Spreading fear and mayhem in the visual arts.

Daniel Clowes Interview, Fumetto, April 2011

Posted in Comics & Manga, Illustration, Interviews by Suzanne on April 15th, 2011 | BBC Wikipedia


The Wurzeltod® and The Fenner® getting their copy of Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron signed by Daniel Clowes - Click here for result - Photo by Fabienne Anthes, Fumetto 2011 - click to enlarge

Rob and I had the great privilege and honour to conduct a short interview with the great Daniel Clowes during Fumetto 2011 in Luzern, Switzerland.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with his oeuvre (PHILISTINES!), Daniel Clowes is a leading (in my personal opinion the best) comics artist of our time with the rare talent to create equally spellbinding words and imagery. I assume you could therefore call him a "graphic novelist" if you MUST (*shudders*), but I do believe he is so much more than that with a Bunuelesque, Lynchesque phantasmagoric cinematographic imagination and a Chris Wareish claustrophobic understanding of all the grey areas of human nature and the sheer terror of everyday life. He shares the joy to celebrate the imperfect, ugly, grotesque and freakish with Robert Crumb and even artists of the Japanese ero-guro genre.

Reading his books - particularly the entire Eightball - is an act of letting go, of being absorbed by the pulp, of becoming part of his universe. A bit like being locked into a museum with a dusty Paul Delvaux where not one character is looking at the other... searching for eyes, for a point, a perspective, an exit and realising that the only way out is through the canvas.

OKAY, YOU GOT THE DAMN IDEA! YOU WANNA READ HIS BIO?! HERE'S HIS BIO!


Eightball #8 cover by Daniel Clowes, Fumetto 2011 - click to enlarge

Wurzeltod/Misanthropop (W/M): We were amazed to see so much relatively early and unpublished work at your Fumetto retrospective at Frigorex and it occurred to me how much more geometrical, raw and abstract your early work was compared to what you're doing now. Was it a conscious decision to create more of a "well-rounded" style or just the natural evolution your art took?

Daniel Clowes (DC): I always wanted to draw the way I draw now to some degree but I wasn't able to back then. That early, kind of angular style... there's a lot of shortcuts in it that other artists might recognise as things that eliminate the need to do complicated drawing. I wanted the pages to read a certain way, have a certain look. Back in the early days, I simply wasn't able to draw absolutely anything. You could say I was writing stories around my limitations.

Very complicated visual stuff would often have to end up in word balloons. A guy on horseback would have been in text rather than drawn, for instance. As I got years and years more practice and accumulated more drawing skills, I felt more and more comfortable. I still wouldn't want to draw horses but if somebody put a gun to my head and said "Draw that!", I could.

Even though I'm moving in the direction that I have set out, I'm still not one of those artists who can sit down and draw without any struggle, I still have to work very hard to make it look like what I want it to look like. I've learned to make it look more effortless now - whether it is or not. That's the trick.

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W/M: That brings me to a question I asked Peter Blegvad for Fumetto 07: What's the most difficult thing for you to draw? What do you struggle with most or even avoid? Peter said that he finds it almost impossible to draw hands and admired Killoffer's hands greatly. So what is your pièce de résistance?

DC: Animals - they're very hard to draw. I can draw animals in a cartooney, exaggerated way but when I try to draw them naturalistically, they look really goofy. I was never interested in drawing animals in a realistic way as a kid. Same with cars. I can draw the outline okay but when I draw the people inside they either look scrunched up or really spacious.

Another thing that's hard to draw is people eating dinner. You have to draw all the plates, knives and forks in perspective and you have to match where everything is at the table, it's much more difficult than it seems.

I think that the easiest comic to draw would be something like Tarzan where they're all out in the jungle. It's a space thing, you'd just be drawing vines and trees until they fill up the page and you have no actual three-dimensional space left - you would not even need to use perspective at all.

