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Cartoonist Daniel Clowes On Time Travel And Giving Readers Their Money's Worth

May 12, 2016
Originally published on May 12, 2016 2:32 pm

Growing up, cartoonist Daniel Clowes liked to draw, but he never thought he'd make much of a career out of it. "I was expecting to work for Cracked magazine for four years, and then try to get work putting up aluminum siding or something, doing my prison drawings while I was down for a DUI," he jokes to Fresh Air's Sam Briger.

But instead Clowes, 55, has become one of the most influential artists in the independent comics world. His comics Ghost World and Art School Confidential have been adapted into movies, and Clowes was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Ghost World.

His latest book, Patience, is a love story that was five years in the making. In it, Clowes uses time travel to explore themes like tragedy and regret. He is particularly interested in the ways in which unique events can set a life on a new path. He says that with time travel "you can kind of examine this person that you were back here, when you're down the road here, and see: How the hell did that happen?"


Interview Highlights

On what inspired him to write about time travel

I'd spent a long time, prior to working on this, putting together an exhibition of my old work and a monograph that went with it. And that entailed digging through drawers and looking at all my early work and all the stuff that I deeply repress both in my own mind and physically into drawers in my house and never look at; and to sort of have to grapple with that and go, "Oh I was this guy and now I'm this guy, based on these three random events in my life that kind of took me to this point." And it struck me as something that would keep me interested in a story for five years.

On why his speech balloons sometimes drift off the page

Daniel Clowes' other books include Mr. Wonderful, The Death-Ray and Wilson.
Dan Clowes

It's one of those things that just sort of happens by necessity. I think I started with that Mr. Wonderful book, and the idea was that I wanted the book to be all inside his head. So you see his thoughts and they're always in the foreground, and whatever anybody else is saying is covered up by those thoughts.

It's sort of the way that we normally are talking to eachother where we're thinking about, like, "I really gotta go," and somebody is telling us something and we're not focusing. I wanted to capture that.

On how he feels about cartoonists lettering with a computer

I don't approve of that. I can tell a mile away and it always — I feel like I'm reading a robot.

On how he feels today about his seminal comic book series Eightball, which ran from 1989 to 2004

If something is just a few years old, it makes me cringe — I look at it and go, "Oh my God, this is a disaster." If it's 10 years old, well, I was a young man. And this stuff seems so old, I was very forgiving of it. ... I remember working all the time — every day, all day — doing this stuff and trying to learn to do that kind of artwork, and a real tenseness on my part. It was very difficult.

I was really down on myself during that era. I was always like, "I gotta get better, I gotta get better." And then looking back on them, I was sort of forgiving myself. I was like, "You know, you did a good job. These are pretty good."

And they're dense and I always felt like I gave the readers their money's worth — they were like $3 or whatever — and I would kill myself for those issues, you know? ... I think the comic was supposed to be quarterly and it was always like nine months per issue. It was hard to make a living on a $3 comic that came out once a year. ... I did everything there could be done.

On how parenthood has changed him

I resisted having kids for a long time because I was terrified it would affect me. And I thought, I'm going to try to get through this without even noticing ... that little brat in the other room. But the minute you're sort of faced with that responsibility, you find out things about yourself that you maybe didn't want to face. You find out what your true opinions are.

I find that when I'm talking in front of my son, I find that I try to say what I really feel rather than some version of myself I would've had in my 20s where I had some pose that was just, "I want to be contrary." ... I want him to know what I actually really feel and what are my real values. And you find yourself kind of [thinking], Do I believe in this? Is this an actual opinion of mine, or is this just some masked thing I'm trying to put out to the world?

I found it was very profound in that way. I sort of became more myself in a certain way.


Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The cartoonist, graphic novelist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes has been one of the most influential artists in the independent comics world for the past three decades. His comics "Ghost World" and "Art School Confidential" have been adapted into movies, and Clowes was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for "Ghost World."

Clowes also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of his comic "Wilson" that will star Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern. It's scheduled for release in the fall. Daniel Clowes has a new comic book, his first in five years, called "Patience." Beautifully rendered in full color, "Patience" is a love story full of tragedy, regret and time travel.

Last year, Fantagraphics released a two-volume hardcover 25th anniversary edition of Clowes' comic book series "Eightball." We're going to hear the onstage interview he recorded with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: So, Dan, your new book is about love and revenge, and the backbone of it is time travel. What inspired you to do something about time travel?

DANIEL CLOWES: I wanted to use time travel sort of as a metaphor or as a way to kind of explore the idea of going through your life, hitting these little points in your life that are, you know, like a flowchart where you go off in different directions. And then something else happens, and you go in another direction. And then all of a sudden, you're way over here when you started here, and you're a very different person from what you were there.

And so the idea of time travel, where you can kind of examine this person that you were back here when you're down the road here and see, like, how the hell did that happen?

