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.”
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.“
Lloyd Llewellyn was published in April of 1986, and a short time later Clowes moved back in with his grandmother in Chicago. ”Chicago is depressing, and it was horrible living there again, but it was essential in that it relieved me of the need to make money and allowed me to focus on my work,“ says Clowes, who stayed in Chicago until 1992. (He created a merciless portrait of his hometown in the 1991 comic ”Chicago.“)
In 1989 Fantagraphics began publishing Clowes‘ ongoing serial Eightball, the first issue of which centered on ”Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.“ Clowes says the strip, a darkly surreal sex comedy with a macabre edge, was loosely based on his ill-fated first marriage, which began in 1987 and ended in 1991.
”When I read my comics years after having done them, they often seem like maps of what was going on in my subconscious. And when I reread ’Velvet Glove‘ a few years ago, it was obvious to me it was about that marriage,“ he says of the comic, whose cast of characters includes a dog with no orifices and a talking potato. ”Things often bob to the surface of my subconscious that I have intensely mixed feelings about, and with almost all the stuff in ’Velvet Glove,‘ my initial thought was, ’My God, I can‘t draw this!’ That‘s the most important stuff to put down, though, and I just sort of let it all go on the page.“
Meyer says that Clowes ”is absolutely fearless when it comes to laying out his inner world. It’s as if there‘s some approval-seeking part of the brain that just isn’t there with him. He also seems to be acutely aware that all aspects of reality are basically up for grabs, and he‘s not afraid to play around in that anarchic world.“
The anarchic side of Clowes’ temperament has resulted in the strips ”Ugly Girls,“ a primer on his refreshingly unorthodox views on feminine beauty; ”Grist for the Mill,“ wherein he demonstrates how irritating people fuel his creativity; ”I Hate You Deeply,“ which is a laundry list of social types Clowes finds annoying (fashion plates, watered-down-nostalgia hounds, idealists); and ”I Love You Tenderly,“ Clowes‘ list of favorites, which includes, as he puts it, ”honest-to-god eccentrics, living archetypes, and losers.“
”People are always trying to bury their opinions or be reasonable, and the intent with those strips was to take my most reflexive opinions and exaggerate them,“ he explains. ”I think there’s something funny in being unreasonable and taking no prisoners.“
How Clowes manages to write believable dialogue for all these different cultural archetypes remains a mystery. ”I don‘t do research,“ he says, ”but I love overhearing conversations in public. I have to say, though, that whenever I eavesdrop I’m shocked by how unbelievably mundane the conversations are. I often wonder if they‘re having a fake mundane conversation because they know I’m listening.“
In 1994, Clowes met Terry Zwigoff, who was looking for a new project in the wake of Crumb. After receiving loads of what he describes as ”shockingly bad scripts,“ Zwigoff concluded he‘d have to generate his own film and began casting a wider net.
”Dan’s work is distributed by Last Gasp Publishing, where my wife worked for a while, and she used to bring piles of comics home,“ says Zwigoff. ”Dan‘s stuff struck me as unusually genuine, and I thought Ghost World was a masterpiece as a comic. I had no interest in adapting it into a film, but I liked his sensibility, so we met. I immediately felt a connection with him, and we started meeting regularly and tossing story ideas around. Lianne Halfon was my producer on Crumb, and we wanted to work together again, so when I sent her Ghost World and she agreed the characters were strong, the three of us started having story meetings.“
Thus, Clowes, Zwigoff and Halfon were launched on what stretched into a seven-year quest to turn Ghost World into a movie. The film was budgeted at a modest $6 million, but getting it financed proved to be difficult, and several studios came and went before United Artists agreed to release it. Adapting the material for the screen was an even bigger challenge.
”The hardest part of transposing the story from the page to the screen is that in the comic you see the world from the girls’ point of view, and we didn‘t want to lose that,“ says Halfon.
As far as Clowes was concerned, ”The most important thing was getting the chemistry between the girls right. When I was drawing them, I had a palpable sense of those characters and how they felt with each other, and I imagined the closeness between them very carefully. It was essential that Thora and Scarlett be able to communicate that, and fortunately they were very comfortable with each other.“
Zwigoff says he rarely looked at the comic during the writing of the script, because he regarded it as a launching point into the creation of something new. Characters and incidents were developed specifically for the film, which is less austere in tone than the comic. The elements of the comic that remained inviolate were the personalities of the girls, and the relationship they share — which is one of those intense friendships peculiar to defiant misfits who rely exclusively on each other for the filling of every emotional need.
”Dan did almost all the girls’ dialogue, and when I asked him how he was able to write such great dialogue for teenage girls, he said it was because they represent two different parts of him,“ says Zwigoff. ”On some deep psychological level, the comic is him exploring his own psyche.“
”To write a teenage girl is a feat, and Dan wrote these characters with uncanny accuracy for a guy — he just nailed it,“ adds Meyer. ”There‘s a certain richness to the comic that had to be trimmed for the movie, but every book that’s made into a movie has to be honed. On the other hand, there are fantastic things in the movie that go beyond what‘s in the comic, and they’ve succeeded in creating a subtle, original movie that toys with audience expectations in a way I think will be really influential.“
When the dust settles from the opening of Ghost World — which also stars Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas and Brad Renfro — Zwigoff and Clowes hope to begin work on a feature based on ”Art School Confidential,“ a 1991 strip that incorporates many of Clowes‘ experiences at Pratt. For the time being, however, Clowes is preoccupied with putting the finishing touches on Eightball #22, which is slated for publication in September, will be the first all-color issue, and includes 29 stories. Ultimately, of course, it’s all one story — the story of Dan Clowes.
There‘s a scene in ”The Stroll,“ from 1990, that could easily be played out by Ghost World’s Enid Coleslaw, whose name is an anagram for Daniel Clowes. A young man walks through the city where he lives, making mental notes on the passing parade of aggressive drivers, hostile panhandlers and marauding teenagers. Arriving back home, he stops at the door and addresses the reader: ”I wish I was more of a humanitarian . . . unfortunately, most people seem like mean-spirited rodents to me . . . or ants or something.“ With that, he shrugs and goes inside.