Clowes, Daniel

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Daniel Clowes

Born April 14, 1961 (Chicago, Illinois)
American author, illustrator

Even though he was not yet born in the 1950s and was a mere youngster throughout the 1960s, Daniel Clowes has created a sharp-eyed view of the American popular culture of these two decades—and beyond. He does not, however, present this culture as kitsch (something that is of poor quality or appealing to those with little taste). Rather, he fashions morality tales that comment on the ironies and hypocrisies of American life. He examines a range of themes, including the alienation of youth, the tackiness of middle-class America, the pressure to conform and suppress one's individuality, the subtle and not-so-subtle cruelties that people impose on each other, and the ultimate, profound aloneness of the individual.

"I felt these really talented people would do comics and then they would just stop at the level designed for a 13 year old. They would assume there was nothing more you could do with it than do superhero comics.… I just felt there was so much more you could do with it if you just kept going with it and trying new things.…"

Clowes's characters do not live in fantasy worlds populated by muscle-bound superheroes or alien invaders. They are, instead, prisoners in cheerless worlds. They are isolated, dejected, and ever-so-slightly off-center: not so much characters as broadly conceived caricatures of an array of American archetypes (model character types). Clowes draws attention to the airheads and phonies who embrace shallowness, vanity, and mediocrity—and, on more than one occasion, he has even made fun of himself and his own admitted eccentricities. Yet his primary characters, usually articulate, nerdy outsiders with entertainingly fleshed-out personalities, are deeply human in their desires and feelings. The younger ones may relish their outsider status, but their older counterparts are in no way role models. They are outcasts and tragic figures.

Appropriately, Clowes's most prominent drawing style is strictly mid-twentieth-century American: straightforward and graphic, and inspired by 1950s advertising art. Depending upon his subject matter, however, he has utilized a range of styles. His drawings can be grotesquely cartoonish or can employ intricate coloring and shading.

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels

The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection (1989).

Lout Rampage! (1991).

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (1993).

The Manly World of Lloyd Llewellyn: A Golden Treasury of His Complete Works (1994).

Ghost World (1997).

Caricature: Nine Stories (1998).

David Boring (2000).

20th Century Eightball (2002).

Ice Haven (2005).


(Contributor) Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly (2000).

(Screenplay, with Terry Zwigoff) Ghost World (2001).

(Compiler, with Elder) Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art (2003).

(Screenplay, with Terry Zwigoff) Art School Confidential (2005).

Even though his perspective is strictly alternative and independent, Clowes is one of a select group of comic artists whose cutting-edge work has earned him acknowledgement outside the sometimes closed world of comic book/graphic novel fans. In fact, his creations have adorned the pages of such establishment publishing pillars as The New Yorker and Esquire.

Is captivated by comics

Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago on April 14, 1961, and grew up on the city's South Side. His artistic vision is a by-product of a dysfunctional childhood. His parents divorced when he was a year old; he was a shy child and a loner. Around the age of three, he became fascinated by his older brother's comic book collection. He was too young to decipher the words accompanying the images, so he concocted his own plot lines. Eventually, he began sketching replicas of his favorite comics. In particular, he was an avid reader of Mad magazine and Superman.

After his stepfather died in a stock car race crash, young Daniel spent quality time with his grandparents. They gave him the attention he otherwise lacked, and their traditional way of life fascinated him and further sparked his creativity. Life was far less pleasant when he spent time in the homes of his mother and biological father, where he was given little attention. Clowes was forming a view of the world that would manifest itself in his comics. By the time he reached high school, he was drawing regularly. He was determined to see his work published and submitted his creations to magazines, though without early success.

Attends art school

After completing high school, Clowes entered Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He was determined to polish his skills and become a comic strip artist but was discouraged by his teachers, who viewed his chosen field as a questionable art form. "Every professor I had discouraged me and said, 'You'll never make a living from that; nobody cares, nobody will think of you as an artist'," he explained to Carina Chocano in a 2000 interview on the Salon Web site. "And now I realize, when I look back on them, that they were absolute failures."

