By Sam Stander
Daniel Clowes has made the leap over the past decade from underground comics hero to a more mainstream identity, with an Oscar nomination for screenwriting, several New Yorker covers, and a comic serialized in the New York Times Magazine under his belt. Despite his raised profile, his newest work, Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly, 80 pages, $15.37), comes closer to home than ever before. The cynical comic strip-based book is largely set in Oakland, of which he is a proud denizen. Clowes recently appeared at Diesel in Oakland, in conversation with McSweeney’s editor Eli Horowitz and the audience. On the setting of the comic, he proclaimed, “I’m pro-Oakland, I’m not sure Wilson is.” He also discussed his forays into film, his debt to Charles M. Schulz and R. Crumb, and the slight controversy over his recent New Yorker cover, among other things.
A lengthy signing followed, where fans presented everything from freshly purchased copies of Wilson to old favorites like David Boring to collector’s items like Lout Rampage for signing. Once the line had dwindled, Clowes sat down for a one-on-one interview.
San Francisco Bay Guardian One of the things I wanted to ask you, if the Oakland observations haven’t been beaten into the ground, was that you also used to live in Berkeley, right? When you were writing Ghost World?
Daniel Clowes Yeah, I was living up by College and Ashby.
SFBG Why are you explicitly writing about Oakland now, and why did you choose to live in Oakland? What do you see as the differences between the different areas?
DC It’s funny, I sort of wound up in Oakland by default. We were living in Berkeley, because my wife was going to Berkeley, and our landlord doubled our rent one month, which I actually didn’t think was legal. And so we said, well, maybe we should try to buy a house. This was years ago. We looked all around Berkeley and it was really expensive, and we found this neighborhood in Oakland that we didn’t even know about, over where we live now, and wound up buying a house there.
You know, I never really thought about Oakland. Even living there for two or three years, I thought, well, we’re near San Francisco and Berkeley. Then I started to walk around and embrace the idea of Oakland. I kind of learned to like Oakland above all its other surrounding cities. I’ve gotten to the point where I almost never go to San Francisco. It’s like, I go to LA more than I go to San Francisco. I just don’t relate to San Francisco at all, and somehow Oakland feels — I grew up in Chicago, and Oakland has this kind of second-tier quality that I find appealing.
DC It’s not San Francisco. It’s [its] ugly sister across the Bay, and I prefer that somehow. I was in New York recently, and I was on a block in the Upper East 70s, I think, and I was looking around and I realized every building on the block was a beautiful art deco building built in the ’20s. And I thought, well, Oakland has one building like that. It has the Bellevue-Staten down by Lake Merritt. That’s it. But I’d prefer that, because, to see 20 of them, it has no impact anymore. It’s just, wow, a lot of buildings, and your brain can’t grasp that. But somehow I’m obsessed with this one building in Oakland and I know all about it. I can fixate on that one thing, so I like a city that has one of everything rather than hundreds of the same thing.
SFBG One of the strips in Wilson is him talking about all the bookstores closing down. I was wondering if that was you speaking through him at all, and if so, what bookstore are you saddest to see close down?
DC Well, that was really all about Cody’s. My wife worked at Cody’s, and when I moved here, I sort of agreed to move to Berkeley with my wife because of Cody’s. I thought that [was] something I needed, this world-class bookstore. It was sort of the focal point of my life for many years. I would go there two, three times a week and see what was new, and it just felt like the focus of my world in a way. And when it closed down, it was really hard for me to accept. It was like, you know, you always hear stories of guys who talk about their baseball team leaving town. The guys from Brooklyn are like, “The Dodgers left town in 1958,” or whenever it was. It felt like that to me…Still, when I go to downtown Berkeley and see that empty building, it seems so awful. It seems just like an awful thing that the world couldn’t support that.
SFBG At least it didn’t become a CVS.
SFBG [There] was a brief interlude where it was going to be a CVS.
DC Yeah, that’s true. There is that. At least the tomb of Cody’s is still there. And you think, “Well, somebody could just reopen it. Why not? Nobody’s paying rent.”
SFBG Looming over Moe’s.
DC Yeah, I should count my blessings. At least Moe’s is still around, and this place. Better than most cities.
SFBG You were talking about Wilson sort of materializing as a character, [that] you didn’t know who he was at first, but that it was you interacting with him. I was wondering if you’ve ever had experiences with a character who you didn’t have such a productive relationship with, or if you’ve ever had characters who worked against you?
DC Oh, that’s a good question. It’s more that they just run out of — it’s usually a character that I’ve kind of predetermined. Like, I need a character who’s a certain type of person to fit into a story, like, “I need a comic relief character.” Something where you have a role for them, and then they’re never that interesting. I find the best way to do it is to just let the characters come naturally. If they’re forced at all, they tend to [be] artificial. They have to seem like real people. There are characters that I’ve written the hell out of for page after page and they never quite are real people to me. Those are the things that never work, and that I usually have the good sense to throw away before they see print. [Laughs]
SFBG You’ve always had a really strong interest in perversity and human weirdness, and that’s not so central in Wilson. Was that a conscious move away or a permanent move away, or just a change in interests?
DC I think that’s true, you know. I always had a real interest in outsider culture. When I first began doing comics, that kind of thing was so inaccessible. I had a little group of friends who would send me all these weird things. You’d find out about little groups of people who were all linked together by some really odd interest, but they were so segregated. They’d maybe have some little newsletter that they all communicated through, but it felt like the world was filled with these little secret societies. And ever since the Internet has taken hold, it doesn’t feel like that anymore. It feels like the minute anybody hears about any weird little perversion or interest or anything like that, that everybody finds out about it and they know all about it, so it’s sort of lost its interest.
