we talk to daniel clowes about defining a generation of american comics
He's been plagiarised by Shia LeBeouf, rewritten the comic book rules for the grunge generation, and spawned cult films Ghost World and Art School Confidential.
"I had this notion," says comic book pioneer Dan Clowes, "of not editing myself, just putting whatever sick thoughts I had down on paper, and if I had something that seemed really uncomfortable or unpleasant, my goal was to always go in that direction…"
Clowes is remembering surrealist masterpiece Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. The story ran in his ground-breaking comic Eightball, unravelling over 10 weird chapters that jittered between snuff porn, lunatic conspiracy theories, horny half-fish girls, and a secret map tattooed on the back of a dog with no face. It was Twin Peaks before Twin Peaks; a woozy nightmare of circular, Pinter-esque dialogue and skewed B-movie aesthetics, stark in inky black and white, nasty one page and laugh out loud funny the next. The series took the idea of what comic books could be right to the brink of crazy, then lurched over the edge.
The first 18 issues of Eightball ran from 1989 to 1997. Now, for the first time, they're being reissued as one deluxe set. Some two decades on, they are a fascinating time capsule from another age. Clowes strove to capture the America he saw around him- he drew a place riddled with obsessive slackers, kitsch Americana, caustic femme fatales, sweaty ratfinks, exhausting culture snobs, and magnificently, pointlessly belligerent nerds. The series is as relevant a snap shot of America's 90s Generation X as the music of Kurt Cobain, the writing of Douglas Coupland and the films of Kevin Smith. Eightball defined the zeitgeist, and in doing so, redefined the place of the comic book in popular culture.
"We came out of an era that was just moribund in comics." Clowes says over the phone from his home in California. "The original guys who'd revitalised Marvel in the 60s had faded, and they were replaced by guys imitating them, who were then replaced by guys imitating them, it was this fourth generation of boring, awful comics. At the same time all the head shops, all the drug paraphernalia shops were being closed down - and they were where underground comics by the likes of Robert Crumb would be sold, so that was disappearing as well. There was nothing, it felt dead. But there was a whole generation of us who'd grown up on Mad magazine and National Lampoon and the comedy of Monty Python and Richard Pryor, and we wanted to do good comics. All of a sudden these people started to appear all over the country, trying to do something different, it was a miracle that we got an audience. We were a very, very small offshoot of the comics industry - it didn't feel like we were taking over anything…"
As Clowes notes, the witty, cerebral aesthetic he was pursuing was a drop in the ocean in a market flooded with tired four-colour filler. Eightball might never have attained wider attention had the publisher, Fantagraphics, not hit on an idea - rather than trying to win over the hero obsessed fanboys who frequented in traditional comic shops, they decided to sell Eightball in alternative record stores. Here was a tailor made audience of disaffected kids, catching the first wave of grunge, and feeling completely unrepresented in a mainstream culture. And here was this weird guy drawing them on a page, writing sharp, funny and sad stories about punks and losers and great records and aimless lives. It was a perfect fit.Buying Eightball was like buying the latest Sub Pop release - both a source of entertainment and a declaration of who you were in an age when youth tribes were easier to define. Clowes's affinity with his audience ran deep, whilst he "didn't like any of that 90s music," his sarcastic humour, ennui, and love of kitsch, ironic artefacts struck a chord. He filled Eightball's pages with merciless caricatures of his own foibles, writing himself as an emotional coward or an ineffectual misanthrope scowling at the tiny banalities of the world. In fact, it's something of a relief to find him far more genial in conversation than the mean-spirited asshole that glares up from the page…
"I don't like any humourists who don't apply the same scrutiny to themselves." He explains of his warts-and-all self-portraits. "It always seems like propaganda at that point… I was just trying to examine my own opinions. A lot of me saying I hated something, I hated it in the way that you might say you love pizza - it wasn't a serious thing, it was more an act of self-definition. I was 26 years old and when you're that age you work out who you are by working out what you're not"
However, it was when Clowes decided to try something other than these funny, unflinching self-portraits that he created the story that elevated Eightball from minor cult read to iconic status; Ghost World.
"I had done the Velvet Glove story," he remembers, "which was so male-centric. I felt like everything I was doing at that time was just a version of me, so I thought I'm gonna come up with characters as far from me as I could get. I didn't think I was capable of writing an old lady, so I wrote some high school girls, which seemed completely alien to me, and I tried to write them as honestly as I could. I found them interesting and funny and kinda scary. What more could I ask for in a character?"
The two girls, Enid and Rebecca, were cynical teenagers spending their time drifting around the malls, diners and sidewalks of nameless small town America. Painted in a muted, twilight blue, the story was a pin point rendition of the bittersweet jokes and anxiety of teenage life. It became an instant hit, both critically and commercially. Four years after the final episode of Ghost World appeared in Eightball #18, Clowes turned the story into an Oscar nominated movie of the same name, starring Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch, and the young Scarlett Johansson in her breakout role. In doing so he created one of history's few credible comic-book-to-movie translations - although Clowes, ever cautious of self-aggrandisement, will only aver that he "likes that its own thing, not just a slavish recreation of the comic."
It becomes obvious as we talk that the whole process of looking back is something of an anathema to the artist. He's been releasing critically acclaimed comics continuously since putting Eightball on semi-permanent hiatus, and describes the process of re-reading his 90s outputas "sort of traumatic - the minute you look at a panel it triggers a memory of what you were doing that day. I find it kinda crippling." When asked if he would ever revisit any of Eightball's much loved characters, the answer, unsurprisingly, is a probable no; he likes "to burn everything to the ground and start over."
As we finish, and Clowes reflects on the series that made his name, he doesn't have a slick soundbite that he can churn out with a polished grin. He doesn't bask in a nostalgic glow, big up Eightball's role in changing the perception of comics in the wider world, or wheel out some Hollywood anecdote about Steve Buscemi. But he will acknowledge that Eightball has beaten the one thing that so many of his characters raged against.
"What do I think of it?" he muses. "It's not boring, I'll say that."
Text Ian McQuaid