Dan Clowes, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, author of Wilson (reviewed here), and one of a handful of truly iconic figures in what was once called the “alternative comics” field, sat down with Torontoist’s Dave Howard last weekend at TCAF for an in-depth interview. In this, the first of that two-part interview, Clowes talks about creating life-like characters, the fragmentation of pop culture, and the importance of getting out from behind the drawing board.
Dave Howard: I’m familiar with pretty much all of your work, and I’ve noticed that you do great stories that have one main central character, or one main central point, almost as if there’s an interior and an exterior being set up right away. Would you say that’s a fair way to look at your work?
Dan Clowes: I did Ghost World and that was tentatively about two main characters, and then the one took over—her dominant personality crowded out the other character. And Ice Haven, the intent of that was to have no main character, it was all six or seven characters interacting. I felt if that book had a failing that was it, I needed one protagonist to rise slightly above the others. And so anything I’ve done after that, I’ve tried to figure out who is the guy I’m most concerned with. I really just think drama and fiction tend to work better when you have one character that’s somewhat dominant to all the others. And I think the audience needs to be following just one person. I’m always interested in creating believable characters, characters that are so believable I start to feel they are real, rather than somebody I’m manipulating. When you have a whole bunch of characters who are intersecting, it’s hard to focus all your dissipating thoughts on all those characters. When you have one main character you can focus your energy into, they tend to come alive better.
Howard: Your work often makes me think of French Existentialism because there’s a lot of the absurd, and, especially with Ice Haven, there is no one final reality. With French Existentialism there is no overarching meaning, there is nothing to strive for—I see that when I’m reading Wilson.
Clowes: I go along with that up to a certain point. I think all the assumptions we make about the way things are should be examined, and just the very notion that people’s happiness is often based on things that are fragile or even…entirely fabricated. I can see people need a survival mechanism to plug in with their lives, but I still think that’s an unhealthy thing. And that if we can examine what we really know about what makes us happy, and what in life is actually meaningful, then I think that’s a better starting point than to just assume that some structure that we’ve been given is actually valid.
So I go along with that up to that point, but I have my own personal world view, which isn’t that therefore all in the world is futile and all is meaningless. I think that there’s clearly happiness in the world, and that we have to figure out how to find that on a basis that isn’t involving self-deception or the exploitation of other people. I think that we have to take that more seriously, in order for all of us to find some peace in the world. Wilson’s playing that kind of a game, he’s thinking bigger things than the average person that he’s talking to. He’s sort of seeing in little subtle indicators of things that to him suggest this sickness of the world, and he can’t believe other people aren’t seeing the same things.
Howard: And that increases his isolation?
Howard: I notice in most of the other characters, we see almost everyone sitting alone or they have a laptop on a table. I feel there’s some disparaging comment about technology and isolation, especially when Wilson is trying to talk to his grandson over the internet and he finally breaks down and waves a Tommy the Tank Engine toy, as if he’s willing to buy into something he doesn’t believe in, in order to make a connection.
Clowes: Personally, I feel that all this technology that’s designed to connect us together has certainly made me feel more alienated, and I don’t say that as someone who is outside of all that—I use cel phones and email and all that kind of stuff. But when you’re walking down the street, everybody who passes you is in their personal world. It’s not necessarily that people used to necessarily say hello to each other, but there was some kind of connection that people had passing each other on the street that no longer exists. People don’t even notice each other. I feel we’ve learned to indulge ourselves to such a high degree that we’re so used to having our ego satisfied every second of the day.
Howard: So that you don’t have to put up with other people?
Clowes: Yeah, you can just talk to your friends, you don’t have to talk to other people. I was just thinking today how most comic conventions, when you go to, say, the San Diego comic convention in America, it’s so indulgent. It’s like everybody gets to hang out with movie stars and stuff, it’s not based on anything other than—to me it’s like going to a junk food convention, and you just eat nothing but crappy food for four days. I tastes good but there’s nothing about it that has any value. And yet we’re so used to being indulged with that. It’s not good to eat Twinkies for every meal for three or four days.
Howard: How do you feel about the state of comics now? I sometimes feel that the graphic novel is replacing the conventional novel. The novel is one of the chief ways I think an individual can express a critical view that can be seen or read by others, and so in turn influence or critique the dominant culture. I see the graphic novel replacing the novel, and that the novel is sort of starting to dissipate.
Clowes: I definitely feel the novel—especially the novel with high aspirations —has a lessening hold over the culture. If a Thomas Pynchon novel comes out it’s not discussed by everybody as excitedly as it would have been 20 or 30 years ago. But I don’t know that the graphic novel has replaced that. Maybe it has the potential to, at this point, which it certainly never did in the past, but I don’t know that any graphic novel has had such a cultural impact at this point.
Howard: I guess film is the way.
Clowes: Film and video games, the nature of the way the internet is put together, it’s fragmented. It’s almost as if there’s no phenomenon anymore that takes over the culture the way it used to. When I was in high school, there were like, maybe, fifteen big rock bands that everybody knew about, and that your only choice was to listen to those guys. That’s all the record stores had. It was just very focused. Every single person would watch certain TV shows and so on Monday mornings, everybody had watched, you know, The Partridge Family or something. There were certain touchstones we all had, and that centrality doesn’t exist anymore. Everybody has their own little narrow field of interest, and so there’s nothing that has that big impact any more. Except for the very nature of that fact that everything is fragmented, that in itself has a big impact.
Howard: What about someone like a Lady Gaga?
Clowes: It’s strange that I’m even aware of her, because I’m completely divorced of any connection to pop music, because it’s not intended for me, we’re not thirteen-year-old girls. But the fact is that, if I know who Hanna Montana is, or something like that, then it’s somehow done it’s job. But I also don’t feel overwhelmed by any of that stuff like I have with other trends in the past. Like when Madonna was in her heyday, I just felt like we couldn’t avoid her, and now I can avoid any of that stuff pretty easily.
Howard: Do you think that’s a cultural thing or maybe just age?
Clowes: Even when I was younger, I certainly wasn’t interested in mainstream culture, that’s all there was, but now I can very easily tune out all reference to things I don’t want to deal with.
Howard: You’ve said in a interview recently, and even in your talk last night, that your interest in being locked in a room drawing comics is waning, and that you’re more interested in collaborative work like film.
Clowes: You know, I didn’t mean to say that if I did, I meant that I like to have another outlet, I like to go back and forth.
Howard: Oh I see.
Clowes: I’d say more than ever in my life I enjoy drawing comics and I really like being in my room drawing comics, but I also recognize that at a certain point I have to escape it and do other things, or it gets too claustrophobic. It becomes like a hall of mirrors, you have no perspective. Just even going on a little tour like this, for me, I’ll go back home and it will feel like a different world.
(The second part of the interview will appear tomorrow.)