BRIGER: Well, thinking about that earlier version of you, I mean, have you thought about whether that person would recognize you now? What they would think about your career?

CLOWES: I think about that a lot. Well, I think what would I - would I look at myself and go, oh, man, he's bald with a beard. That's so depressing.

(LAUGHTER)

CLOWES: I would've been sad about that, I think. And I would have thought, oh, his eyes have gone. You know, I had perfect vision back then.

BRIGER: Well, what about your career? I mean...

CLOWES: His posture is still bad.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Well, you sit up a little bit. What about in terms of your career? Would that person...

CLOWES: No, I would've been like, oh, my God. Like, how did that - I was expecting to, you know, work for Cracked Magazine for four years and then, you know, try to get work putting up aluminum siding or something. Doing my prison drawings while I was, you know, down for a DUI.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Well, hopefully - I'm glad that things have worked out better than you thought they were going to go.

CLOWES: Yeah, yeah.

BRIGER: Well, you've said that you had this dispiriting experience where you'd worked on a book for a year, and you're at an author signing event. And then someone in line reads it while they're in line. And they finished it.

CLOWES: Oh, yeah, no. With the early comics, you know, they were, like, 30 pages. And I had many times where, you know, I'd have a line and I was signing, and I'd see somebody, oh, I'll get one of these and get it signed. And they would be in the line reading it. You know, and they'd get to the end and it would be like, why do I need this? You know, I already - I'm done with this. And they'd put it back and...

(LAUGHTER)

CLOWES: Once I was at some event at a comic book store. And it was - I saw a guy come in who was sort of like a superhero guy. And he had dragged his girlfriend in, who obviously didn't care at all about comics. This was many years ago. And she was sort of looking around, and she saw "Ghost World." And she said, oh, I'll look at this. And she opens it to the middle, and she starts reading.

And she reads all the way to the end. And, meanwhile, her boyfriend is - you know, I don't know what he's wasting his time with. And then she gets to the end and she goes, all right, and she goes back to the beginning and reads. And then she reads up to the point where she started. And I was like, I've found another reader. And then she just puts it back and walks away.

(LAUGHTER)

CLOWES: I thought that was - that was something I shouldn't have seen.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Well, it's a good thing you've made this one a little heftier.

CLOWES: That's right, maybe she'd hurt herself trying to put it back.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Jack Barlow, the main character - one of the other main characters in the book. He is traveling through time. And at one point, he asks someone at a bar, if you had the chance to kill Hitler's mom, would you do it? And the guy is watching football. He says, I might after I go break (unintelligible) arm yesterday. And a lot of the book is about - part of the book is about personal motivations versus civic duty...

CLOWES: Right.

BRIGER: ...When you have a certain power like this. Why was that interesting to you?

CLOWES: Actually, the reason I put in that line was just sort of an in-joke. A few years ago, I was interviewed for a magazine - a British magazine. One of the big daily papers, and I can't remember which one. And they have a column that's very much like the one that used to be on the back page of The New York Times Magazine. You know, where they ask somebody very short questions and have short answers?

And so I did it all by email. And this woman asked me, you know, if you could go back in time, what would you do? And I wrote - you know, I'd like to say I would go back and maybe kill Hitler as a baby or find out if Jesus was actually a divine being. But probably, I would just go back to my old neighborhood and, like, look around and, you know, see the kids I grew up with.

And I later learned that when they print these in this magazine, they just cut it down to the bare minimum. And so it said what would you do if you could go back in time? And it goes, I would kill Hitler.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Well, you actually have your character Jack go back to his old neighborhood.

CLOWES: Yeah, that what - when I - after I, you know, articulated that, I realized that that's sort of the - that's kind of what the story's about in many ways.

BRIGER: Have you done that yourself?

CLOWES: Oh, yeah. My mom still lives in the same house I grew up in, so it's easy.

BRIGER: Is that an enjoyable experience?

CLOWES: No.

BRIGER: No.

(LAUGHTER)

CLOWES: It's fraught with emotional peril, I will say.

BRIGER: But one that - is it edifying in some way?

CLOWES: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I'm, you know - I'm a grown man. I can take it. But it's, yeah, it's a little - it's quite something to see. Sort of - it's like, you know, my mom has a lot of stuff in the house. And it's sort of like I can still see my stuff kind of under all the stuff. Like - it's like my childhood is preserved under old newspapers and stuff.

BRIGER: Under layers?

CLOWES: Yeah.

BRIGER: Do you still have a room there? What's your room become?

CLOWES: Well, sort of. I mean, there is a room that I used to live in that's now filled with auto parts.

BRIGER: With auto parts?

CLOWES: Yeah, my mom ran a garage in Chicago for years.

BRIGER: But she still has the auto parts?

CLOWES: She has the parts, not the garage.

