By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A strip from 1995, “Like a Weed, Joe,” is inspired by the summer when Clowes was 13 and was sent to stay with his grandparents at an isolated lake. His ability to remember his thoughts, fears and fantasies from several decades ago, and to communicate them in a single sentence matched with a simple drawing, is staggering. “Immortal, Invisible,” from the same year, recounts the last time he went trick-or-treating; he was too old for the activity and tall for his age, so it was a strange evening. “Blue Italian Shit,” from 1994, is a candid recollection of his struggle to reinvent himself after moving to New York at the age of 18, while “The Party,” from 1993, looks at how wrenchingly stressful it can be to recreate with one‘s peers. These modest short stories are remarkably moving in light of their economy.
“It was never a conscious intention, but loneliness is one of the central themes in my work,” says Clowes. “I’ve always felt separated from other people. I recently went through my work to put some things together for an art show, and I was struck by how frequently I‘ve drawn the image of the back of a guy’s head walking through a city. I‘ve drawn it over and over again, and I can’t think of another artist who‘s drawn that image. I guess I draw the back of the head because it’s more anonymous, nonconfrontational and fearful.”
Born in Chicago in 1961, Clowes had an unusual and solitary childhood. His parents divorced shortly after he was born, and his mother was married again, to a race-car driver, who was killed in an accident when Clowes was 4. “I was really shy when I was growing up, and saw myself as an outcast,” he says.
Clowes has a brother 10 years older, whom he describes as “a quiet, shy guy,” and his mother, now in her 70s, is attending law school. “She‘s a voracious reader with a big interest in women’s suffrage and law,” he says. “She‘s a pretty amazing woman who’s sort of a role model for lots of people who know her because she does what she wants instead of what she‘s supposed to do.
”My father is pretty amazing, too,“ he continues. ”As a kid he was involved in racing, and he built race cars from scratch. Before he remarried in 1976, he was living in a two-bedroom apartment and he decided to build an airplane in the spare room of the apartment. He actually *
built part of the fuselage and one of the wings, which he still has. I’ve been trying to get him to give it to me for years because it‘s incredibly beautiful.
“Neither of my parents made much money, but my grandparents did okay, so we weren’t really poor,” he adds. “I lived in three separate houses throughout my childhood -- my mother‘s, my father’s and my grandparents‘ -- and my grandparents’ was the closest thing to a home for me. I spent summers with them at a lake in Michigan where there weren‘t any other kids, and I was so isolated that I developed my own taste. I think having a good memory and an eye for detail is just part of being a lonely, sensitive kid. You really focus on minutiae when you grow up that way.”
Early on it was clear that Clowes had an aptitude for drawing, and when he was 16 he became interested in comics. Two years later he moved to Brooklyn to go to the Pratt Institute, which he attended for five years. Graduating with a BFA in 1984, he embarked on the grueling task of figuring out how to make a living.
“The hardest time of my life was the period after I got out of school in New York,” he recalls. “I felt like I had a set of talents that were of absolutely no use to the world -- it was as if I were a great blacksmith or something. I was always leaving my portfolio with publications, trying to get work as an illustrator, and most of the time they’d return it without even having opened it. I‘d get home from my morning portfolio rounds at about noon, and my two choices were to drink myself into a stupor -- and I’d started to drink very heavily during the period because I was really unhappy -- or to actually try to work on something.
”I finally thought, to hell with it, I might as well do something I enjoy, so I started working on a comic called Lloyd Llewellyn just for fun,“ he continues. ”I drew this story off the top of my head in a way it could never be reprinted -- it was full-color and really lavish -- but when I finished it I thought, I‘m not gonna just sit around with this. So I looked to see who the interesting comics publishers were, and decided to send it to Fantagraphics. A week later I got a call from [publisher] Gary Groth, who said, ’We‘d love to give you your own monthly comic.’ That call changed everything for me and was the best moment of my life.“