To his own surprise, Daniel Clowes is currently working on ten projects. But a review of his output over the last 18 months will temper that surprise: setting aside illustration work (such as his covers for The New Yorker), that period has seen the release of the long-delayed paperback edition of Ice Haven, Wilson, Mr. Wonderful, and the revamped The Death Ray. And now, the first retrospective museum exhibition of his work, “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” is about to open in his adopted hometown at the Oakland Museum of California on April 14. Accompanying the exhibition is a beautifully produced monograph from Abrams ComicArts; it shares the exhibition’s title and was edited by Alvin Buenaventura.
Clowes’ ten in-progress projects include a tantalizing “big graphic novel” he has alluded to repeatedly—but fleetingly—in recent interviews, as well as the screenplay for a film adaptation of Wilson, to be directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants).
Clowes spoke to us by phone in late March.
PWCW: How did the exhibition and book project originate?
Daniel Clowes: I believe it was five—or possibly more—years ago. It began with Susan Miller, the curator of the museum show. She approached me about doing a show and I thought it was one of those things that would never happen—but what did I have to lose? And right around the same time Alvin Buenaventura, who had his own publishing company at the time, approached me about doing a book of my illustration work and sketchbook stuff. And I thought that could relate to this museum show. So it was this amorphous project for years. Only in the last eighteen months or so did it become an actual museum show and an actual monograph.
It’s one of those projects that you agree to years in advance—“Yeah, sure, that would be nice”—and then you have people in your closet for years digging through all this stuff. And as they find stuff, you say, “Oh man, I don’t want anybody to see this. This is embarrassing.” But it was one of those things that I couldn’t back out of [laughing]. Like, “You guys have invested years of your lives on this, but I can’t let you go on.” But I decided to step back and say, “Whatever you pick, I’m not going to censor it.” Because I think it makes a better book to just allow them to put in whatever they want. They did an amazing job on the book, I have to say. It’s really dense. They found so much stuff that I forgot I even did.
PWCW: Did you have any hesitation about the very idea of taking your work out of its original context and putting it up on a wall?
DC: For years, that really didn’t make sense to me, because the work wasn’t created to be seen on a wall. The final artwork is the book. But I collect original artwork. It has a meaning to me that goes beyond the printed page. It’s the only [kind of] artwork you can see on a wall that you may already have a personal relationship with. If you read the story that that artwork comes from, you have a connection to it in a way you don’t have with a painting or something that’s only intended to be seen in that context. That made it interesting to me. There’s something about that final piece as an artifact of the printed work that gives it a certain value and magic. My goal with both [the exhibition and the book] is to get people interested in the work and then to read the books. If that is achieved, then both of these will have been a success.
PWCW: And you’ll reach a whole new cross-section of people.
DC: The museum’s non-scientific statistics are that 90 percent of the people coming in will have no idea [about] not only of who I am but of the whole world of comics that I come from. They won’t know about Robert Crumb or Art Spiegelman. They may know Charles Schulz, but not in the way that we do.
PWCW: 90 percent?
DC: [laughs] Yeah—well, maybe they just threw that out to scare me and to get me to be more mainstream in interviews or something. It sounds sort of right. It’s certainly a niche world. It’ll be interesting to see how people relate to it. I’ve always found that when people who are interested in art are introduced to comics, they always seem to be fairly receptive.
PWCW: Did you have input into the design of the exhibition?
DC: I am a consultant on it. They don’t want me to walk in on opening night and start crying. We lucked out and got this really amazing architect designer who’s doing all the 3D stuff—which I have no brain for. I’m a total 2D person. I can’t really see what it’s going to look like in advance unless he walks me through it very carefully. [The design] is very respectful. It’s all in keeping with my stuff.
PWCW: I wanted to ask you about the book design, too, because I know how much you love the book-making process.
DC: The luckiest thing that ever happened was getting Jonathan Bennett as the designer. He’s not only a great designer whose work is totally in keeping with my aesthetic, but he knows my work as well as anyone. You never get a designer who’s so in tune with the artist’s work. The book comes alive in a certain way over dozens of readings, because he put so much into this thing. We were so, so lucky to get him.
PWCW: It’s one of those books where you go through it dozens of times and see something new every time.
DC: Yeah, he should win awards for this book. He just did such an amazing job. We’d have a few little corrections, and then he’d come back and have redone half the book with some new inspiration. He just killed himself on this thing. And probably ended up making 15 cents an hour.
PWCW: Have the last two years been as busy for you as they appear to have been?
DC: It’s been nuts. I sat down yesterday and realized that I’m working on ten projects at once. [laughter] Which is not something I would recommend.
PWCW: How does that fit with your working style? Do you prefer to finish one thing and move on?
DC: I prefer to have two things—that’s my ideal, and that’s how it is most of the time. This is just an insane vortex right now, where there are all these finite projects that came along. So I’m actually working on four things at once right now, and not working on six others. I have a big graphic novel I’ve been working on and that’s been pushed off to the side for two weeks. So it’s not like I’m spending 15 minutes on one thing and then moving on to something else. But I do usually have all these things in my mind. Luckily, I’m not writing ten things. That’s when it gets crazy—when you’re writing two or three things at once. I try to always have something I’m drawing where I don’t have to think in terms of story, and then one thing I’m writing. That’s the perfect balance.
PWCW: Is Wilson your only currently-active film project?
DC: Wilson is very active. It’s looking good for Wilson.
PWCW: With the screenplays for Ghost World and Art School Confidential, you added more plot to the stories you established in the comics. Is a similar thing happening with the adaptation of Wilson?
DC: What you have to do is take the spirit of the thing and the things you like, and not feel like you need to replicate the experience that was already in the book. It’s a chance to do something new. Being the guy who best understands Wilson, I feel like it will be Wilson no matter what he does—because I’m writing it. It’s not necessarily going to follow the exact beats of the comic—although it’s not so far afield.
PWCW: What other kinds of creative work do you draw inspiration from?
DC: It depends on the project. You get something stuck in your head that you get obsessed with. Recently, I wanted to do a character in a comic that was a ‘60s guy like Lee Marvin or James Coburn—one of those ugly, fish-faced, violent guys with crewcuts. So I was obsessed with Lee Marvin for a while. All I could think about was Lee Marvin.
PWCW: Knowing that you are a strong believer in the art form of the book, have you had any offers to do work in a digital format? And what’s your attitude toward that?
DC: Well, nobody’s ever asked me to do purely digital stuff. My attitude is that I’m not going to fight against the forces of progress. But personally, it’s not that interesting for me to see my work or the comics I like on a computer screen—or any screen. There’s something about seeing it on paper that, certainly for my own work, is much more appealing. So it’s not that I wouldn’t do something that’s strictly for the computer, but it’s not the first thing I’d be doing on my list of ten assignments.