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W/M: Who would you list as your biggest influences - be it in comics or art in general?

DC: In the world of comics it would be Robert Crumb and Harvey Kurtzman. I try to find influence in every aspect of comics, and I tend to find that filmmakers are more of an influence than other visual media. I personally think that painters are not a good influence for comics, the kind of things you're trying to do in a painting aren't useful for what you're trying to do at all in a comic. Unless you look at it holistically, the entirety of a painting as a narrative of a story, and how that would translate into a comic. But the demands of picture making are very different than they are in a comic.

The older I get, I find the more interested I get in limited forms of art, the dialogue of theatre and the cinematography of film. I don't want any one picture to stop you from the entirety of the story. There are artists who try to make every panel this beautifully composed image but my goal is to get people reading the comics to forget that they're looking at pieces of paper and are turning pages but that they're actually inhabiting this world. That they're partly in control and that it's no longer just an experience of assimilating images. I don't want to give any one panel too much weight of opinion.

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Selfportrait by Daniel Clowes, Fumetto 2011 - click to enlarge

W/M: There's probably a fair amount of people who got to know your work via movies like "Ghost World" and as you said before, you're drawn to cinematography. How would you react if you were given a chance to work with a director with a similar penchant for the surreal and bizarre like David Lynch, or, if still alive, Luis Buñuel, on the movie version of "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron"?

DC: I would obviously let David Lynch do it, but the trouble with most filmmakers like him is that he's got his own vision so it would end up being absolutely his film. He's not the kind of filmmaker who is going to try to accurately bring my inspiration to screen, he would just take it as a beginning and create his own film of that. Which could be great - I would be all for it, but it just wouldn't feel like a collaboration, necessarily.

I almost feel that "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" would be better done by someone who is a really straight forward, sober director, without any inflection at all, just to do it really deadpan, without further pointing out the strangeness of it or it would turn into the "wackiest film ever made!" (laughs)

I always think "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" will be a mainstream film in 2050 with kids going to see it... culture having fallen to that level by then. (laughs)

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W/M: I read in a decade-old Guardian article that you produced over 20 drafts for "Ghost World" and even made your own props etc. Are you a bit OCD when it comes to movie adaptations of your works?

DC: Yes, I was a little OCD about "Ghost World". I felt like it was my only chance to ever make a film so I wanted to do it perfectly. And I was also very insecure and had no idea how to write a script. Even the college intern types working on the film knew more about making movies than I did in terms of technical aspects. I actually felt like a real fraud being able to bypass all the education you have to go through to make a film. I just walked right into it and had all that control.

You write a script and you think people are going to change things around but it really wasn't like that at all. People take it very seriously. Every word you write has an almost biblical significance, it's almost like a fundamentalist religion where people take every word literally and you can throw in some funny little description to make Terry Zwigoff (EDIT W/M: the director of "Ghost World") giggle and all of a sudden you find there's a technical guy building whatever you wrote as a little joke and spending hours constructing something that could just as easily have been replaced.

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W/M: Did you experience the process of script writing to be somewhat similar to writing graphic novels considering they are both sequential forms in a way?

DC: It's similar because in both you're telling stories through the dialogue. You're writing really small indications of what those visuals would be but that's the director's job... to set the scene. So in many ways it's very similar but there's a time element in the film where in the comic you can be a little more elusive. You don't have to be quite as direct and clear in the way you tell a story because the reader can stop when they're a little confused, they can go back and make sense of a story again.

Whereas in a movie, the minute you are watching a movie and say "Wait a minute! Is that the guy who did that?" you are not watching the movie and the movie is moving past you and you are still thinking about something that took place earlier. You have to keep the audience in the movie as it is going along. And that's a very different demand than creating a comic or a novel.

Also, movies have more of a musical quality. You have to mix things together so that it works rhythmically and feels that the emotions are moving in the right way. It's a complicated aspect that the screenwriter has very little control over.

