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Daniel Clowes is not, per his insistence, one of those comic book readers.

[ 30 ] May 3, 2010 |

The title says “per his insistence,” but it would be more accurate to say “per his repeated insistence,” as he is incapable of writing a book in which he doesn’t distance himself from the poor sods who enjoy genre comics.  His dismissal of such readers almost reaches the point of fetish, as if he thrills at the thought of being the comic auteur who produces books that don’t belong on the same shelves as Marvel or DC titles.  So strong, in fact, is his desire to not be numbered among the lowly readers of genre titles that despite banking his career on sympathetic portrayals of losers and misfits, he lumps anyone who’s ever picked up a copy of Detective Comics and enjoyed it in with the Dan Pussey‘s of the world.

Which is only to say that in Clowes hierarchy of worth, there are reasonably well-adjusted people, self-conscious consumers of indie comic art, losers, pariahs, and loser pariahs who read mainstream comics.  The fate of the aforementioned Pussey is, you recall, to have his “silly books” ransacked and mocked by elderly iterations of Ghost World‘s Enid and Rebecca.  How powerful is his desire to distance himself from mainstream titles?  His new book, Wilson, contains exactly one reference to comic books period, and it serves to demonstrate that while his titular character may be a felonious asshole whose misogyny dresses the windows of a much more malicious psychosis, at least he knows what’s what:

Heaven forefend anyone mistake Clowes for one of those readers.*

*That said, my annoyance here is at the gesture more than the gesturer.  Clowes is a phenomenal talent, but just as I can’t brook people who claim they can’t dig Pavement because they’re into Television or the Wire, people who argue that their taste was never sullied by the commonplace strike a populist nerve.  That comparison only makes sense if you know people with an unhealthy fetish for ’70s new wave who hate the modern.

(x-posted.)

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  1. snarkout says:

    This is the Dan Clowes who made fun of Art Spiegelman and Gary Groth (“Mr. Anger”) and Fantagraphics in the “The Young Manhood of Dan Pussey” — and drew “Daniel Clowes” as a creepy loser, mocked by his anagrammic self, Enid Coleslaw. I honestly don’t think he’s interested enough in superhero comics to be concerned about distancing himself from them; he’s said his favorite comic growing up was “Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane”.

    • SEK says:

      I’d agree if his insistence weren’t so insistent, you know? Put differently: it’s one thing to distance yourself from mainstream comics via content, form, style, etc. It’s another to feel the added compulsion to narrativize that distance again and again and again, as he does. He might not be interested in genre comics, but he’s certainly invested in not having his works confused with them.

  2. Evil Bender says:

    I teach Ghost World in one of my classes, much to my students’ annoyance. Almost without exception, they read his contempt for, well, pretty much everyone as both patronizing and somewhat nihilistic. The same students who are happy to discuss at great length the last page of The Killing Joke find Clowes’ contempt for them too much to take.

    I suspect he would take the above as high praise.

    • SEK says:

      Honest question here: how do you get your students to see past the “cool detachment” of Enid and Rebecca through to the performed misogyny of Clowes in the book? It’s one of those tricky issues–students want to sympathize with the protagonists, and will adopt their definition of “cool” for the duration of their reading experience. I’ve tried to push through that by pointing out that Clowes clearly despises the poses Enid makes, and that his derision reflects back upon himself anagrammatically, but it never quite sinks in.

      • Evil Bender says:

        Honestly, I think my answer would be “not very well.” Indeed, I have trouble getting my students to see through the general misanthropy of the text to engage with much of anything in the text.

        Last time I taught it, amidst very possible evaluations, I got a dozen comments along the lines of “No Ghost World!” So I’d say it wasn’t exactly a great success.

        But a couple students seemed to find engaging Clowes productive, so I’m going to re-consider my approach over the summer and try again.

  3. redfox says:

    You mean Clowes’ contempt for himself? These comics aren’t about sneering at people so low as to read comics, they’re acts of self criticism and self mockery. Enid’s contempt for everyone around her is written as sad. She can’t help it, but it’s her loss. Caricature, too, is basically a self portrait of someone who can’t help but see everyone as awful, in which misanthropy is a terrible compulsion that leaves you hollow and lonely.

    • Evil Bender says:

      I tend to agree. But given how that self-loathing tends to find expression alongside contempt for basically everything, I can hardly blame readers who are put off by the whole enterprise.

