Daniel Clowes, left, with Seth
It's excellent to see more cartoonists and graphic novelists being invited to take part in major literary festivals like Toronto's International Festival of Authors. It speaks not only to the growing popularity of the genre but also to the broadening, ever-shifting definition of "writer."
For fans of spotlight-shy seminal California cartoonist/screenwriter Daniel Clowes, his Friday interview gave us insight into his craft, canon and character. He and Guelph-based comic book artist Seth, the night's interviewer, shared an easy dialogue that struck a balance between informative, funny and revealing. The two have been talking comics on tour together for the last week in promotion of Clowes's new The Death-Ray (Drawn & Quarterly), his version of a superhero graphic novel.
During the 45-minute chat and audience Q&A, they touched on Clowes's desire at a young age to be "the guy who draws the comic books," superhero vs. alternative art comics, and the pros and cons of the genre's newfound popularity. Below are some choice quotes.
On cartoonists' lack of stage skills
Seth: Cartoonists are not performers, so don't be too hard on us.
Clowes: [An event like this] is like lifting a log and expecting the worms to entertain us. This is the most light I've ever seen.
On writing versus drawing
Clowes: At some point early on I discovered that I had more aptitude for writing than drawing. That came early and easily. To me, writing is a utility. You write to get to the place when you can draw.
Seth: It's that way for me, too. Writing is a very short period. Drawing is a very long one.
Clowes: A lot of my ideas happen when my mind wanders. As a cartoonist, you spend all this time inking and cutting things out and using a ruler to draw the borders and lettering. That's often when my ideas come.
On Robert Crumb
Clowes: I used to think his stuff was just filth. Dirty pornography. The stuff you hid under your bed and didn't talk about. But then his work became funny to me. I started to get the dry humour. Now I see him as someone who's been this amazing creative force for 25 years.
On the rise of the graphic novel
Clowes: Comics have grown so big. It's a totally different world now. You used to only be able to find alternative ones way in the back of a comic book store full of Marvel and DC comics, in a cardboard box labelled "Adult." Now they're sold in bookstores. We've escaped into the world of authors. Before that happened, though, I spent time being angry, trying hard to be visible. I was very bitter and resentful.
On superhero vs. alternative comics
Clowes: There used to be a division between the people who like superhero comics and the alternative guys. But now fans like both. Before, you'd never find someone who liked both The Hulk and Ghost World [Clowes's 1997 graphic novel originally serialized in his Eightball series that became a hit movie]. That person would have been considered completely insane.
Seth: Yeah. Those [superhero fans] hated us. Now it's mellowed out.
Clowes: If you'd mentioned Iron Man to a girl in the 80s, she would have rolled her eyes and called you completely hopeless. Now she'd say, "Oh, I loved Robert Downey Jr. in that movie."
On The Death-Ray, his first stab at writing a superhero story
Clowes: I just found myself thinking about how no one had ever done an earnest, non-ironic superhero comic. How doing one would be the worst idea ever. Then I thought, "I gotta do it." I thought it would be an interesting challenge, trying to do something that might turn out to be a terrible idea.
On what young cartoonists should watch out for
Clowes: I used to feel that the medium was in danger due to its new popularity. And that's kind of happened. There are only about three people in the world qualified at editing that type of work. Art Spiegelman and... actually he's the only one. Young artists don't always know that. They're getting these publishing deals and taking the advice of editors who might not know how to edit [that form]. When I was young, I would've done the same thing. But it can be dangerous.
Seth: That's the great thing about how comics developed: there was no money, there was no schooling. You could be a great cartoonist without even being able to draw, really.
On his feelings for the human race
Seth: You clearly hate people. [Audience laughs]
Clowes: I realize that I've drawn many images of someone shooting down masses of people. But actually, deep down I think I'm very optimistic. But I'm continually disappointed [in people]. Kind of like Wilson [main character in his 2010 graphic novel, Wilson]. He's a bit cynical and pessimistic but wants human connection that he never gets.
Seth: So why don't you let him have some? Why don't we create in our comics the worlds we want to be in?
Clowes: It's a good question. You might have to talk to my team of therapists.