POV: The ligne claire (“clear line”) style Hergé employed when drawing the iconic characters of Tintin contrasts with the unusually realistic landscapes and backgrounds of the worlds Tintin visits and inhabits. As Scott McCloud pointed out in his book Understanding Comics, this contrast gives the effect of allowing the reader to “mask themselves in a character and safely enter a stimulating world.” “One set of line,” he writes, “allows readers to see; the other to be.”
Describe your own illustrative strategy or style. How did you arrive at it? How do you feel it’s been most effective? Did you struggle to find it? When does it not work?
Daniel Clowes: I try to employ a different strategy for each story. Often, I’ll have a specific look in mind before I even have the story to go with it. I’m not so much interested in forcing the issue of reader identification through various graphic tricks. I’m more interested in creating specific characters that resonate with my own particular inner struggles.
POV: Having read your comics for years, I find myself in situations where I feel like I’m “in a Daniel Clowes comic,” which is a huge testament to your ability to draw out character in particular. Your characters are so iconic, they blur the lines between what are in fact real-life universal characters (the middle-aged mom art student, for example) and what has become known as a “Daniel Clowes” character, which is your heightened rendering of them. There’s say, the guy in Art School Confidential who shows up on move-in day storing his drug paraphernalia in a guitar case; there are the “Satanists” lunching in the diner, the obsessive nostalgic collector in Ghost World. How do you feel about your recurring characters? How real do they become to you as you work and live with them over the years? Do you imagine them having a life independent of the comic?
Daniel: Yes, all of my characters take on a life of their own, and I have notions as to what happens to each of them. Enid and Rebecca talk occasionally, but it’s kind of awkward, perhaps they exchange birthday cards; David Boring died of starvation after resorting to cannibalism, etc.
POV: Describe your working process. Do you work daily? When you begin a comic, do you start with image, or with text? What are the raw materials of a story? Do you always know what is going to happen, or does the story take turns that surprise you?
Daniel: It usually begins with a character and a situation, though, as I say, sometimes I envision the style, or even the completed object. Few of them end up as they began. Ghost World, as I recall, was going to be set in the future, and The Death-Ray was going to be about the older present-day version of the character rather than focusing on his teenage years.
POV: Marshall McLuhan, author of the 1967 book The Medium Is the Massage, wrote about the differences between what he called “hot” media versus “cool” media. Hot media, like movies and radio, he said, were dense with data and therefore demanded only a passive audience, whereas “cool” media, lo-fi and utilizing iconic forms, required active, involved audience participation. His examples of “cool” media are television and comics. Do you agree with McLuhan’s assessment?
Daniel: Surely comics require more effort on the part of the reader than movies or television. I’m always learning new things you can do with comics that wouldn’t work in any other medium, and often they require the need to process a lot of dense information. Of course, the trick is to make the complicated seem effortless and spontaneous.
POV: What were some of the first comics you read? How do you think they found their way into your work, consciously or perhaps unintentionally? Who are some of your other influences, in comics and in other forms, such as art, literature and pop culture?
Daniel: I’m always looking at the work of my peers — people like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, the Hernandez brothers, Rick Altergott, etc. — and that of the early masters, from McKay to Crumb. I’m always looking for things I imagine must exist, but don’t — this is usually the impetus to create that thing myself.
POV: Although some have approached its widespread popularity, there is no exact parallel to Tintin in American comics. Why do you think this is so? What in American comics comes closest to Tintin and approximating the cult of Tintin? In other media?
Daniel: Probably Peanuts, at least in terms of popularity and respectability, comes closest to Tintin. I don’t know — I’ve always been mystified by the intensity of love for Tintin in Europe. I like the books very much, and admire Hergé‘s work, but having never seen a Tintin volume until I was a teenager, I have no visceral pop culture nostalgia inflecting my appreciation.
POV: Is it also fair to say that a division or tension exists within the world of American comics, between the mainstream daily syndicated comic strip world or, say, the New Yorker cartoon world, and the comics underground/graphic novel world?
Daniel: I don’t know about tension — I feel like the New Yorker cartoonist has as much to do with what I do as a stand-up comic or a cinematographer, tangential at best. The daily strip and political cartoon guys seem to be from another planet — I have no connection to that world at all.
POV: How is cartooning different for you as a creative process than films, and in particular adapting your own comics into films like Ghost World and Art School Confidential? I imagine it’s similar to translating languages. What elements of the comics work on the page but not in film, and vice versa? When working with Terry Zwigoff, how involved were you in working with the actors? At what point, as the creator and writer, did you have to let go?
Daniel: Terry allows me on the set and encourages me to offer advice, but he rarely listens to me, and once the film is in the editing room, I make only the tiniest of suggestions. It’s a director’s medium, and a film set is a complicated military structure — I have to keep reminding myself to stay in my place, or all will burst into chaos.
POV: How is that process of adaptation creatively different from directly writing a script, like the movie you’re working on about the group of kids who make a shot-by-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Daniel: In some ways it’s easier, since you know the basic story and the characters before you begin, but it’s a challenge to express real life in dramatic terms. In an entirely “made-up” story, you are sometimes overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities.
POV: Hergé underwent a period of despair and anxiety during which he suffered recurring nightmares filled with whiteness — certainly iconic dreams for a cartoonist! Eventually, after psychoanalysis, he emerged with a new direction: Tintin in Tibet, with its stark alpine landscapes and minimalist cast and story, was a major departure for Hergé. Do you have periods when you lose faith in your work? How have you handled them? What do you feel is your greatest creative or artistic accomplishment?
Daniel: I lose faith in everything else, but rarely in my work. If I start to get bored, I change it to make it more interesting. I try not to take it too seriously, but I also try to never cheat or hurry things along.
POV: How does politics influence or impact your work in comics (or not)? Has it had a lesser or greater effect over the years?
Daniel: I think politics has an influence on my work now, perhaps more so than when I was a childless young man, but I hope never to deal with these kinds of issues in anything more than a covert manner. I’m more interested in figuring out what I think than in pronouncing my views to the world.
POV: What are you working on now?
Daniel: I’m working on several short comic stories all at once. Not sure what I’ll do with them.
Rebecca Bengal conducted this interview via email for POV
Fantagraphics: Daniel Clowes
The artist’s page on publisher Fantagraphics Books’s website.
BBC Collective: Daniel Clowes
Listen to an interview with Clowes and see an image gallery of Clowes’s work. (July 2005)