BRIGER: Not the garage anymore.

CLOWES: Yeah. My mom is now - she's 86, and she's a lawyer. She got her law degree when she was 76, I think.

BRIGER: Wow, that's amazing.

CLOWES: Yeah, she is an amazing person.

BRIGER: Is she practicing?

CLOWES: Yeah, yeah. She does elder law, not surprisingly.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Well, so this book, like the last two books you've done, "Mr. Wonderful" and "Wilson," are a lot about people trying to create relationships in their lives to have some sort of family. And it's sort of more in the domestic sphere. These books are things that you've written since your son was born, is that right?

CLOWES: Yeah, yes.

BRIGER: So what has been interesting you about sort of more of a domestic story?

CLOWES: Well, you know, it's obvious you don't - you have no idea how that's going to affect you, to have a child. And I resisted having kids for a long time 'cause I was terrified it would affect me. And I thought, I'm going to try to, like, get through this without having - you know, without even noticing that little brat in the other room. But, you know, the minute you're sort of faced with that responsibility, you find out things about yourself that you maybe didn't want to face.

You know, you find out what your true opinions are. You know, I find that when I'm talking in front of my son, I find I try to say, like, what I really feel, rather than some version of myself I would've had in my 20s where I had some pose that was just, you know, I want to be contrary because of this various thing.

You know, it was much more - I want to, like - I want him to know, like, what I actually really feel and, like, what are my real values? And you find yourself kind of really like, do I believe in this? And is this an actual, you know, opinion of mine or is this just some masked, you know, thing I'm trying to put out to the world? And so I found it was, like, very profound in that way that you - you know, I sort of became more of myself in a certain way.

And then you also have that thing of where - you know, before that, I thought of myself as, like, you know, you always think, like, I would take a bullet for my best friend or for my wife or something. And then you think, like, if the gun was pointed at me, I'm not sure about that. Like, I'd probably be like, you know, I've got a lot to do here. Maybe not me. And then, you know - but the idea, like, protecting your child, you really do know.

Like, I would, like, you know, carry a bear carcass through the Ozarks with my teeth to, you know - it's just, like, you would just do whatever it took. And it's a very different feeling. And that's sort of the kind of the one-dimensional nature of the guy's quest in this book that was sort of coming out of that.

BRIGER: Do you think that that desire, when you're around your son, to be honest - as honest as you can be - has that translated into your work?

CLOWES: I think so 'cause I think I then just, you know, sort of synthesize that and think, you know, what am I really - you know, what do I really think?

BRIGER: Your character, Patience, who's the main character - the main character in the couple, expresses a lot of concern about being a parent. And there's this great image - I think my favorite image from the book - this is Jack and Patience lying in bed. And if you look around the room, it's a very frightening scene. How did you - you can see there's faces in the covers and there's demons on the shade.

There's a creepy looking guy in a window across the street. How'd you come up with this? Do you have a busy mind at night?

CLOWES: Yeah, I have terrible insomnia, and I'm always lying in bed. And from childhood on, I was seeing, you know, weird faces in the lace. We have, like, these lace curtains, and I just cannot un-see these demonic faces staring at me in the bedroom. And I actually, like, have to get - remove stuff from the so it's just completely nothing in there 'cause...

BRIGER: So it's all two-dimensional? Yeah.

CLOWES: Yeah, so this shows - you know, this is sort of a worst-case scenario of how I would just see - and earlier in the book, you do see the room and see that it's not like this at all.

BRIGER: If not terrifying.

CLOWES: Right.

BRIGER: Part of this book gets into metaphysics a little bit.

CLOWES: Yeah.

BRIGER: This one character Jack is trying to figure out his place in the world. And there's some great imagery about sort of dealing with time and space and inter-dimension - inter-dimensionality, I guess you would say. You had open heart surgery in 2006. Was that part of the reason why this book kind of...

(CROSSTALK)

BRIGER: Is that why you drew this?

CLOWES: Because I was on some kind of drugs or something?

BRIGER: No, but in terms of just - I mean, he's reckoning with his place in the world. Is that...

CLOWES: No, I mean, I did have a moment at that time where I though, like, well, this might be it. And I, you know - how do I feel about that?

BRIGER: Yeah.

CLOWES: And I was sort of weirdly like, well, this is OK. I'll be all right. (Laughter) You know, I felt bad, but I was sort of like, yeah, you know, I probably won't do anything good after this anyway.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with cartoonist Daniel Clowes. His new comic is called "Patience." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with cartoonist Daniel Clowes. His new book-length comic is called "Patience." He's best known for his comic book series "Ghost World," which was adapted into a film, and "Eightball."

BRIGER: Fantagraphics recently reprinted in a two-volume set the first 18 issues of "Eightball."

CLOWES: Yes.

