Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes talks about his retrospective

Left: Cover of Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes (2012). Right: Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World (1997).

Daniel Clowes is an Oakland-based cartoonist and Academy Award–nominated screenwriter, known for seminal graphic novels such as Ghost World (1997), David Boring (2000), Ice Haven (2005), and Wilson (2010), which have redefined the language of contemporary comics. The retrospective “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” is currently on view through August 12 at the Oakland Museum of California and is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Alvin Buenaventura and published by Abrams.

THE BAY AREA CURATOR SUSAN MILLER approached me about five years ago and wanted to organize a retrospective of my comics, and I thought she was out of her mind. How many cartoonists get a museum survey of their work? It’s not like coming into a museum and saying, “We have a bunch of Cézannes, give us a show.” But I figured, why not try? We were looking at all the San Francisco–area museums, and I just wasn’t that enthused. San Francisco is such an overly precious city. Even though I live in Oakland, I probably go to San Francisco as much as I go to New York. Luckily, by the time our proposal was ready for submission, the Oakland Museum had received extensive funding that allowed it to be renovated from top to bottom. So they were like, “Yeah! Let’s do this!”

It was really important to me that the retrospective be in a “museum-museum” and not in a museum for comic art. The project was only interesting to me if it was in a different context from where my work is usually shown. That way, about 90 percent or probably even 99 percent of the people who come into the museum don’t know my work, which seemed like the only reason to do it. It’s as if cartooning was a way for me to sneak into the museum through the side door. I’ve done this my entire career, actually—I’ve snuck into being called an author, I’ve snuck into making movies, through comics. In a way, I feel weirdly guilty about it, but it’s also freeing. Most artists who have a museum retrospective—that’s a very loaded thing, in both positive and negative ways. But for me, it’s not even the main thing that’s going on with my life right now. It’s good I don’t have to obsess over it.

Right now I’m actually writing a screenplay, adapted from my graphic novel Wilson, and Alexander Payne is directing it. Wilson is a prickly character, and that’s the kind of character both Payne and I like. I won’t force a heartwarming moment in my work, unless the characters present it to me. At some point, they become sort of autonomous from me. Enid from Ghost World is one of those characters who wasn’t programmed to have likeable traits, and the audience’s relationship to her has really changed over the years. It used to be that about 90 percent of the readers loved her and 10 percent really hated her, but now I’d say it’s about 50/50, or even 40/60. Now people are like, “Why should I care about a girl who doesn’t even want to go to college?” I think things are more Darwinian out there nowadays, and it’s hard for people to deal with existential problems when they’re trying to get a job.

I used to be so anxious and stressed out about my career, trying to figure out my place in the world. Doing something and worrying whether people will like it or not, and what if they hate it, and then, “Well, this is it, this is the one everyone’s going to hate. I’ll never work again and I’ll have to go back to college.” And when my son was born a few years ago, then I was really freaking out and thinking, “Oh my God, what if my work doesn’t sell and we’ll have to go live in our car or something?” So I try to be happy and appreciative now about my career and work.

In terms of my schedule, I work every weekday from ten to five, and then a couple of hours later at night. As a self-motivated person you just have to train yourself like a monkey to do some of things that are real drudgery. But a lot of the actual making is still really fun. I can tell a mile away when somebody’s using a mouse instead of a pen. It’s you who’s in control of a brush or pen or pencil, and it’s some other guy who wrote a program that’s dictating the way you do things on a computer. There’s a big difference, even just psychologically. The sheer joy of it is really sitting down with that piece of paper and doing the work by hand.