We can do things like these cartoons, which are amusing, and a form of light entertainment, or we can do work that is more serious in scope and feeling that deals with issues of great importance.”
That’s a quote from Ghost World. Not the acclaimed, late-’90s-defining, graphic novel written and drawn by cartoonist Daniel Clowes, but the screenplay for the film adaptation. The whimsical summer-school art teacher who delivers the line, played by Illeana Douglas, wasn’t in the comic, but in the context of an Oscar-nominated movie, it serves as Clowe’s just desserts, aimed towards the disdain he received as an “artist” before cartoonists were hanging in museums or forecasting network television.
“Nowadays comics are taken much more seriously. Kids are going to art school and taking courses on graphic novels. I’m always asked to come and lecture a class about how to break into the graphic novel market,” says Clowes from his Oakland studio about the sea change in perceptions about his preferred art form. “When I was in school the teachers would tell me that comics were fine to do in your spare time, but they were an acute diversion and they didn’t think of it as art. It was just endlessly frustrating. But now, people can’t even relate to what I’m saying because it’s so different in the art-school world.”
Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, opening this month at the Wexner Center, is certainly no raspberry towards the art world, nor is it an endpoint. Clowes is never one to sit on his hands or buckle to the technology that has erased the days when mail-ordering a copy of his cult-classic Eightball was a ritualistic thrill for alternative nation. Within the pages of Eightball, Clowes was a man of “strips,” or serial comics, many of which, including David Boring, The Death-Ray, and Ice Haven, have become renowned “books” in the realm of graphic novels. Hence an exhibition to see his process and evolution through original black and white sketches from those tomes, gouache paintings of his iconic characters, and sundry artifacts should be a godsend to his eccentric fan base and a legitimization of his narrative genius to those unfamiliar.
“You put together a show like this and it definitely had that feeling that this could either be a retirement party or the mid-career retrospective. I was scared about how I would respond to it when it all came together, but it actually energized me to start something new,” reflects Clowes on digging through his old work. “As an artist you’re always trying to find ways to regenerate and start afresh. That’s the beauty of doing something like comics. You finish one and then you get started on a blank slate. You can correct all of the mistakes of your past. The show is a way to do that on a much larger scale.”
In that museum setting, whether you’re seeing Clowes for the first time via the museum or a long-time fanatic, it’s hard not to glean his surrealist perspective on the human condition. Even within single panels there is black humor, grotesque honesty, and quotidian existentialism. (Be it with personalities ambling inside of awkward adolescence or middle-aged curmudgeondom, drawn with thick lines and living color, it’s hard to find a piece that doesn’t strike a nerve or elicit an inner chuckle.)
Though Clowes’s oeuvre has served as an emblem of anachronistic pop culture or as a pulse-heeding critic of a dumbed down society, his first love and inspiration is in the primordial beginnings of the cartoonist – guys like Ernie Bushmiller who created Nancy, or Chester Gould, responsible for Dick Tracy. As a companion to Modern Cartoonist, Clowes was asked to raid the vaults of the Wexner’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library to curate his own survey of the comic strip’s golden age.
“There were a few things I couldn’t believe I was looking at,” Clowes says about his geek-out experience. “There were a couple of Little Nemo originals by Winsor McCay, which were literally like looking at Da Vinci drawings in person. This was stuff I’d been obsessing over since I was 15 years old, so to see it first-hand was mind-blowing.”
Despite the exhibition’s title, Clowes doesn’t have much time to keep up with modern comics trends. Between running a family, knocking around various screenplays, and the promise of what Clowes calls his biggest, most-involved book yet, the genre’s ebb and flow is off his radar. As long as he’s inspired and an audience persists, he’s content. A very Clowes-ian temperament.
“My only interest is doing the books, whether they begin as a comic book or they appear in holograms or whatever’s the popular form of the day,” concludes Clowes. “I want there to be at least enough copies of a physical book for me to have, my friends to have, and for all of the readers I’ve built up over the years. As long as there’s some way to pay the mortgage with that is all I’m asking for.” •