Dan Clowes, Author of 'Ghost World,' Has One Rule for Writing Dialogue

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A conversation with the influential cartoonist about his new, career-spanning anthology

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Abrams ComicArts

Among Dan Clowes's many achievements is making work for Scarlett Johansson. Of course, Clowes has so much more to his credit—including his comics David Boring, Eightball, Wilson, Lloyd Llewellyn, The Death Ray, and Mister Wonderful—but by penning the comic series Ghost World, he created Rebecca, a role that Scarlett filled so perfectly in strip's 2001 film adaptation. That alone earns him major props.

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Another big achievement: the release of his first official monograph, The Art of Daniel Clowes, Modern Cartoonist, edited by Alvin Buenaventura (Abrams ComicArts). It's a richly illustrated chronicle of Clowes's 25-year career. Even if you're not an avid reader of his books and strips (your loss), this volume will entice and entertain. In one of the many celebratory essays in the book, Chris Ware, another brilliant comics artist, asks "Who's Afraid of Daniel Clowes?" "Me, for one," he answers. "And a few hundred other cartoonists."

Well, I'm not a cartoonist, but I'm afraid that whenever I see Clowes's drawings I'll revert to being that talentless kid who longed to be able to draw like some gifted other kid. Before I rave uncontrollably on, let me introduce the following interview on the occasion of Clowes's significant book.


How does it feel to have a career-defining monograph at this stage, some might say midway into your career?

I'm certainly hoping to produce enough material to warrant a second volume, or at least an updated edition in 2035 (in gaseous form), though I must say the book feels a bit like the gold watch given to Edward G. Robinson at the beginning of Scarlet Street.

You are 52. When you began your first comic book in 1986 did you have any thought that this would become a real career—and a very lucrative one?

Please, sir—I'm but a mere child of 50! (51 by the time this runs). I'm not sure about your definition of "very lucrative," but I am indeed very proud to have supported myself and in recent years, a family of three (not including several deadbeat relatives), as an "artist." My average income over the first five years of my career was around $5000 per annum, so no, I didn't expect any kind of future in the field of "alternative comics."

"My only rule for writing dialogue is to not think about it very much."

Sorry about my faulty math skills. You worked as an illustrator in the '80s. When and why did you turn toward personal narrative? Was there some kind of tipping point?

I was trying to get work as an illustrator in the '80s, but no art directors actually ever called, which is what led me to throw up my hands in despair and slink back to comics. Originally, I was hoping to find a writer to collaborate with, since I was much more interested in the drawing part of the equation, but that didn't work out. And so I began writing my own stories. I didn't really intend to write "personal narratives," but somehow that's what happened.

I grew up during the Mad magazine era and the later birth of Underground Comics, which are not so underground any more. Do you consider yourself "underground?"

I don't know what anything is anymore. "Underground" seems like a historical distinction, but that's certainly the strain of comics that most interests me.

Your ear is incredible. And your ability to translate what you hear into flawless dialogue is enviable. What do you like most about your job? What gives you the greatest creative pleasure?

Gosh, thanks. My only rule for writing dialogue is to not think about it very much. I often change lines pretty drastically in the moment I'm lettering them, which often seems to be a time of heightened awareness. The entire process of drawing comics is actually really pleasurable when things are going right. Sometimes there are spans of an hour or two where literally anything is possible, where you can basically transmit images directly from your brain onto the paper. It's the other times, though, when two parts of your brain seem to be fighting each other, that often makes for a more interesting result.

Who is David Boring?

Probably a lot of people.

Once your comics started being made into films, did that in any way change the way you conceived of your work?

Having other people respond directly to every sentence and description in a script made me much more aware of what in my work was unclear or muddy in some way and I was, I hope, able to bring that clarity into my comics in some way.

Are there other characters waiting in the wings, for the second half of your career?

I'm working on something now that may actually be my longest book when it's done. Hopefully I have another 15-20 years before the dementia kicks in.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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