No.44: Daniel Clowes
Out of all the autobiographical, confessional “alternative” cartoonists who emerged in the late 80s and early 90s (Peter Bagge, Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, etc.) it was Daniel Clowes who bared his soul with the greatest artistic breadth and vision, marking him out as a unique talent in the field. Words: Andrew Colman…
Having been suffused with the language, cadences and subculture of the medium through reading Marvel super-hero books, Archie, DC and later on (inevitably) Robert Crumb, Clowes understood perhaps better than anyone the relationship between form, style, image and word in comics. By being so completely immersed in comic books, it was easy for him to subvert matters while incorporating elements of Hollywood noir, 50s and 60s television, parochial Americana and pop culture in general. As his work progressed it became less about the unconscious and more about mood, his illustrations a filmic, elaborate storyboard that although heavily oblique remained, like the work of equally important experimental artists such as Chris Ware or Art Spiegelman, very accessible – the difference with Clowes being that his works still remained within traditional, if not retro, comic structure.
Getting his start with publisher Fantagraphics in 1986 with Lloyd Llewellyn, Clowes took the book’s weak reception as a challenge to move further with the medium, with Eightball, which proved to be the turning point in his career. Featuring classic series such as the pivotal Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, along with Pussey! Ghost World and David Boring, Clowes provided cultural satire with a dreamlike, Kafkaesque, midnight backdrop. All of his protagonists were generally passive, immature and tortured false narrators, haunted by fake memories and passing, unexamined thoughts – the enclosed environment and the pervasive anomie of Clowes’s interior world. Clowes could control the narrative with different styles and lines all based on older cartoons, ersatz sketches or more formal poster or lobby card art, his use of kitsch and the grotesque exuding the requisite alienation for his characters and settings. This came more to the fore with David Boring, with the blank, impassive eponymous lead, driven by basic urges and the need to escape, finding himself haunted by fragments of third-rate 1960s comic books that mirror his frame of mind – not to mention Death Ray, a skewed, wish-fulfilment based homage to a certain Marvel character. Despite the irony and misanthropy, there are moments of transcendence and sympathy amidst the fear and torpor, such as in Wilson, Ghost World, or Patience, which sees its protagonist defeat existential despair, feelings of worthlessness, his brittle, difficult past and his desperation to regain his partner.
There’s no small inequity regarding Daniel Clowes’s place on this list of great comic artists, as he is more of a writer / artist, an auteur who has seen his works make the jump to cinema on several occasions, with Ghost World being the best of them in terms of cohesion and channelling the spirit of the source material. He is also very much of the underground / satirical cartoon lineage, rather than a straightforward four colour artist (like most of this list), his style and humour obviously echoing his forebears Mad and of course Crumb. Where he reigns is in his unique, layered and compelling storytelling and his deft subversion of the form, which, if this was a list about artists in his category, he would be at the top of the pack. Each new book (and I await the next one!) is always a thought-provoking, uncompromising tour de force that brings something new to the table.
Here’s links through to the other entries in our 101 Greatest so far as well
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No.44: Daniel Clowes Out of all the autobiographical, confessional “alternative” cartoonists who emerged in the late 80s and early 90s (Peter Bagge, Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, etc.) it was Daniel Clowes who bared his soul with the greatest artistic breadth and vision, marking him out as a unique talent in the field. Words: Andrew
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