Clowes graduated from Pratt in 1984 and spent the next year attempting to jumpstart his career as a freelance illustrator. Eventually, he returned to Chicago. Starting in 1985 and continuing for four years, he contributed to Cracked, a Mad magazine clone. Also in 1985, he submitted several comic strips to Fantagraphics, the Seattle-based comic publishing house. His strips featured a character named Lloyd Llewellyn, a 1950s-1960s-style private detective. Happily, Fantagraphics agreed to publish Lloyd Llewellyn. The character was unveiled in issue #13 of the comic book Love & Rockets, and then debuted in its own series in 1986. Clowes's elation was short-lived, however, as the comic was cancelled after six issues.

Earns initial acclaim

Clowes responded by creating Eightball, his breakthrough series, which Fantagraphics first published in 1989. Over the years, Eightball has featured an array of characters and continuing storylines. "With Eightball," Clowes told the Designer Magazine Web site, "I wanted something where I could just do anything that came into my head with every issue.… I wanted it to be like the very early Mad magazine where it was all this crazy stuff by different artists … except in my case it was all by the same artist drawing in different styles."

Eightball was a runaway success, with Clowes quickly winning recognition as a worthy successor to the legendary R. Crumb (1943–) and other cutting-edge 1960s underground comic artists (underground means that their works were published outside of normal channels and had more mature, innovative content). He released a new comic book every few months, with stories from them eventually becoming incorporated into graphic novels. The graphic novels included Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, published in 1993 and consisting of stories from the initial ten issues; here, a character named Clay Loudermilk sets off on a surreal, nightmarish odyssey after being jarred by the content of a film he has just watched. Pussey!, from 1995, features the exploits of Dan Pussey, a nerdy comic book artist who appeared in nine early issues.

In its review of Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Publishers Weekly dubbed Clowes "one of the most talented among the comics artists who emerged in the 1980s." Meanwhile, his personal life was falling into place. After a failed first marriage, he met a young woman named Erika in 1992, while in California on a book-signing tour. They eventually wed, settled in Berkeley, California, and later moved to nearby Oakland. They have a son, Charlie.

Meanwhile, one of Clowes's follow-up graphic novels seemed destined to be his masterpiece: Ghost World, which first appeared in issues 11 through 18 of Eightball. Ghost World—which critic after critic has compared to J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye—is a sympathetic portrayal of Enid Coleslaw (an anagram for "Daniel Clowes") and her friend Becky Doppelmeyer, two eccentric, disaffected adolescent girls coming of age in an American landscape rife with conformity and monotony. While all of Clowes's work has been well received, Ghost World was especially popular. It sold well over 100,000 copies, making it one of Fantagraphics' all-time best-selling books.

From underground to above ground

In 1998, Newsweek dubbed Clowes "the country's premier underground cartoonist." Yet at the time, he was in the process of earning entrance into the mainstream. That same year, he wrote and drew "Green Eyeliner," the first comic strip ever published in Esquire magazine's annual fiction issue, and he debuted in The New Yorker in 2001. His propensity for publishing works that originally appeared in Eightball was further illustrated by the appearance in 1999 of the graphic novel Caricature: Nine Stories, consisting of eight Eightball stories and "Green Eyeliner."

Clowes's next major creation was David Boring, a chronicle of the ordeals of a 19-year-old antihero as he searches for meaning in a bizarre, arbitrarily cruel world. The character first appeared in issues 19 through 21 of Eightball, and was published in 2000 as a graphic novel by Pantheon Books. David Boring was a representative Clowes creation. "Clowes's characters, rendered with cool facility, move stiffly and stare blankly, either half-lobotomized or simply stunned by their crushing reality," noted Dave Eggers, reviewing the novel in the New York Times. "Boring is Clowes's emptiest vessel yet, making his moments of emotional clarity … even more powerful."

