Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dan Clowes Visits Atomic Books

Friday, September 14
5-7 p.m.

Tom Warner (L) and Dan Clowes (R, striking Dave Cawleyesque pose)
(photo by Amy Linthicum)

Daniel Clowes (rhymes with "ploughs") is my favorite modern cartoonist. He's also, along with Charles Schulz, the cartoonist whose characters I most relate to (we are all Charlie Brown to some extent; some of us, present company included, are also Pig-Pens!). He's also one of the most successful graduates of the 1990s "alternative" comics revolution - a period highlighted by such classic comics and graphic novels as the Hernandez brothers' Love and Rockets, Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve, Ivan Brunetti's Schizo, Peter Bagge's Hate, Chester Brown's Yummy Fur, Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library, and Charles Burns's Black Hole - one whose frequent New Yorker cover illustrations, best-selling graphic novels (Wilson, Ghost World, The Death-Ray), stylish CD and DVD cover art (Las Vegas Grind Vol. 4, the Criterion Collection's Sam Fuller films The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor), and award-winning movie adaptations (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) attest to his high profile status in the mainstream of American Pop Culture.

So when I heard that the Farrago from Chicago was in town last week for a September 14th book-signing at Atomic Books - promoting The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist (edited by Alvin Buenaventura, the "man of few words" who accompanied Clowes at the event and brought neato rubber stamps with which to stamp copies of his book), the first monograph to comprehensively examine his life and amazing 25-year career as cartoonist, screenwriter and social critic - I felt compelled to head to Hampden to press the flesh with the man whose Eightball comic (Fantagraphic Books, 1989-2004) so perfectly skewered the essence of everything I hated about '90s hipster culture (much as Peter Bagge's Hate satirized the whole Seattle slacker-grunge scene). In a word, Clowes "got it." And his perspective was vicious - if not as bleak as Brunetti's Schizo! His shit list included art school poseurs, peaceniks, hippies, fashionistas, crybabies, whiners, and "sensitive people."

For me, Eightball will always remain Clowes legacy masterwork, even as I continue to enjoy his later graphic novels. It provided most of the stories in Caricature: Nine Stories and Twentieth Century Eightball and was the DNA from which the graphic novels Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, Pussey!, David Boring, Ice Haven and The Death-Ray were spawned.

Eightball: Signs point to brilliance.

I must admit I couldn't afford to buy a copy of The Art of Daniel Clowes (cheapskate me got a library copy!), but it's certainly on my 2012 Christmas list. There are insightful essays on Clowes by Susan Miller, Ken Parille, Ray Pride, fellow alterna artist Chris Ware, and the great Chip Kidd (Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan), as well as Kristine McKenna's revealing 2011 interview with the cartoonist. I learned, for example, that hippie-hating Clowes (see: "Hippypants and Peace Bear in Question Authority") was a big Dragnet fan, like me.

Hippypants and Peace Bear

"I related with incredible intensity to Jack Webb, probably because he was this no-nonsense guy," he confessed to Kristine McKenna when talking about his largely unsupervised childhood, in which his parents divorced early, his stepfather died when he was seven, and his older hippie brother was out of the house by the time Clowes was eight. "The whole hippie thing really creeped me out as a kid because it was chaotic, and it brought chaos into my life. I'd be in my room trying to draw Spider-Man comics and some naked hippie would walk by my door to get a towel in the bathroom. My brother's friends would be walking all over smoking dope, and there would be drugs deals going on. I didn't know how messed up some of it was until much later, but even then, I knew something was wrong."

"Hey hippie, it's reality calling!" says Jack Webb, a no nonsense kinda guy.

Visually, I really enjoyed Clowes sharing his childhood photo albums, drawings and family holiday cards with editor Buenaventura; seeing pics of young Dan dressed as Batman and his crayon drawings of his beloved Spider-Man reveals a lot about where he was coming from and where he was headed. I mean, isn't The Death-Ray just Clowes's modern existential take on the superhero comics (especially Spider-Man, right down to Death-Ray's costume) that so influenced his childhood? (In a 2011 interview with Flavorwire's Kathleen Masura, Clowes explained why he gravitated towards Peter Parker's arachnid superhero as a child: "As a kid you look at Clark Kent who's still a big jock with glasses and think, 'I don’t relate to him at all.' But the original Spider-Man was really 120 pounds and a total loser, and I was so inspired by that.")

Many other Clowes fans were in attendance at the Atomic Books soiree, including Atomic Books founder Scott "Unpainted" Huffines, Enoch Pratt librarian and "Film Talks" programmer Marc "Clean &" Sober and, rumor has it, otaku Clowes fan Dave Cawley. Scott knew Clowes from his Atomic Books reign (1992-2000) and had a long conversation reminiscing and updating him on his current status. And, as a former alternative bookstore owner, Scott had a bagful of cool memorabilia for Clowes to sign, from Enid Coleslaw dolls to a Lloyd Lewelyn poster.

Scott Huffines catches up with Daniel Clowes

During his face time with Clowes, film fanatic Marc Sober asked if George Roy's Hill's 1964 film comedy The World of Henry Orient was one of the inspirations for the Ghost World. In Hill's film (which was based on the novel by Nora Johnson), two teenage private-school girls - Valerie Boyd (Tippy Walker of Peyton Place) and Marian Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth) - stalk concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) and write their fantasies about him in a diary. If it sounds very Rebecca and Enid Coleslaw traipsing around after sad-sack middle-aged geek Seymour (Steve Buscemi) it is. Clowes not only confirmed the connection, but said he insisted that a poster of Henry Orient appear in Terry Zwigoff's film adaptation of his Oscar-nominated screenplay (even though it meant paying a pretty penny in clearance!). Look for the poster hanging in Enid (Thora Birch)'s bedroom.

Marc Sober knows everything, even that Nora Johnson's novel was based on real-life pianist-actor-raconteur Oscar Levant, whose name in French means "orient." Go Marc!

For my part, I got Clowes to sign my copy of Wilson, the graphic novel character I must relate to. And I thanked him for turning me on to Todd Graham's Apocalypse Pooh (1987), an audio-visual mashup of Winnie the Pooh and Apocalypse Now that I learned about because of an ad in the back of Eightball #3. Graham is now credited by many as the Godfather of the Video Mashup.

"Apocalypse Pooh" video box cover

"Ha," Clowes laughed. "That was in the days before the Internet!" Indeed, it was the days when you learned about things by hunting them down in books, magazines, and comics. And when video mashups like Apocalypse Pooh were only available on clunky VHS tapes with lotsa color-saturation bleed from analog duplication. (I actually like those days - analogy technology was the primordial ooze from which Scott Huffines and I begat the low-res videoscramble known as Atomic TV!)

I'm still making my way through The Art of Daniel Clowes, so I'll stop here without further ado.

I leave you with a strip from Twentieth Century Eightball that beautifully encapsulates the spirit of Eightball and the "balanced cynicism" of Clowes's worldview, a view I share.

Eightball: The Mission Statement

In the last three panels, Clowes's character says:

"Sure, in many ways life is horrible. But we must never forget that there are beautiful, sweet-natured 22-year-old girls who are bursting with love and who would rather read than watch television...

Also there is beautiful art and music and a small handful of like-minded indivuals with whom to share your time...and those with a black sense of humor are never at a loss for amusement.

There is work to be done, history to be made, petty ego triumphs to be had...and what's more, love does exist and is indeed a beautiful thing!"

That about sums up the spirit behind the art of Daniel Clowes, modern cartoonist.

Related Links:
Daniel Clowes's Official web site


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