Dan Clowes, B.F.A.

Dan Clowes is my hero. I first discovered his comic, Eightball, when I was a college student in Chicago, and in the spring of 1992, my friend Jason and I got to interview him for our magazine Pitch. Since then, Dan has moved from Chicago to Berkeley, and gone on to great fame and fortune...well, by underground comics standards, anyway...

Some of you may recognize his art from the posters for the Todd Solondz movie "Happiness" or from the OK Soda cans (if you were lucky enough to live in one of the test markets for this product which never quite made it to the general U.S. market). Or you may have seen his work on various album covers and in a Ramones video.

Dan is still putting Eightball out, and has also published numerous collections of his work. For more information on getting ahold of Dan's stuff, you can write or call Fantagraphics Books, Inc.: 7563 Lake City Way, Seattle, WA 98115, USA/ (1-800-657-1100). Or, you can browse the Fantagraphics website.

DC: Dan Clowes     JB: Jason Brodkey     JW: Jennifer Wade

JB: I guess we'll start with a stock question: "How did you get into comics?"

DC: I should just have a scroll: "I got into comics.... I always drew comics, even when I was a little kid, and I kept at it until somebody finally paid me money to do it.

JB: What were your influences?

DC: I always read comics. I have a brother who's ten years older than me and so he had all these neat comics from the late fifties, early sixties lying around. And then, he had underground comics which were absolute pornography, and I thought "this is great." I was ten years old and this was the greatest thing I'd ever seen, so naturally that's what I wanted to do. I mean I couldn't believe these grown men got paid money for drawing naked women. I thought "I can do that."

JB: Did you read superhero comics or only the undergrounds?

DC: No, I read every kind of comics. I mean, I remember reading superhero comics before I could read just trying to figure it out from the pictures. And then, later learning to read and reading the same ones again and remembering what I had thought was going on; God, I was a pretty strange kid. You know, there would be kissing or something and I would think "that woman is trying to eat him," stuff like that. You know the way they're drawn, they're never drawn romantically, they're really stiff and angular so you read in a lot of weird things.

JB: Are you interested in comics as "fine art" or more as entertainment?

DC: I'm just trying to entertain the masses.... No, I don't know... some days... It depends who I'm talking to; if I'm talking to somebody who's a real fine artist it's like, "I'm just a hack, I'm just hacking it out, ya know, I'm just trying to make a buck." But If I talk to a hack who's just hacking it out, just trying to make a buck, I'm like, "I'm a fine fucking artist man. This is true art. This is the art of the late end of the twentieth century."

JB: So, what do you think of Birdland? ["adult" side project by respected comics artist Gilbert Hernandez]

DC: (Chuckle) What, were you spying on me this morning or something? I think it's OK, I have no problems with it.

JW: Don't worry, he won't read this.

DC: He might.... See, I know Gilbert really well, and I know that if he hadn't done "Birdland" all of that stuff would have eventually found it's way into Love & Rockets [Gilbert Hernandez's regular comic] and wrecked it, 'cause he's, like, a seething inferno of lust. That's why he and I are such good friends. He had to do that, he really had to get it out of his system, so I applaud it. And he didn't make any more money on that than he does on Love & Rockets. I mean, it wasn't a ploy to make more money. Now if Jaime Hernandez [Gilbert's brother, and co-creator of L&R I had done it he would have made thousands of dollars. But Gilbert's women are too weird.

JB: That's for sure.

DC: Jaime's pretty bad, too. Both of those guys-you know, they were raised as repressed Catholics. Their mom wouldn't let them watch James Bond movies because there were scantily clad women in them. I mean, you gotta get it out.

JB: Has censorship ever affected your work?

DC: No, it's never affected my work, which is really kind of weird. I'm really kind of hurt by that fact because it makes me feel as if I'm incompetent as a pornographer or whatever I am. I think it's because my comics look really traditional to people who don't know any better. You know, you'd actually have to read them to see that subversive intent. So, you know, when people bust comic book stores they go right for Wendy Whitebread [adult comic book by Anton Drek] and all that stuff. They would see mine and go, "Oh, I don't know what this is." They ignore it; it's too nebulous.

JW: When you write your comics, do you always feel that you have the freedom to write for yourself or do you feel compelled to write for your audience?

