had gotten copies of these secretly recorded fights from Eddie Lee Sausage, Pete and Ray’s neighbor. At parties, my friends would recite, with precise intonation, Pete and Ray’s invective. You didn’t have to be drunk to feel like you were going insane. Later, Gary Leib and you drew a cartoon for Seymour Glass’s comic Shut Up Little Man. You chose the quote: “… I love people … I love people … I love a lot of things, but I sure the fuck can’t love a fuckin piece of shit like you.” The rhythm of that dialogue is spot on. And now you appear in the 2011 documentary about Pete and Ray, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure. How did you first hear the tapes? Did they become mesmerizing to you, or oppressive?

CLOWES: I too heard them via your buddy, Seymour Glass, and later through Eddie Lee Sausage himself. I found them oddly comforting to listen to, like demented old-time radio shows.

PROPELLER: In a current project on Salon.com, writers interview bullies from their past. What would you ask a bully from your past? Or which comic would you direct him/her to?

CLOWES: At a certain point, I realized that virtually everyone who’s ever done anything bad to me wound up having a miserable, unfulfilling life. It almost feels like I made some kind of pact with the devil and then had it erased it from my memory. I can think of nothing I’d want to do less than ever see any of them again.

PROPELLER: What is the current version of your imaginary reader doing right now? Does he still look like you?

CLOWES: He has more hair and a healthier complexion.

PROPELLER: In parts of your book Wilson, I viewed the buildings and vehicles as characters, since the guy’s wandering by himself. When you walk around Oakland, do you make up or work on stories?
CLOWES: Yeah, I finally feel like I understand what it means to be a Californian. I didn’t take to it for the longest time, but in the past few years I’ve started at last to be able to feel like I’m a part of this world and not just a chilly Midwestern observer.

PROPELLER: My son, when he was five, said, “If we used up so much soap we’d get shiny and stars would come off our bodies.” I wrote it down because I fear the day when he’ll get control of language or feel self-conscious about using it imaginatively. Do you feel that way as a dad?

CLOWES: My son rarely says those kinds of things, and I always feel like I’m straining a bit to see the poetry in his word choices. He’s a very precise speaker and has no patience for my often unclear and fuzzy illogical syntaxes.

PROPELLER: I heard a Jonathan Franzen interview on NPR (yes, I’m one of those types) the other day. He defended his cynical, depressive characters in his books, saying, “There’s nothing like putting a couple of Eeyores into text to make it a little bit funny.” I read somewhere that you hate hippies—is that why?—not enough Eeyores? Too many dancing bears?

CLOWES: No, I don’t mind the idealism of hippies; it’s much more personal. My childhood was going along pretty well until the hippie thing kicked in and then it went all to shit. Suddenly my parents were divorced and my brother was taking drugs and all the things I cared about like Christmas and baseball were suddenly corny and irrelevant. My hero at age nine was Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, especially when he laid into the hippies for drowning their baby in the bathtub or some other sloth-induced atrocity.

PROPELLER: When I interviewed the artist Amy Cutler for this magazine, she said after 9/11 she questioned “the importance of making paintings about my insular imaginary world.” She said, “The twin towers were still burning and I couldn’t see how my narrative paintings mattered in the context of what was happening outside my window.” But then she read Aimee Bender’s stories, which created a “great escape.” Have you ever felt you had to stop drawing because of current events, or has it always been a release?

CLOWES: No, I tend to shut down my emotions in the face of catastrophe and to retreat even further into the only place where I can exert any control.

PROPELLER: In an interview, you said The Death-Ray was influenced by the buildup to the Iraq War. Now that The Death-Ray is being rereleased in hard cover, and we’re still at war, do you feel cynical? Is the only cure escapism through, say, watching zombies on TV?

CLOWES: I’m sick of zombies. I don’t get how something one guy—George Romero—invented all of a sudden became a “genre,” and now everybody’s allowed to rip him off with endless permutations of his vision. It’s his thing!

PROPELLER: What did you like about John Williams’ novel Stoner? Is there anything you’re reading now that you like as much?
CLOWES: I thought it captured the totality of a life very effectively. I haven’t read much fiction lately though I liked the Jennifer Egan novel. Lately, I’ve been reading a bit about the Theosophical movement in the late 19th century, an interesting array of annoying crackpots and con-men, and am somewhat obsessed with the California Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century.

PROPELLER: For the next issue of Propeller, I’m interviewing Christine Shields, an artist and friend of yours. What do you like about her comics or paintings?

CLOWES: They are all beautiful and her images are genuinely haunting. Also, she’s a really nice person and that comes through in her work.

PROPELLER: Even as a kid I felt secure looking at the sturdy lines in Harold and the Purple Crayon. I like how the lines create surprising causes/effects and quick shifts in mood. I had never heard of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby series until now. How did you get involved with the reprints (coming out on Fantagraphics)?

CLOWES: My mom and dad were big readers of the Barnaby comic strip in the ’40s and they gave me a Dover reprint book of the strips when I was a little kid. I had been badgering various publishers to reprint it for years, but the rights were hard to pry loose. Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics finally worked his magic and got them to agree to a three-volume set, which I will be art-directing in as unobtrusive a manner as possible. Ω

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