As Daniel Clowes' father lay there in the hospital, staring down his mortality, the son thought of the comic they had long shared. In the quiet bleakness, there was “Peanuts.”
“He loved [Charles] Schulz,” Clowes says of the father of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, “and we loved him together when I was a kid.”
And through that bond, a new cartoon character was born: Wilson, a middle-aged man who wrestles with what his life has — and has not — become. The death of Wilson’s dad spawns self-examination, and then a journey to try to retrace and repair where his life went off the rails.
The new character proved so creatively fruitful that he became the star of “Wilson,” an acclaimed 2010 graphic novel that Clowes adapted into the film of the same name — starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern — that opens Friday. The Bay Area-based Clowes, an indie-comics rock star, previously adapted his comics “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential” for the screen, and last year published the sci-fi graphic novel “Patience,” which in its own way deals with looking to the past to course-correct the future.
“He knew it wasn’t going to go well, and he [changed] from his normal self,” says the cartoonist, of events from about seven years ago, when his father had about two months to live. “He was not an introspective guy — he once told me he didn’t think he had a subconscious, which seemed to bear out — then all of a sudden, he became an introspective guy. It was like a lifetime of introspection was happening in the few weeks he was lying there in the hospital.”
Clowes had waited his whole life to receive a few reflective pearls of wisdom from his dad. But, “I realized at that moment that he was way beyond that,” the cartoonist recounts. “He was in a whole other realm, and I was never going to get that moment.”
So instead, Clowes decided: “I’m just going to sit here and draw in my sketchbook, and I’ll be with him.”
As Clowes sat and stared at his father, his thoughts naturally drifted to Schulz. “My dad was so much like Schulz. … He even went to the same Methodist Church that Schulz went to. He was that kind of stoic World War II vet,” says Clowes, who had recently read David Michaelis’s probing biography “Schulz and Peanuts.”
“In that book, there is a little passage where Schulz himself said: ‘Any cartoonist worth their salt should be able to come up with a serviceable gag for the daily strip within a matter of 15 minutes,’ ” Clowes says. “And I thought: ‘Oh my God, I don’t know about that — that’s not my thing.’”
Clowes, as the creator of such comics works as “David Boring” and “The Death-Ray,” had never faced single-shot daily deadlines like that — so he took the Schulzian challenge with his initial Wilson strips. “I was not allowing myself to even think about them,” Clowes says. “It was: ‘We need a strip for tomorrow — what would I have?’ So they were stick-figure things I was not fussing over.”
“It was a very Schulzian thing, which was kind of great, especially thinking back on it. That was a way to get into who my dad was.”
The creative result of those Chicago hospital visits and extended flights emerged with remarkable clarity.
“Wilson just came forth from my id — just fully formed,” Clowes says. “I was trying to come up with a funny little character that was sort of my uncensored self. … This guy Wilson just came alive.”
As a graphic novel, “Wilson” consists of 70 shifting-style strips that, through their connected arc, reveal an Oakland man whose attempts at optimistic connection are foiled by his acidic expectations, as he tries to find an old flame with whom he may or may not have had a daughter.
“I was looking at Wilson as I was writing [the screenplay] and I thought: He’s not exactly a misanthrope or a pessimist as much as he is a disappointed optimist,” Clowes says. “He enters every situation as sort of a blank slate [thinking]: I’m going to talk to this person and it’s going to be really rewarding, and we’re going to be friends. And then the person is not rewarding in the way he wants them to be, and then he lashes out in anger. It’s a very different dynamic than someone who doesn’t go into those conversations.”
Clowes acknowledges that many graphic-novel fans might have naturally thought of Paul Giamatti for the role, given his brilliant embodiment of the late lovable curmudgeon Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.” But the “Wilson” filmmakers went in another direction by casting Harrelson.
“That never occurred to me in a million years,” Clowes admits. “But then I thought: a) he’s a great actor, and you always go with the great actor no matter what, and b) the character as I wrote it, both in the comic and the script, if it’s played by the kind of person I imagined — it was going to be a darker dramatic actor — it was going to be hard to take.
“In a comic, it’s got a sort of lightness and it’s all jokes,” says Clowes, noting that the candy-colored tones of his comics can help undercut the grimness of the content. “But in a movie, that would be hard to pull off if the actor didn’t have inherent [charismatic charm]. So the more I thought about it, the more I thought: that’s kind of brilliant.
“I just thought Woody’s got that hail-fellow-well-met quality that Wilson has in his dialogue — that ‘Hello, friend’ kind of thing,” Clowes says. “That’s hard to pull off if you’re not doing it naturally — it will sound ironic. And Woody doesn’t make it ironic.
“Woody is that guy.”