December 12, 2017

 




Interview:
Daniel Clowes

By Dan Epstein



While he has worked in the industry for almost twenty years, Daniel Clowes is perhaps most recognized as the creator of the serialized comic, Ghost World.  Following the exploits of two cynical teenage girls directly after their graduation, Ghost World caught on with both longtime fans and new readers alike.  It became so popular, in fact, that Crumb director Terry Zwigoff made a movie out of it (the screenplay was written by Terry and Dan).  A brilliant piece of cinematic art, the film has already spurred Oscar talk.  Aside from Ghost World, Clowes is also responsible for David Boring and Fantagraphics' longest-running comic, Eightball.  Slush spoke to Clowes about Ghost World, his career, and...Sassy Magazine?

 

Why was Ghost World the project that drew you into Hollywood?

It was more that it interested the people I wanted to work with, which was Terry Zwigoff and this person Lianne Halfon [producer of Ghost World and Crumb]. They both thought those characters could work well in a movie. That was the first time that anyone that I had real respect for approached me about working on something with me.

What had people approached you to do before?

Mostly it was independent guys who didn’t have any money. They would want to do something where I do all the creative work and they take credit for it. It made me really uncomfortable when they were pitching to me. They would say stuff like “you have all these great ideas, if you could come up with a bunch of ideas then I will direct it and put my name on it. A lot of graduate students, guys who are just out of film school and are looking for something they could afford. But luckily I didn’t get involved with them. I waited this long and look what happened. I got involved with a few things early on, little film school projects. I did them because I thought they would be a funny thing to show at a party. But the minute they made the thing the filmmakers would want to send it out to festivals and you’re attached to these people.

What was it like pitching Ghost World? Explain to me one pitch meeting. Did you psychically kill one studio executive’s fish with your mind?

That did happen, yeah. It was a meeting that we shouldn’t have gone to. It was one of those things where somebody calls you down to Hollywood for a meeting and you go because it’s a free trip and you don’t know what they want. Within five minutes we knew we didn’t want anything to do with him. He wanted to do some TV show and they didn’t even know what they wanted and they wanted us because we were edgy or something. We were just in the worst mood and were trying not to look at each other because we knew we would start laughing like in fifth grade when the idiot teacher is looking at you. There was this oppressive bad mood emanating from us. Then, as we left, the guy says, “Hey, my fish just died”. It was truly like the psychic energy destroyed this thing.

You and Terry Zwigoff were planning on making Ghost World with Christina Ricci; did you and Zwigoff see American Beauty and start thinking about Thora Birch instead?

Well, Christina was attached right after The Ice Storm, she was 18 years old and I was very adamant that the girls in this film be 18 years old or less. We could never get the right amount of money to make the film the way we wanted to. It kept dragging on and then Christina was 21, 22 years old. She just didn’t seem right anymore; she seemed like she was an adult actress and not a teenager. Then we saw Thora, and we were so happy that we had waited because she was the perfect Enid at the perfect time. I think Christina could have been great as well. Even Christina was somewhat well known and might have shaded the character somewhat, while Thora is a bit of a blank slate.

Thora Birch had mentioned that she had hung out with you to get a feel of the character of Enid. What did you do?

I was there the whole time in pre-production and on the set. I think she learned how to play Enid from observing me and Terry and how we acted.

That’s interesting because neither one of you is an 18 year-old girl.

I think she adapted our world-weary sensibility into an 18 year-old girl. I think that’s what the character of Enid is in some ways. I also think the way that Steve Buscemi played the character of Seymour was not at all from what Terry told him to do but instead from watching how Terry walked around the set.

Would the story of Ghost World be much different if it was 2 teenage boys?

Yeah, very much so. Boys are just very different at that age. They’re not as developed, it wouldn’t have been believable. It would almost only work it was two men: one, 53 [Zwigoff], and the other, 40 [Clowes].

With the character of Enid both in the film and the book: isn’t not wanting to conform a form of conforming?

That’s a reductive or at least the easy sound bite way to characterize Enid. She doesn’t know what she wants. She’d be happy to conform to something that she liked. But she has a sense that’s there is a better way to live that what she sees. But she doesn’t know where it is.

In the Ghost World comic book, Enid makes a harsh criticism of Sassy magazine. It turns out that they had wronged you what happened between you and Sassy magazine?

