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Clowes’ World 

The story of a comic artist

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
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If the first Dan Clowes comic you stumbled across was ”Needledick the Bug-Fucker,“ ”Hippypants and Peace Bear,“ ”Zubrick and Pogeybait“ or ”Dickie: Disgusting Old Acne Fetishist,“ you‘d probably figure there was no way the guy could write a movie. ”Needledick“ introduces the reader to a wicked little boy with precisely that obsession; ”Hippypants“ chronicles the pointless meandering of two acid casualties; ”Zubrick“ is the story of two loser roommates who discover carnivorous worms breeding under the kitchen sink; and the title of ”Dickie: Disgusting Old Acne Fetishist“ says it all.

Wildly scatological and nonlinear, these surreal strips seem to cheer, ”Yippee! Making sense is for squares!“ Clowes is an artist of astonishing range, however, and those slices of post--Zap Comix psychedelic humor represent a fraction of his sensibility.

An entirely different side of him is at work in Ghost World, the film adaptation of his 1997 comic novel, which opens this week in L.A. and New York. A beautifully observed coming-of-age story about two vaguely depressed teenage girls, the film, co-written by Clowes, stars Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as best friends who spend the summer after high school graduation struggling to figure out what to do next. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, whose 1994 documentary, Crumb, on artist Robert Crumb, was hailed by critics as a masterful work of nonfiction filmmaking, Ghost World has few precedents in its tender evocation of the interior life of young American girls; The World of Henry Orient and Welcome to the Dollhouse come to mind, but for the most part Ghost World operates in virgin territory.

Fans of Clowes’ comics will be pleased to hear that he lives in a slightly old-fashioned manner in keeping with his work, which seems to exist in a melancholy time warp. He and his wife, Erika Clowes -- a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Berkeley who has an exquisitely detailed tattoo of a squid on her right calf -- share a small, two-story Victorian house within walking distance of an old downtown section of Oakland. (They tried living in Los Angeles briefly in 1992, but lasted just four months. ”I like to walk,“ he explains, ”so L.A. didn‘t work for me.“)

They moved into the house late last year, so the yard is still a bit overgrown, but inside everything’s neat as a pin. This is clearly the residence of an orderly eccentric with a discerning eye for flea-market treasures. A disturbing portrait from the 1930s of a young woman sitting in a chair and brooding angrily dominates the living room. His studio upstairs is furnished with a paperback-book rack stocked with vintage pulp fiction, and a portrait of Freud executed in beans and pasta shares wall space with various works of original comic art. Two pet guinea pigs live in a downstairs office, and a snake sleeps in a glass cage in the dining room. ”You only have to feed it every three weeks,“ says Clowes, who seems to have a preference for low-maintenance pets.

Clowes dresses meticulously -- in pressed shirts, dress pants and pullover sweaters -- and it‘s hard to imagine him in a pair of blue jeans. He’s a late sleeper, and when I arrive to interview him early one afternoon, he expresses an interest in breakfast. We walk to a diner a few blocks away, where he picks at his eggs, then pushes the plate away after a few bites. He‘s a slender man, and food doesn’t seem to be his thing. He‘s soft-spoken and sensitive, but his analysis of human behavior is savagely on the mark.

Clowes’ incisive powers of observation are at the heart of his most hilarious pieces. In the 1991 strip ”Marooned on a Desert Island With the People on the Subway,“ Clowes explores the human propensity to enter a crowded public space -- an elevator, for instance -- glance around, and in a split second conclude who‘ll take control when everyone’s freaking out, who‘ll create problems, and who you’ll have a crush on.

”The saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover‘ is one of the most untrue phrases ever uttered,“ says Clowes of his unique style of social studies. ”You can absolutely judge people by the way they choose to present themselves, and although you can’t be completely accurate in your judgment, you can discern lots of information. And we all do, whether we‘re conscious of it or not.

“My tendency to deconstruct people with just one look is a defense mechanism,” he adds, “and although I don’t really need one at this point in my life, it‘s not easy to shake the things you grew up with.”

Ghost World the book has the sweet, rueful tone characteristic of Clowes’ best works, his autobiographical pieces. As is true of the comic novels by the giants of the form -- Ben Katchor, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar and Chris Ware -- the leitmotif is loneliness. “Dan has a real appreciation for outsiders and an amazing capacity to inhabit their skin,” says George Meyer, head writer for The Simpsons and a longtime friend of Clowes. “His characters often seem like ghosts adrift in a baffling, uncaring world, and they float through the city having internal thoughts they share with no one.”

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