DC: Well, when I was first doing Lloyd Llewellyn [Clowes' first solo comic] I really tried to conceive of an audience that didn't exist actually--but I thought they did--kind of like "a hip, urban audience that was just waiting to read comics," and I really tried to write to this audience and it really didn't work; it was a really bad idea. And so with Eightball the initial sales were so low, dismally low, so I thought "what's the point? I may as well do just whatever I want," you know. And of course, that caught on.

JW: In the story "The Truth", in your Eightball number two, your main character is a successful artist who basically feels that the art world's perceptions of "good" and "bad" art are entirely haphazard--

DC: Yeah, that's kind of based on people I've known in art school who would, you know, work their asses off trying to do these really kind of Renaissance-like paintings which took a lot of skill and effort, and didn't sell anything until they started painting cartoon characters on foam board or whatever.

JW: Also, in that story and your other stories that you've done about the art world, you seem to be expressing very cynical views--

DC: (Sarcastically) What, me?

JW: And in a lot of cases, you seem to portray artists as being akin to prostitutes, having to sell their souls to be able to do what they want to do. Do these views stem from your own frustrations with the art world?

DC: Well, no. I mean, it's just, it's kind of from my frustrations of being a cartoonist because I think I've chosen to be a cartoonist because that's about the only place left that you can really be free, at least in a narrative art. Because, if you're involved in the movies or anything, you're going to be co-opted and rewritten and there's just--and you have to get funding, Comics are such a minor deal, I mean, there's so little money to be made in comics that nobody cares about what you're doing. I mean, really, I have absolute freedom. I can do whatever I want. And in the actual art world, you've gotta kiss guys' asses right and left if you want to get in a gallery. I mean you're not gonna just walk out of art school and be a good painter and go out into a gallery--there's no way. I mean, you gotta know somebody--it's like, the most evil, predatory political system that you've gotta go through. The guys I know that have made it as fine artists after they got out of art school were these guys that had a real gift of gab and could really talk their way into situations and sell themselves. I mean, it's basically like big business. I mean, it's the same kind of people who rise up, it's not these timid little artists who live in a garret. Those guys get squashed. So, "comics is the way of the future."

JW: Some of your characters are obviously at least somewhat autobiographical. We were wondering if there is any significance to the fact that some of your other characters that are not autobiographical, like Clay Loudermilk [the main character in "Like a Velvet Glove"] for example, look like you?

DC: If you are going to draw a story with the same character where you have to draw him like, five hundred times it's gonna look like you-it really will. Because you'll be like, "how do I draw this expression?" you'll look in the mirror and all of a sudden the nose is a little more like yours. And by the end...I mean, I should have just started out making him look exactly like me because it would have been much easier, because every once in a while, I'll look at the first issue and be like, "ooh, he doesn't really look that much like he does now," and I'll have to alter him a little bit.

JW: Your earlier comics, especially Lloyd Llewellyn, were sort of known for being "retro," but Eightball seems to be moving away from that. Is that just something associated with Lloyd Llewellvn or was--

DC: That's kind of what I was talking about with that "target audience" that I had in mind. I mean, I thought that that was some... I mean, the idea of Lloyd Llewellyn, was like "A Guy who gets into stories," you know, there was no concept to it and I mean, people need a concept to buy something. They need, you know like, "he's a vampire in outer space with AIDS" or something. You know, there's got to be a plot to it. And I had, "A Guy who does stuff." So I had to have some trapping to it, so I thought if it had this "fifties meets the year 2010" or something. Some kind of weird "never-was-yester-morrow." It was just a hook basically..

JW: Hmmm... so, what are some questions you're never asked in interviews?

DC: One thing nobody has every asked me is "why did I call the magazine Eightball." I thought that would be the number one question that everyone

would ask.

JW: So uh, why did you call the magazine Eightball?

DC: I'm not gonna say at this point, it's too late. There's going to be an explanation about it in Number Ten. "The Eightball Manifesto." I was just in a Japanese bookstore, and they have all their fashion magazines and and Time magazines--those kind of things from Japan--they all have the greatest names. The names are like, Pumpkin. There's just words, they just pick a word. That's kind of what I did with Eightball. Their GQ magazine is called Brutus. I think that's great. They had like Rob Lowe on Brutus. Have you seen the greeting cards that have stuff written on them? It just absolutely makes no sense. I got one when I was in L.A. that has a picture of Bugs Bunny and he's holding a can; and it says "here comes Bugs Bunny with beer in hand." It's like, "Ohhhhhh, that's why he acts like that."