Also, having a child, you sort of reassess what you’re interested in, and you think, would this make me proud for my son to find my collection of books of pictures of freaks, or whatever? You just think, “Ehhh, I’m not sure I want to stand behind that.” Certain [times], you [decide] “I really do think this is cool and I will defend this,” but you weed out a lot of things that were just there because they would get a good reaction out of people.
SFBG Possibly spinning off from that question, but on another angle: You said [during the Q&A] that, specifically, no filmmaker has a strong specific influence on you, but certain films or certain scenes do. Are there any films or scenes you have in mind for Wilson or any of your other works?
DC I feel like Wilson is very non-filmic as far as most of my books go. It’s not about the images at all. A lot of my comics come from ideas that are images, that then turn into stories. Like David Boring and the Velvet Glove thing, and even a little bit of Ghost World. But Wilson was really all about this guy. If it were a movie, it would be more like a Mike Leigh movie or something than a Stanley Kubrick movie. [Laughs]
SFBG And you were saying that to make it into a film would be a strange format for a film.
DC It would be a strange format. I mean, you could certainly rethink it as a story about a guy, and sort of have the same elements, but to replicate the feel of the book would be a very odd thing. That’s the beauty of comics, is you can do all those different styles and they actually resonate off of each other, and even a really amateurish reader, a non-reader of comics, can tell the difference between the styles, whereas in a movie it’d be very hard to do different styles. Only film experts would get that you’re doing, you know, Michael Bay and then Alfred Hitchcock, or whatever.
SFBG Have you seen Natural Born Killers?
DC Yeah, that’s a perfect example.
SFBG Where it’s kind of off-putting at the end of the movie.
DC Right, it’s just a little irritating. Although I think that was the idea, I suppose. I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, I bet it’s really irritating now.
SFBG I’ve never seen all of it, actually. I’ve had friends show me parts.
DC I barely could tolerate it in theaters.
SFBG Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are —
DC Yeah, she’s great. I like him, too.
SFBG In the right role.
DC Yeah, yeah.
SFBG Somebody was asking you about drawing eyes and mouths and conceiving of how people look in each panel, and you were saying that you do [stick-figure] sketches beforehand. How much do you script or plan out or storyboard versus just drawing a comic?
DC It depends on, not even the story, but just on my mood before I start. I usually try to do each story somewhat consistently, but I’m always trying to come up with a new way to do things. Not to be different or to give myself a challenge, but [because] I’m looking for a better way to work. And I always have this carrot dangling in front of me that there’s some other way, that if I could only find that way, it’ll make everything easy. And then it never does, and it always comes out exactly the same, no matter if I script the thing carefully or if I make it up off the top of my head. I could show those comics to a hundred people, and they would have no idea what was the planned-out one and what was the one I just made up. It all turns out the same. And I think that’s true of most artists. You can’t really tell what they’re going through, it’s just their work is always them, you know.
SFBG Do you always get a stack of other people’s works [at signings]?
DC [Holding a thick stack of various printed matter presented by fans] This was a good stack, I’d have to say. Often it’s much more, like, Xeroxed stuff. This actually looks like some pretty decent stuff that people have actually printed up. But yeah, usually you get a big pile of stuff, although not as much anymore, because a lot of people don’t print anything. So now I get business cards, like, “Check out my webcomic.” I have to go type it in at home.
SFBG You have the thing in the little author’s bio in Wilson about [how] you have danielclowes.com reserved.
DC That’s right.
SFBG Do you have any ideas for using that, or anything you want to use it for?
DC Well, my publisher actually said, “Now you have to put something on there, since you said that in the book.” So they just put an ad for Wilson that links right back to their website. I don’t want to get into doing, like, a blog or responding to people, ’cause my life is already so taken up by just responding to e-mails from my friends that I can’t imagine introducing a whole ’nother element of that. But it would be good to make announcements, and just to clarify things. I feel like the average reader doesn’t understand that I used to do a comic called Eightball and the stories were serialized — I figure if there’s some way [to] really concisely explain my career, then I won’t have to explain it to everybody over and over. [Laughs]
SFBG Are the original sequences of Eightball ever going to be made available again, and things that aren’t collected?
DC One of these days we’re going to do the complete Eightball, and do like a hardcover thing, but that’s nine projects down the road or something. But before I die, if printing still exists.
SFBG As far as film projects, is there anything on the horizon or anything you’re excited about working on?
DC With Ghost World, I learned, don’t tell anybody about your film projects until they have a release date. I used to tell people, “Oh, they’re going to make a Ghost World movie,” and then five years later, they finally actually made it. I felt like such a chump. But I wrote a screenplay for this thing that Michel Gondry came up with, this crazy dystopian sci-fi epic. I wrote a script based on his ideas. His son is going to do the drawings for it. I’m not animating it, but I think he wants to do that as his next film, so that should be fun, if that actually happens.
SFBG Have you ever done any animation?
DC I did a video for the Ramones in 1995, and that was it.
SFBG Would you ever do it again?
DC Yeah, I’d like to, I’d like to. I need to sort of come up with an idea that’s only appropriate for animation, and then actually try to get somebody interested in producing it. So there’s lots of hurdles there. [Laughs] But yeah, I’d love to. I feel like I should do that one of these days.