I was so used to having utter control over what I did in doing comics, so I had to learn to think of the screenplay as the final form, I tried to get it as good as I could and then whatever movie is made from it, I had to step back from that. That's a separate thing.

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Art School Confidential by Daniel Clowes, Fumetto 2011 - click to enlarge

W/M: Let's get back to your graphic novels for a bit. I was wondering whether you could tell us more about your love affair with the imperfect misanthropic suburbia man/woman as main protagonist, why he's different to the classical anti-hero and whether you generally prefer broken glamour to white teeth perfection.

DC: That's very true. I have actually thought about that a lot. I think that's something I have yet to do: To really sit down and try to create a likable character. To build a likable character, let's say in a Hollywood movie, you have to make him so over-the-top... it's so flattering to the audience's sense of themselves, so pandering to their fragile egos that it seems almost like you're making fun of the audience's feelings.

To me this just seems too awful - it has the same qualities as doing advertising for a really unhealthy product. And it's precisely because of that that I like the idea of trying to play with that at some point. Whenever I try to create a likable character though, he just turns into another Wilson - because that's of course who I find likable. All of my friends are much more the angry, seething, out-of-place guys and I can't imagine anything worse than hanging out with a Russell Crowe type character. (laughs)

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W/M: The Guardian has quoted you as saying "I once had this idea to do a comic where a mother tattoos a message on her baby's head so that years later, when he's losing his hair, he finally sees it. It would say something like, 'I never loved you'.". That was obviously before you became a father yourself. Is it something you've considered doing when your son was born?

DC: (laughs) It actually didn't cross my mind. They're their own autonomous beings much more than I ever imagined myself. I thought children were just these creatures that parents control and shape but they really are just themselves from minute one.

He was also born with a lot of hair so I would have had to shave his head first. (laughs)

But someday he's going to read that interview and go "God, my dad was such an asshole!" (laughs)

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W/M: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure!

DC: Nice talking to you guys!

Daniel Clowes' Fumetto retrospective will be on display until April 17, 2011 in Luzern, so if you happen to be in Switzerland this weekend, don't miss it. More information here.

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11 comments to " Daniel Clowes Interview, Fumetto, April 2011 "

  1. Gravatar

    Ex Nihil Nihilo says:

    Thank you for this very eloquent interview with insightful references! I would have loved to greet you at Frigorex but unfortunately I was stuck listening to Mrs. Susan Miller's talk. OTL

    April 18th, 2011 at 9:22 pm

  2. Gravatar

    Suzanne says:

    Thank for the feedback - I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

    After a far too long break from Fumetto since 2007, I'm really trying to go back there every year now, so maybe there's an opportunity for us to meet next year.

    April 18th, 2011 at 9:41 pm

  3. Gravatar

    Vanwall Green says:

    Bleedingly excellent! Good asks, and interesting answers - I like his explanations of what he can't draw the best of all! Thanks for posting this!

    April 21st, 2011 at 6:34 am

  4. Gravatar

    Suzanne says:

    I found that very fascinating too. So many questions I still wanted to ask him but so little time. He's the nicest guy you can imagine, so patient and so eager to make everyone feel comfortable around him. He's not from this planet.

    April 21st, 2011 at 1:56 pm

  5. Gravatar

    Charles says:

    Yes, a very interesting interview. I too like the business about what drawing struggles he has or had. I draw as a hobby and that sort of thing I always find interesting, I always get the impression that it's largely effortless for someone like Clowes, when you look at all he's done, and so it's comforting when you find out otherwise.

    May 14th, 2011 at 1:39 am

  6. Gravatar

    Suzanne says:

    I'm glad you found it interesting, Charles, and I totally agree with you that these kind of questions are often left unasked so I'm glad I got an opportunity to ask him a few things of a slightly different nature than: "When is your next book out?" and "what movie are you working on?"

    May 15th, 2011 at 5:06 pm

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