JB: Yeah, I love bastardized English. It makes me feel like I know how to speak.

JW: Like those chop sticks that are in every Chinese restaurant in Chicago that say "Please enjoy your nice Chinese food representative of glorious Chinese culture and history."

DC: Like they couldn't hire some consultant who would say, "Uh... let me reword this a little for you." There's a barber shop in Japantown in L.A. called "The Hair." I wish I could talk like that all the time.

JW: I guess the one solution is to go to some Asian country and speak their language poorly and they'll think that you're really quaint and funny.

DC: What are you studying?

JW: Russian

JB: English

DC: I was just talking to this girl I know who went to the U of C a couple of years ago and lived in Pierce Hall. She said that once she was looking out her window and a guy jumped to his death.

JW: Oh, no way...

DC: And it was because he had failed a German test.

JW: Usually it's only graduate students who commit suicide.

DC: My feeling is that if you jump because you fail a German Test, you deserve to die. We don't need you in the world.

JB: We have a lot of weirdos. Like, I heard about this one guy who freaked out and ran across campus into a building and then jumped.

DC: You have to have a sustained death-wish to do something like that.

JB: But he jumped from a second floor window and hit a snow bank or something so he didn't die.

DC: Giant snow angel. Do the still have the "Rites of May" at U. High? That was a big thing. We had that instead of our prom; it was this Shakespearean/Renaissance kind of stupid thing. And they would put on a Shakespearean play and it was this big groovy thing and there was a fair. But one year, the main actor of the school play killed himself the night before the opening of the play. It really put a damper the festivities.

JW: Sounds like "Dead Poets' Society."

DC: Yeah. He was like, this person that everybody hated. Like, I didn't know him at I all, but I remember everybody saying, "I hate that guy, he's such an asshole." And then, when he died, everybody was just like...well, we had this thing where we all held hands and passed out strawberries and said, "I loved him." And we listened to Beatles songs.

JW: Well, I guess he did the right thing in terms of his popularity.

DC: Oh yeah, it was a good career move. If he had had records out, the sales would have skyrocketed.

JB: Yeah, or comic books.

DC: Believe me, I've thought of it... "what can I do to get sales up?"

JW: I'm always surprised that comics don't catch on more.

DC: Well, it's just such a slow and laborious process. I mean, you've got to get people to read comics.

JW: It's a small audience.

DC: There's more than there used to be, that's for sure. When I first got the idea of doing this, it was the early eighties and there was nothing. I mean, I didn't even buy comics because there was nothing to read. Now there's like, five comics to read.

JB: Which five?

DC: The obvious stuff. You could probably name my list. Go ahead, let's see.

JB: Uh... Hernandez Bros. [Love & Rockets], Terry Laban [Unsupervised Existence, Cud], umm... your stuff... umm

JW: Umm, Peter Bagge [Hate], umm who else?

DC: Chester Brown [Yummy Fur], Julie Doucet [Dirty Plotte]... she's only like 24 years oh.

JB: Oh, man, makes me feel like a waste.

JW: Her work is another example of bastardized English.

DC: That's what's so appealing about it. The thing is, that in real life, she speaks much, much worse than she writes. She really has to get help to write as well as she can. She can barely speak English at all. She writes the greatest letters and I want to print them sometime, but she writes "Please do not print my letters, it is so embarrassing to read my bad English." But they're so cute. Let's see, who else do I read? Just the old underground guys like Robert Crumb.

JW: Have you seen Ivan Brunetti's new thing?

DC: What's that?

JW: What was it called again? Oh--Biff Bang Pow

DC: Ohhhhh, that thing, yeah. Have you ever met him, Ivan?

JW: No, I've just read his stuff in, like, "The Maroon."

DC: He's so sad.

JW: Really?

DC: He's, like, sadder than you could imagine. He's just really depressed.

JW: I like the fact that he's getting away from his death-wish type things, and that he's doing something new.