Maintaining Artistic Integrity

In 2001, Ghost World became a film. It was scripted by Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, who also directed. Seven years earlier, Zwigoff had directed Crumb, an acclaimed documentary on noted underground comic artist R. Crumb (1943–).

From the beginning of their efforts to make the film, Clowes and Zwigoff encountered obstacles. "I always thought there were really smart people working in Hollywood who were just really cynical, and they knew that the movies they were making were not that good, and they were doing it because they tested well," Clowes explained to "But mostly it's a very middlebrow to lowbrow kind of town. And they're making films that they approve of." It didn't help that Hollywood studio heads seemed to willfully misunderstand the screenplay. "They treated Ghost World like it was this outrageous art film that nobody would get …," he continued. "They would say, 'Oh, it's great, we'll get Jennifer Love Hewitt.' And we'd think, 'Wait, that's what this is opposed to!' I'm sure she's a nice person and everything, but she's got the opposite personality than these girls have! And they would say, 'Oh. I thought she was supposed to be really pretty."'

Clowes and Zwigoff refused to compromise their screenplay, and they eventually found satisfactory financing and distribution. Not only was the film highly acclaimed, but reviewers consistently noted that it was a refreshing departure from the endless line of insipid Hollywood coming-of-age teen comedies. Clowes and Zwigoff even won Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nominations.

The release of David Boring by Pantheon further signified Clowes's growing status as a mainstream cartoonist. This standing also was confirmed with his contribution to Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy TaleFunnies, a compilation of fairy tales presented comic book-style, which also hit bookstores in 2000. Clowes offered his interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Writing in the New York Times, Leonard S. Marcus described it as "a harrowing post-script to the classic story.… Clowes's hard-edged, cloyingly colorful drawings aggressively pit the banality of the tale's 'happy couple' against the hog-ugliness, and pure savagery, of the prince's mother. The result is a highly stylized, expressionist form of storytelling that … easily gets under our skin."

A second collaboration

In 2002, Clowes published Twentieth Century Eightball, consisting of several dozen stories published in Eightball from 1989 to 1996. Here, he lampoons everything from professional athletes (in "On Sports") to art schools as places of learning ("Art School Confidential"). Clowes reteamed with Terry Zwigoff to write a screenplay for the Zwigoff-directed feature Art School Confidential (2005). He also was one of the film's producers.

As Art School Confidential was readied for theatrical release, Clowes continued to adapt Eightball stories into graphic novels. Ice Haven, published in 2005, highlights a group of eccentrics inhabiting a dull American town, with a storyline inspired by Leopold and Loeb, the real-life 1920s child murderers. Yet again, Clowes explores such themes as disaffection and isolation. "The creator of Ghost World has done his usual meticulous job of nailing character, tone, and inner monologue," wrote Whitney Pastorek in Entertainment Weekly. "But his Art Spiegelman-like experimentation with different illustration styles—without losing his own unique line—is what make the pages such jewels."

Amy Benfer, writing on the Web site in 2002, summed up Clowes's artistic output by noting that his "stories are complex, sustained works and prove Clowes to be the equal of the best fiction writers working today."

For More Information


Eggers, Dave. "After Wham! Pow! Shazam!: Comic Books Move Beyond Superheroes to the World of Literature." New York Times (November 26, 2000).

"Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron." Publishers Weekly (April 12, 1993).

Marcus, Leonard S. "Brazenly Ever After." New York Times (November 19, 2000).

Pastorek, Whitney. "Ice Haven: Daniel Clowes." Entertainment Weekly (June 10, 2005).

Van Boven, Sarah. "Daniel Clowes Wows 'Em with 'Ghost World."' Newsweek (April 27, 1998).

Web Sites

Benfer, Amy. "Worth a Thousand Words." (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Chocano, Carina. "Brilliant Careers: Daniel Clowes." (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Daniel Clowes." Designer Magazine. (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Daniel Clowes." Fantagraphics Books. (accessed on May 3, 2006).