Daniel Clowes’ Cranky, Comical World

I’m sitting on a bench at the Daniel Clowes exhibit at the Oakland Museum when an elderly man eases down next to me. He’s joined by his wife and another older couple, and he immediately starts complaining to them about the crap that passes for art these days.

“I guess you can throw anything on a wall and call it art. But these… these are comic books. These belong in a kid’s… knapsack.”

His wife would have none of it. “This is his way of expressing feelings,” she says with an Elizabeth Taylorish sweep of her hand. “This is how the artist sees the world.”

“But look at that guy there,” the old man jumps in, his conversational timing honed by at least 50 years of these kind of spats. He points at a drawing I’d been poring over a minute ago, admiring its neat lines and intricate cross-hatching.

“Look at his nose for God sakes. Nobody has a nose like that. Lil’ Orphan Annie has a better nose than that guy.”

The fact that Lil’ Orphan Annie has no pupils and still got her own postage stamp seems lost on the guy, and I don’t think his wife’s attempts to edify him amount to much. “You don’t see the world like the artist does,” she says, “If he sees a big nose, he draws a big nose. It’s his prerogative!”

“Nobody in the world has a nose like that!”

I have to admit it’s true. The man in the drawing’s nose is grotesquely large, and his two enormous black nostrils are in serious need of a trim. The slant of his eyelids conveys a haunted desperation. His small body is angled into a cheap suit, giving him the look of an addled salesman on a convention night bender.

But then I look back at the old art critic sitting next to me. He’s half-bald and the lines on his mottled brow are thick and wavy like nightcrawlers. He has donkey teeth and floppy, Buddha ears sprouting with bushels of curly hair. If I squint my eyes right, he looks exactly like a Dan Clowes drawing, right down to the beads of sweat on his cheeks. I scowl at him, feeling smug and superior, until I realize that I’ve suddenly become a Clowes character myself—the easily offended and perpetually frustrated writer who can’t believe some old philistine would desecrate a shrine to his favorite artist…

From Art School Confidential

This is why I love Dan Clowes. He’s the only comic artist I’ve read who can do this to me, to pull me so completely into his world that, just as the old lady said, I start seeing reality through the lens of his work.

As far as most people are concerned, comics aren’t able to do that, at least not to adults. I’ve sure never read an Archie or Batman comic that had me double-taking to make sure I wasn’t becoming a character in it. I can think of lots of books that have drawn me in that way, as have plenty of movies and even a few TV shows. But even the greats of modern comics—the Pekars and the Crumbs and the Burnses—can’t pull me in like Clowes does. Maybe the worlds of those artists don’t resonate as strongly for me, or maybe they seem too personal, too exclusively theirs, for me to truly share in them. It could just be a matter of taste. But if I read a Clowes book from beginning to end, I know where I’ll be for the next couple of days. In that comic.

The strange part for me is that I don’t even dig comics all that much. The first comic I ever bought with my own money was a real letdown. I was about seven, and the comic was called Sad Sack. It was about an army private who couldn’t do anything right, like Gomer Pyle or Beetle Bailey, or some kind of militarized Ziggy. I remember lying in bed, leafing through it after blowing my allowance at the 7-11. Remorse surged through my spindly body. I could’ve played two games of Missile Command for the 50 cents I wasted on this pulpy piece of crap!

About a year later, some hippy friend of my parents gave me an issue of Zap, which is infamous for its weird sex and drug references and I kind of liked the parts I could understand, but I felt like it was something shameful, something I ought to hide under my bed. It was the polar opposite of Sad Sack, and yet, it still didn’t do it for me.

So except for Mad Magazine, I gave up on comics. I liked the weird little dots they used for shading, and I loved the cheesy ads for X-Ray ‘Specs and whatever Charles Atlas sold, but the stories themselves were either too dense and wonky for an occasional reader like me, or too idiotic to even bother with. Clowes, I think, has felt the same way.

In fact, Clowes seems so acutely aware of the “debased” (as he’s put it) state of his chosen medium that he’s learned to use reader expectations about comics as a kind of narrative fulcrum to elevate his stories above the form they inhabit. So while his characters might appear grotesque and ridiculous sometimes, readers quickly learn that Clowes knows exactly what he’s doing in drawing them that way. Their prodigious warts and awful comb-overs become shorthand for certain personality traits, and as they navigate the weird plots they find themselves in, those traits determine their ultimate destinies.

Somehow, even with their weird looks and blank expressions, Clowes’ characters feel eerily real. I can’t figure out how he does it—he must base them on people he’s met or something. But especially in his later works, books like Ice haven and his newest, Wilson, he’s got me believing all the way through that his characters are actual people, even when they do outrageous things.

And once in a while, he even throws in a character whose sole purpose is to skewer both the comics industry and its fanboy culture. It’s almost masochistic:

“Comics… too often they’re dismissed as simple-minded, irrelevant pablum for mental defectives,” lectures the Stan Lee-esque Doctor Infinity to a studio of comic artists in Clowes’ Pussey, “and I’m the first to admit that when looking at comics as a whole there may be some tiny grain of validity in that dismissal (though I can’t help but wonder why it’s so wrong to make a few bucks from exploiting the repressed homosexual urges and castration fears of undeveloped adolescent minds)…”

Pussey (pronounced “Poo-say”[!]) is Clowes’ feaux-biography of a comic inker trying to navigate the extremes of his profession. After slaving in Doctor Infinity’s superhero sweatshop, young Dan Pussey spreads his wings and tries to make highbrow, artsy comics, where he’s told his work is “The end of civilization” and that “Artists don’t get paid, that’s prostitution!”

Some of Clowes’ exaggerated bitterness about his vocation comes from a willingness to see himself as just as ridiculous as the characters he gets paid to doodle. But he also harbors a deep disillusionment with art itself. In Art School Confidential, Clowes delivers the stinging observation that, “Today, anyone with a trust fund can excel in [art] classes that are little more than vague pep-talks designed to keep enrollment up by tricking students into believing they have “potential.”

Clowes has alternately thrilled and pissed off comics fans for years over dialog like that, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt him much. His show at the Oakland Museum of California Art is scheduled to tour this fall to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a fantastic exhibit, showcasing one-of-a kind, full-color comics painted in gauche, lots of hand-drawn strips and a few of his original New Yorker covers, which ironically signify Clowes’ ascendance to not just the mainstream, but the hoity-toity-artsy-stream.

Two of Clowes’ graphic novels (or narragraphic picto-assmeblages, as he jokingly calls them) have also been made into movies, with what I’d call mixed results. While the screen adaptation of Ghost World was hailed by critics and won all kinds of awards, many fans of the comic found the film version lacking the realism and depth of the story in its original format. It seems counterintuitive, but there is something about the way static images and words combine inside a reader’s head that seem to burn the story into the mind in a way movies seem mostly unable to do. I suppose that’s why fans of comic superheroes are always tearing apart the movies made about their favorite characters—no matter how dynamic the action is on the screen, it strangely can’t compare to the images readers have constructed in their own heads.

From Ghost World

Back at the museum, I tear myself away from the stimulating conversation about Lil’ Orphan Annie so I can see the panel where Clowes is set to speak, but I have no press pass and the line is hopelessly long, snaking all the way into the parking garage, where I swear I see Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World smoking Djarums and trying to look cool. I’ve been head over heels for Enid Coleslaw ever since she dragged me into that porn shop and made me buy her that stupid Catwoman mask…

Oh, wait. Never mind. That wasn’t me. That only happened in a comic book.