DC: Yeah, well, I think his stuff is kind of funny, because it's so extreme, and I think he really feels that way. He seems to be pretty depressed.

JB: So, what kind of music do you listen to?

DC: Mostly what people send me (laughs).... Yeah I get a lot of tapes from people, most of it's just like really horrible rock stuff that I just tape over.

JB: Hey, free tape!

DC: Yeah, yeah.... Actually, Peter Bagge and I were talking about this the other day, and we were thinking of a scam to get as many free tapes as we could, so we were thinking [of writing], "If anyone has any tapes of, like, Nirvana or the Butthole Surfers, could you send them to us?" We know we'd at least get, like, 200 apiece. So then, we'd have all these tapes, and we'd just tape over 'em, and, like, release some limited edition, or something

JB: Do you ever go to any of the galleries around here?

DC: No, I try to avoid art as much as I can (laughs). When I go to another city, I always immediately go to all the galleries, but I guess I just don't want to like...well, whenever I meet artists, they always want to hang out with me and stuff.

JW: (Sarcastically) Oh no!

DC: Well, I just think artists are, like, the most boring people in the world. I don't know why. I mean, all my best friends are artists, but they're exceptions. For the most part, it's just that they can't do anything else, so they become artists. Yeah, and all artists want to be cartoonists, too, but not permanently, they just want to like, do comics. They think "I'm a great artist, I can just do this," and that always pisses me off, because it takes years to learn how to do all the weird structural things that make up cartoons. You can't just be a painter and then all of a sudden be a cartoonist, it's not the same thing at all. I'm always insulted by the way they think that they can be a cartoonist for a while and do this public art form, and then go back to their ivory tower and do "real art." So fuck 'em all (laughs).

JB: Now that you're getting more famous, do you have any trouble with psychotic fans tracking you down and pestering you?

DC: In Hyde Park, a couple times, weird people would show up because I had a house with a porch. One time, this girl drove all the way from Cincinnati and got there at like eight in the morning, and I was asleep--I usually sleep until about two in the afternoon--and she sat on my porch until two, when I woke up. And I went out and said "hi" and she was just, like, totally nervous, and shaking. She was completely insane, completely off her rocker. It was pretty scary. I don't know what she thought... it's like, people think they know you because they read your comics, and then the minute they meet you, they realize "I don't know him and he doesn't know me. This is really uncomfortable." They just get really weird about it, you know? I've kind of gotten used to that by now, so I can kind of deal with it, but it's just this momentary realization that I'm not my characters. They think they're going to meet my characters.

JB: Right.

DC: Like, Jaime Hernandez is always saying that people meet him, and they're profoundly disappointed that they're not going to meet [his character] Hopey. They, especially women, want to be best friends with Hopey.

JB: I wanted to be best friends with Hopey.

DC: Yeah, I mean, I would like to meet Hopey, too, but then they meet Jaime and as he says: "they meet me and they see that I'm this short, fat little Mexican guy with a beard. And their faces just droop because they realize that Hopey is in here." (pointing to his head)

JW: So, basically, what are your grand career plans for the future--how long are you going to continue Eightball? first of all, and do you have a "big picture?"

DC: After the "Velvet Glove" story's done at the end of the year, I'm either going to start a new title or I'm going to keep with Eightball and have a different format maybe a different story--I dunno. It depends what our public-relations guy thinks about ending a successful title. I mean it would be stupid to stop it and then people would not know where to find my work. But I'm not going to go with Eightball for more than twenty issues if I do continue. By then, I'll be king of the world, and I won't have to worry about... But yeah, I just want to do comics... that's all.

JB: I think we're out of questions....

JB & JW: Is there anything else that you want to... say to the world?

DC: Well one thing that I just learned... you know this filmmaker... oh, what's his name... Desmond what. Desmond... no, not Desmond Morris. He's the guy who did the movie The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris? Well anyway, he's a really good documentary film-maker and I just met with one of his assistants and he wants to do a ten minute film of my story "The Stroll." And I told him that if he wants to do it he has to come to Division Street and walk down Division with a steady cam. So, he's planning to do that sometime this summer, so that will be pretty cool.

Copyright 1997, Daniel G. Clowes

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