They had always been really nice to me. If they wrote reviews of other comics they always mentioned stuff and me like that. Then one day my wife brought home an issue that had a big illustration by me just taken from one of my books without anyone ever asking me. I figured that I would be really cool about this and instead of screaming and yelling about this I would just send them a bill for a low amount. I wrote them a letter saying “you forgot to inform me that you were going to use this, so here is my bill for this illustration.” Then they completely ignored me then I started writing slightly angrier, asking them to please pay me for this. They had all these excuses for why it ran but nobody was paying me or really doing anything about it. Then they became my mortal enemy after that [laughs].

I never pictured Sassy having such vengeance and anger.

It was just really annoying and it’s a really obnoxious thing to do and I could sure them for all kinds of money and instead I was being nice about. I’m sure it was some intern that I dealt with the whole time anyway.

How did John Malkovich end up producing Ghost World?

Originally and throughout the entire film we were working with this Terry Zwigoff’s longtime producer Lianne Halfon. Without ever mentioning it to Terry or me she was very close friends with John Malkovich and had produced his stage play of Libra, based on the Don DeLillo book, in Chicago. So Malkovich wanted to start a film production company [which eventually became Mr. Mudd]. The first person he thought of to hire was Lianne. This was right in the midst of us packaging Ghost World; his company then became the production company. He was not really present during the making of the film. He was very supportive of the film and was also helpful in making phone calls when we needed him. He’s a genuinely good guy, which you wouldn’t expect from a big celebrity like that.

I know that you created your book David Boring while working on Ghost World. Did the making of Ghost World influence you while creating David Boring?

Yeah, but not necessarily while making the film but while writing the script and trying to get the film made. David Boring is very much about frustration and that’s what was going on in my life trying to get the movie made.

David Boring was very different from what you have done before. To me it was as depressing as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan.

[laughs] It was a grim summer when those two books came out.

And the book companies promote them like any other book. I wonder if they even read them.

I wonder that sometimes myself.

You had said that the book came out of frustrations. Does that feeling go away once you finish the book?

It’s hard to say. It does to some degree. But the underlying problems that made you write these books never go away. There’s always something new to take its place.

Probably one of the first things I read of yours was PUSSEY! [Which collected every story starring the nerdish comic book artist/superstar from the 15 issues of Eightball]. Are you amazed by how much of that book has come true?

I was telling my publisher that I wanted to take that book out of print because it’s so mild compared to the reality of the situation. At the time I did it was supposed to be a caricature of the business. Now there are so many more stories that are so much worse that I hear on a daily basis about the comic book business. It just seems pointless to have that book in print.

Well, except for how the older were treated, I thought it was somewhat mild but totally true.

At the time everybody thought I was the meanest guy in the world for doing that stuff. Industry people were calling me a total asshole. Now I’m sure they would be flattered by it. Pussey came out of when I first started doing comic books and I really tried to understand the comic book business and go to conventions. I used to feel so alienated because I would be stuck in between two Dan Pussey types. I hated the business I was in. it came out of the anger at that and then after I while I stopped dealing with that whole part of the comic book world. My anger really dissipated and now I don’t really care. It’s not something I even think about anymore.

Many creators such as Mike Allred [Madman, X-Force], while selling their books through so-called independent companies, were still much more mainstream than you. Many of them are moving into mainstream comic books for Marvel and DC. For example, just recently there was a book called Bizarro Comics released by DC Comics.

I actually did the original cover for that which they rejected. They hired Chip Kidd and he called me to do the cover. I did it and I thought it was very funny. The higher-ups at DC did not get the humor of my cover so they cancelled it. Chip and I both quit because of that. Then they got Matt Groening’s assistant to do a cover and sign his name to it. Which is about as alternative as DC gets. But then after I saw the book I was so thrilled that I wasn’t associated with that thing. It had a few stories that were ok -- like that Tony Millionaire story was really nice - but boy, most of it was such crap. I couldn’t imagine that anyone was buying it. The great news that I heard was that they made the price on the book so low so they are actually losing money on every copy sold.

They were able to get this banned “Superman as a baby” story into it. So that was good.

Yeah, supposedly they are going use my cover in their next book. So they will keep banning something then reprinting it later.


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