BRIGER: And you were very much involved in that. Was it enjoyable to look back at all that work? I mean, I know you've already done it for that - the show that you were mentioning before but...

CLOWES: You know, I find there's sort of a - there's a lag time. If it's - if something is just a few years old, it makes me cringe. You know, I look at it and go, oh, my God, this is a disaster. And if it's, like, 10 years old, I'm sort of - well, it's, you know, I was a young man.

And this stuff seems so old it's - I was very forgiving of it. And I had to really, like, look back and go like, well, I worked really hard - you know, I remember working all the time, every day, all day doing this stuff and trying to learn to do this - you know, do that kind of artwork and it required, like, real tenseness on my part. You know, it was very difficult.

BRIGER: Did you have a desire to change anything or fix things that you thought were a problem at all? I mean, I know you've done that...

CLOWES: No.

BRIGER: ..When you've taken old stories and then had them come out again as a...

CLOWES: Yeah, that's - this one was - this is, you know, the warts and all. In fact, there was an issue of "Ghost World" where they - the colors were printed in orange instead of blue for some reason. It was just that we were all, like, how - why did that happen?

BRIGER: Right.

CLOWES: Nobody ever will find out. And I was like, no, we got do the - it's got to be the orange "Ghost World" you know, 'cause that's how I saw it. I wanted it to be how I saw it the first time. But we did sort of, you know, digitally remaster everything, which means we had to get the original art back from collectors and things like that.

BRIGER: Right, 'cause you sold a lot of it, right?

CLOWES: Oh, yeah, I used to sell everything for no money. And my dear friend Alvin Buenaventura, who helped me with this who just passed away a few weeks ago, did this amazing sluicing work where he would find a collector who had sold it to another collector who had then traded it at an auction who sold it to a comic store who sold it to the - and he would somehow find these pieces and then con the people into sending us the artwork so he could scan it, so - and then we'd happen to lose it in the mail.

(LAUGHTER)

CLOWES: You know, we weren't good about it. But it was, you know, it was - 'cause a lot of the stuff was - we just had no way to print it except the blurry comics, you know, and I didn't want to do that.

BRIGER: What was sort of the most surprising or fun thing about looking back at these issues?

CLOWES: I mean, I was really down on myself during that era. I was really always - like, this is - I got to get better. I got to get better. And then looking back on them, I sort of was forgiving - I was like, you know, you did a good job. These are pretty good. And they're dense. And they're, you know - I always felt like I gave the readers their money's worth. You know, they were three bucks or whatever and I would kill myself for those issues, you know?

BRIGER: How long would it take to make an issue? You did everything.

CLOWES: I think the comic was supposed to be quarterly and it was always, like, nine months per issue. It was hard to make a living on a $3 comic that came out once a year, but...

BRIGER: And you did all the lettering yourself, too.

CLOWES: Oh, I did everything in it, everything there could be done.

BRIGER: Do you still letter by hand?

CLOWES: Oh, yeah, of course (laughter).

BRIGER: Well, I know a lot of people use computers now.

CLOWES: I don't approve of that.

BRIGER: You don't approve that.

CLOWES: I can tell a mile away and it always...

BRIGER: Really.

CLOWES: It's - I feel like I'm reading a robot going like, and then I will go...

BRIGER: Well, I always thought it amazing too that you did the lettering but also the font you used was very elaborate, too. Like, the narration always had these - I don't know what you call it but these little flourishes...

CLOWES: The serifs.

BRIGER: Yeah, the serifs on it. That didn't drive you crazy doing those?

CLOWES: I can do it very quickly, yeah.

BRIGER: Really.

CLOWES: I'm a professional.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: In your new book, "Patience," you get to create a sort of science fiction world. Was that fun to do, to think about what the future might look like?

CLOWES: Yeah. It was actually - it was less fun than I wanted 'cause I, you know, when I started, I thought, like, that'll be great to depict the future. And that's always fun to draw, you know, the future world.

And then the more I thought about it and the more I was trying to handle it the way I really thought it would be, it was like, the future's not going to be all that interesting (laughter). Like, I've got to sort of capture that it will be - it will be alien to us, but it will be not. I feel like it won't be as, you know, dystopic and advanced in another 15 years as we all anticipate through most of the science fiction stuff.

BRIGER: Dan predicts that in the future we'll all be wearing fuzzy yellow shirts, so just keep that in mind.

CLOWES: That's part of it. That's one of the fashion trends that I've invested a lot of money in.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Great, well, thanks very much.

CLOWES: Thanks for putting up with my coughing fit.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Daniel Clowes spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Clowes' new comic book is called "Patience."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interviews with novelist Richard Russo, with Bronwen Dickey, the author of a new book about myths and misconceptions about pit bulls, and Nancy Fishman, who co-authored a study on the misuse of jails, check out our website. You'll find those and many other FRESH AIR interviews. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.