      • redfox says:

        Yes, I was just coming back here to say that I would never claim that his oeuvre isn’t full of tiny withered walnuts of hate, just that it’s all patently rooted in self loathing rather than any interest in exempting himself. Quite the contrary.

        • SEK says:

          I may not have made this clear enough in my sketch of Clowes’ hierarchy of loserdom, but I do think he reserves a special condemnation for fans of genre books. It’s an outgrowth of his self-loathing, certainly, but it’s also almost programmatic, i.e. a symptom of the fact that he can’t truly be taken seriously unless critics consider what he does categorically different from what happens in the spandex weeklies.

          In short, I’m not denying the pervasiveness of his misanthropy, simply pointing out that in his work there’s still a special place in Hell for fans of genre comics. It seems more out of place because of his otherwise sympathetic portrayals of the fringes, almost as if this is the one fringe up with which he will not put.

          • David Addington says:

            “simply pointing out that in his work there’s still a special place in Hell for fans of genre comics”

            Any chance he’s met some? Dave Sim was making fun of comics fans (and the farcical qualities of what they read) over thirty years ago, and they’ve probably gotten worse since then. (See the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, who couldn’t possibly be based on anyone factual.)

            And what do you mean “genre” comics? Are they still making war or romance comics these days, or is mainstream comics (Marvel, DC, imitators like Image) all superhero torture porn? Back when I was following comics, independent comics were all that was worth reading (though of course there was a lot of crap, too — Sturgeon’s Law still applies).

            I have a friend who still collects comics, and when I look through his recent purchases I find an incredible improvement in printing quality and paper, shackled by submoronic dialogue and stories that don’t make sense unless you’ve been reading superhero comics for decades, despite reboots like Crisis on Infinite Earths et al. Most comics writers and artists in the field are copying copies of copies of earlier comics, with the same results you’d expect if you just xeroxed them over and over again. (Think of a cop show so divorced from reality or any engagement with actual humanity that it only makes sense if you’ve seen previous cop shows, regurgitated as completely as the original clichés.)

            Alan Moore knows the score, as Pop Will Eat Itself put it, and the name of that band might as well apply to comics, too.

            • SEK says:

              Any chance he’s met some?

              We’re all the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, don’t you know?

              And what do you mean “genre” comics? Are they still making war or romance comics these days, or is mainstream comics (Marvel, DC, imitators like Image) all superhero torture porn?

              Spandex weeklies are as much a genre as romance or Western or war.

              Most comics writers and artists in the field are copying copies of copies of earlier comics, with the same results you’d expect if you just xeroxed them over and over again.

              So you meant it when you said you haven’t read any recently then, didn’t you? Because as much as I hate his work personally, that’s certainly not what Grant Morrison’s up to even when it seems to be the case. We’re in an almost unprecedented era of auteur power in mainstream comics, and some of those writers are damn fine (Warren Ellis, etc.).

  4. Walt says:

    Even granting your point (which I find hard to see in this excerpt, since the comic-book hater comes across so horribly), so what? Now we all have to like superhero comics? Just to be clear, I like superhero comics just fine, have no idea who Clowes is (though I’ve seen the movie Ghost World), and see almost every superhero movie that comes out (yes, even FF2). But the pearl-clutching among comics fans whenever someone announces that they hate superhero comics is getting old.

    • hirst says:

      This comment pretty much expresses what I was thinking before I read it.

    • RWBoyd says:

      The defensiveness of some superhero fans is absurd, but I also think Dan Clowes’ contempt for them is absurd. I don’t understand why he cares what other people are fans of. I’m not exactly filed with respect for fans of the Insane Clown Posse (for example), but I don’t spend any time really thinking about them, much less pronouncing to the world my feelings. Clowes himself comes off as being defensive–worried perhaps that people might mistake what he does for Superhero comics he hates.

      (I write this as a loyal reader of Clowes, and big devotee of art comics generally.)

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      I read SEK as making an interesting observation about the work of Daniel Clowes, who is a significant writer and artist who–as this thread suggests–is of interest to a number of LGM readers.

      You say you’ve never read Clowes. That’s fine, of course. I assume you’re not very interested in him. That’s fine, too.

      But if you don’t know Clowes and aren’t interested in Clowes, it’s not very surprising that you find a post whose payoff is an interesting point about Clowes both unconvincing and uninteresting.

