DANIEL CLOWES IS CURRENTLY on a book tour supporting his very funny new book from Drawn & Quarterly, Wilson. While the book tour hasn’t been a traditional part of being a cartoonist, it is becoming more common, and Sunday saw Clowes appear at Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland.
Clowes spoke to a full audience, every seat filled and a large crowd standing behind and around the chairs. Rather than read from Wilson, Clowes gave a retrospective presentation of his work and career, mixed with a “this moment in comics”-type overview of the time in which he broke in, covering a lot of the background on himself and his work that wouldn’t be easy to find elsewhere, with a sardonic, self-deprecating sense of humor familiar from his comics. Most of the presentation slides were of covers and pages of representative stories and books from Clowes’s career, but a few were photos, such as one (featuring, I assume, Fantagraphics cartoonists) that Clowes said illustrated what comics were like when he began than any covers he could scan would.
Clowes began with a self-portrait by Wally Wood, juxtaposed with an actual photo of Wood at work, one heroic and the other squalid, explaining that the first represented the heroic image of the cartoonist that the young Clowes dreamed of emulating, and that the second, despite the contrast, had a similar effect. Clowes continued through his youthful desire to work for MAD and the lesser accomplishment of drawing for Cracked, “the methadone to MAD’s heroin.” Clowes never did make it into MAD, but noted that his dad had dreamed of him instead drawing covers for The New Yorker and, showing the covers, declared his dad had “won.”
A similar anecdote accompanied each book and film project, from his first comic book, Lloyd Llewellyn—so named for Superman’s “LL” naming convention—which he sent to Fantagraphics for criticism and was surprised to get, as a reply, an offer to publish it, all the way through Wilson, which Clowes said he began working on while his father was in the hospital with a terminal illness. Working on the strips that comprise the book, he said, kept him busy, and the more he added, working in a variety of art styles, the more he found the character, a sort of Clowes-gone-wrong.
Clowes was accompanied on stage by Greg Netzer, a local literary figure and the Executive Director of Portland’s Wordstock literary festival. Unfortunately, as fascinating as the presentation was, it was a poor forum for a moderator to add anything. Clowes said he had someone on stage with him—a different person at each stop on the tour—to keep the presentation fresh, to keep him interested, and to open up the possibility of a moderator surprising him with a question. However, the fact that Clowes had previously chosen the images and the order in which they appeared limited Netzer’s options for questions, and many slides that Clowes might otherwise have commented on by saying, “This cover is . . .” instead had the not-very-different, “So, what’s this cover?”
The audience Q&A covered a broad range of topics, from Clowes’s experiments in surrealism and automatic writing in Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron (Clowes admitted to confusion that anyone found the book opaque, until he reread it a few years ago and wondered how he ever thought it could be clear), random celebrity stories (Laurence Tierney terrorizing Clowes and Terry Zwigoff when they auditioned him for “Porn Shop Clerk” for the film version of Ghost World), to his relationship to editors (they only see the work when it’s done—the proof-reading is done by Clowes’s wife, who “knows better than to say anything positive or negative”). On the topic of Wilson’s release in hardcover without first being serialized, Clowes said that, while stapled comics had once been what everyone made, they now felt like an “affectation” with book-length comics receiving more attention and representing the growth area of the field.
After the talk, there was a signing, and a long line formed, stretching a ways back into the store. In addition to books and comics, people had brought DVDs, and the couple behind me expressed regret that they hadn’t brought their Enid doll. While getting my books signed I asked Clowes about the decision to give the presentation rather than a reading, readings of comics being a difficult thing to pull off (and the topic one of particular interest to me). He noted that some people do it, but said that his main opposition to the idea was that he didn’t like to do voices for the characters, forcing a little too much authorial interpretation on the crowd. The publisher had wanted him to talk mostly about Wilson, but he preferred the retrospective approach, particularly for younger readers “who are coming in in the middle,” providing a context and history that isn’t really available elsewhere.
The focus on connecting with younger readers, many of whom were only children when Lloyd Llewellyn or Ghost World were coming out, was also a welcome bit of optimism. Hard to imagine Clowes’s Wilson, who sees little value in the modern world and nostalgically longs for a better time, considering them a worthwhile part of the audience, but Clowes himself seemed quite happy to have drawn so many readers of different ages. As I fall into the category of people who know Clowes’s work but lack firsthand experience of the comics world when he started, I was pleased to get to hear the stories and context of a quite different time in comics.