In the 1992 story “Ink Studs,” Daniel Clowes describes a world where the lowly cartoonist is the new rock star. “Wise up, ladies,” the narrator tells the reader. “Grab that long-haired Fender-Bendin’, three-chord Romeo by his leather pants and give ’im the heave-ho. It’s time to find yourself a cartoon Casanova.” It was self-deprecating humor that provided unintentional foreshadowing for Clowes’s own future success.

But before he became one of the world’s most influential and lauded cartoonists—over the past 40 years he’s won seven Eisners, 13 Harveys, and the 2011 Pen Award for Outstanding Body of Work in Graphic Literature, and he’s widely credited with bringing graphic novels into the mainstream thanks in part to the success of 1997’s Ghost World—he was a painfully shy kid from Chicago. For his latest, he’s going back to his roots.

The 62-year-old’s new graphic novel, Monica (Fantagraphics, Oct.), grapples with many of the themes that have recurred in his oeuvre. Its title character struggles with feelings of loneliness and alienation—feelings that Clowes has returned to again and again, in large part because he identifies so closely with them.

Speaking via Zoom from the studio in his Bay Area home, Clowes says his childhood was “very isolated.” He’s wearing a blue-gray pullover sweater, with a pair of round glasses that complement his close-shaved head and white beard.

His parents divorced when he was two, and he wound up splitting his time between their homes and his grandparents’ house. He was beset by social anxiety and was so shy that he rarely spoke to the classmates or adults in his orbit. It’s one of the main reasons he was drawn to the solitary art of cartooning: “I can’t function in a job around other people,” he says.

Clowes’s mom and dad, meanwhile, were deeply absorbed in the world of Formula Junior, a type of auto racing for which novice drivers build formula cars from regular auto parts. His mother left his father, in fact, for the man hired to drive the car his father had built. Three years later, the man died in a crash. “And then she just sort of spiraled out from there,” Clowes says.

“Coming to grips with who my mother was in an honest way gave me a lot to think about,” he adds. “I always felt like I had a childhood that was so indescribable.”

Clowes’s attempt to understand, and possibly accept, his mother is the driving force behind Monica, he says. The book is told through nine loosely connected chapters, which he describes as “different variations on aloneness.” It opens in the 1960s, as Monica’s mother, Penny, embraces a free love lifestyle that quickly devolves into parental neglect. Monica is later abandoned by her mother and, after an adolescence marked by the loss of her beloved grandparents, devotes herself to tracking her parents down. She eventually leaves behind her life as a wealthy and successful business owner to join a cult that she believes once counted her mother as a member.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a direct line from Penny to Clowes’s own mother, who died in 2019 while Clowes was working on Monica.

Clowes started sending out his first work in the mid-1980s. At age 24, he sent a comic featuring a character named Lloyd Llewellyn to Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth.

“The first time I saw Dan’s work was when I opened his impressively wrapped submission envelope and pulled out a fully executed color dummy of Lloyd Llewellyn,” Groth says. “It was a handsome plastic notebook that contained completed individual pages in full color using Pantone sheets that were meticulously cut and laid onto the art.”

That comic soon appeared in the pages of Love and Rockets, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s seminal indie comics series. Clowes created a half dozen issues of the Lloyd Llewellyn miniseries before moving on to the first issue of his one-person anthology, Eightball, in 1989.

For Groth, Clowes shares a space with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, one of the 20th century’s most influential cartoonists. Their work traffics in “loneliness, anomie, and people adrift,” he says.

Over the next 15 years, Eightball put Clowes among the category’s most celebrated creators. The comics serialized stories that would later be published as some of Clowes’s best-known graphic novels, including Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and David Boring.

But Ghost World struck the deepest chord with readers. The graphic novel follows two recent high school graduates in the 1990s as they wile the days away in their small town, criticizing the people around them and the culture at large. Soon after the work’s publication, Clowes cowrote a screenplay adaptation with director Terry Zwigoff. The resulting film premiered in 2001, earning Clowes and Zwigoff an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. The pair then teamed up again for 2006’s Art School Confidential.

Ultimately, Clowes’s Hollywood experiences pushed him back toward making comics. “It’s the only thing I really like doing,” he says. “I had a great time making movies, and I think it was essential to have this little thing that I could use to get away from comics.”

Four months ahead of Monica’s release, Clowes reveals that several film producers have expressed interest. “This is the time when the most interest from Hollywood happens—when nobody’s seen the book,” he says. “They’re like ‘I’ll buy it!’ And I was like, ‘You might want to wait.’ ”

Monica took Clowes seven years to write. During that time he lost both his mother and his brother, as well as his close friends and fellow cartoonists Richard Sala and Gary Lieb. The book is dedicated to all of them, but his mother unquestionably looms largest over the text.

“I knew it was going to be unpleasant,” he says when asked about how he thinks his mom might have reacted to the graphic novel. Then he adds, with a morbid laugh, “so I kind of lucked out that she died before it came out.”

Brian Heater is the hardware editor at TechCrunch.