On May 5, I went to a Daniel Clowes reading event in Brookline, MA. This was my second time seeing him, the other time being at Harvard Square's Brattle Theater to promote "Wilson." The Coolidge Corner Theater was an intimate setting for the reading.
Clowes started with a slideshow of covers of his older books (Eightball, Ghost World, Art School Confidential, David Boring), giving a brief summary of his work. He said that working in comics has given him a stable of "little friends" that he has created, meaning his characters. A German journalist once asked him why he always wrote about losers and weirdos, and Clowes said he wasn't aware that he had. He also showed panels from his new book, "Mister Wonderful," from his new Ipad that he got for this tour. He complimented Boston for being technically "with it," so to speak, because the Ipad didn't create any technical problems.
He talked about working with the New York Times. The editors told him repeatedly to "keep his audience in mind," which he assumed meant they didn't want him drawing dopey man-children with weird hair dos in tighty whiteys and socks. He decided to make the story a romantic comedy since that was the furthest thing from what he usually does. The protagonist was based on his idea of a New York Times reader: in
their mid-forties, an Errol Morris type, an adult Charlie Brown. He set the story in Oakland, since he figured this guy wouldn't be able to afford living in NYC.
He drew inspiration from 50's romance comics, the kind read by girls about first dates and first loves. He decided to make his story about a last date, a man's last chance at love before swearing off romance forever.
He dealt with censorship and restrictions placed on him by the Times by making his protagonist very repressed. After five strips had been published, the Times forbid him from using "Jesus" as an exclamation after a lady in Arkansas wrote an angry letter. Clowes's reaction was surprise, that the newspaper would shy from controversy, and that the newspaper's content could be dictated by just one letter. "Could I write an angry letter complaining about a columnist's necktie?" he said. Another example of censorship was when he had a character say "schmuck." The strip was completed, and the paper refused to print the word, even though William Safire had written an article the year before, in the Times, saying that "schmuck" was no longer an offensive word. Clowes concluded that comics are prejudiced against.
The book version has added material. Clowes adds 2-page spreads of art between strips to recreate the sense of the weekly wait a reader would have to endure. He was also inspired by a videotape of the TV pilot for Mulholland Drive, which was expanded into a feature-length film after being rejected by NBC. Clowes prefers printed books to ebooks, giving the analogy of "printed books are to ebooks as real friends are to Facebook friends."
Clowes draws his books entirely by hand, but colors them in the computer, using color codes. He finds this process very tedious, but necessary in order to get the precise results he wants.
He commented that the quality of color in his books has improved since his early days, when he was just working in black and white. He related how, when he was being published by Fantagraphics, the company was publishing "erotic" comics to make ends meet. Clowes noticed that some of the "erotic" comics were being published in color, and he protested to his editor about why couldn't his stuff have color too. Ghost World became Clowes's first book to contain color.
He told a story about his days working for Cracked, when he got published under the name "Stosh Gillespie." One editor preferred the art by "Stosh Gillespie" to the art by "Daniel Clowes."
He deflected the few questions about movie adaptations and working in Hollywood, saying that he has learned to avoid talking about movies until a date is set, after the Ghost World movie was first announced in 1995, before its eventual 2000 release. He keeps in touch with the cartoonist Richard Sala.
Clowes's next book will be "The Death Ray," reprinting the story from Eightball. Clowes said it is one of his favorite stories, and plans for it to come out in a larger format in the style of European comics albums.