      In short, the “so what?” here is: and so we potentially understand Dan Clowes a little better.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      It’s the blanket condemnation of anything superhero-related that I find tiresome. Even given David Addington’s assertion above–that superhero comics are increasingly threadbare retreads of decades-old characters and concepts–there’s still a lot to enjoy in the work of particular artists and writers. Amanda Conner and Colleen Coover’s work is worth searching out. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have taken a bunch of Marvel’s long-moribund “cosmic” and space-based characters and created a nifty little side-continuity for them; they’re doing the best version of Nova in that character’s thirty-plus-year history. Greg Rucka had a nice run doing various characters for DC, although sadly he’s taking a break from genre work. Marvel Adventures, which was created to be the kids’ version of their mainstream characters, is much more enjoyable than the “adult” books. &c.

      Now, some of these pleasures are pretty slim; I wouldn’t trade the entire run of Guardians of the Galaxy for Bottomless Belly Button or even a single issue of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but to dismiss them because they feature people in tights and masks is just stupid, really the mark of someone who seems to hate superhero comics and their readers (Garth Ennis seems to have this problem as well) because that’s where the money is at, and they don’t want to do them. I wish that there were more people reading Jeffrey Brown and Gabrielle Bell’s stuff, too, and spending less money on Random Grimdark Comic, Now With Extra Wolverine, too, but nobody likes a whiner.

  5. Halloween Jack says:

    Luckily, I feel completely free to pretty much ignore whatever Clowes is doing these days; the last thing I bought of his was Eightball #23 (The Death Ray), but the last thing of his that I actually enjoyed was Ghost World. His Wikipedia page mentions some movie projects that he’s been working on, but although I liked the movie version of Ghost World, Art School Confidential was just sort of a mess, even though it had its funny parts.

  6. Hob says:

    SEK, it makes me nervous to realize that I disagree with you, because that means I’m probably wrong, but… fuck it, no, actually you’re wrong. Or at least, your argument as presented lacks a foundation.

    You’re claiming that Clowes “is incapable of writing a book in which he doesn’t distance himself from the poor sods who enjoy genre comics.” Your evidence of this is (a) the Dan Pussey stories, which were mainly about a particular kind of fanboy-as-hack-auteur that was ruling the world at that time (cf. Rob Liefeld), and (b) one page from Wilson where a guy who’s obviously a total asshole expresses a pompous opinion. The latter case is particuarly weird because you’re granting that Clowes is deliberately writing an unsympathetic character, except for this one page where you think he agrees with Wilson and is trying to make him look good… based on nothing, as far as I can tell, but your pre-existing opinion of Clowes as a crazed anti-genre snob.

    If you’ve got more examples from the rest of Clowes’s work, why not mention them? Otherwise this is really weak.

    • SEK says:

      The latter case is particularly weird because you’re granting that Clowes is deliberately writing an unsympathetic character, except for this one page where you think he agrees with Wilson and is trying to make him look good.

      I think we need to grant, first off, that all his characters are, to varying degrees, unsympathetic. At issue here is that subject which even his unsympathetic losers are too cool to be invested in, which is the super hero comic. The same logic applies in David Boring, in which sad-sack David searches for his sad-sack father’s essence in the pages of The Yellow Streak, an act which is portrayed, at the narrative level, as juvenile and ultimately futile. (“There’s nothing there, David” says Dot, echoing Gertrude Stein.) Then there’s the “Harry Naybors: Comic Book Critic” sections of Ice Haven, in which Naybors insists that while he does write about comics, he has “nothing at all to do with children.” I’d continue, but my copies of his other work are currently out on loan, but I’m sure there more of them.

      Another way to put this: the bit from Wilson stood out because it clarified my inchoate sense of Clowes’ antipathy towards super hero comics. It’s a distillation of a general feature of his work, and I figured that it’d click for other people similarly familiar with his career. I could be wrong, and you’re right to note that I didn’t provide enough evidence initially, but whether I’m actually wrong requires a bit more work on my part. (Which I’m going to do whenever I get my books back. I’m not so much invested in being correct now as I am in getting it right.)

      • Hob says:

        But “even his unsympathetic losers are too cool to be invested in” is your construction, not Clowes’s, and (as people have been trying to point out at length on the corresponding Acephalous thread) it’s now utterly impossible for Clowes to do anything that doesn’t validate one of your complaints. If Wilson did like superheroes, then you’d be right again, because Wilson is an asshole! If Dan Pussey didn’t like superheroes, then you’d be right again, because Dan is a loser but Clowes is showing that he’s still cool! I don’t think you’ve “clarified” your inchoate sense so much as diffused it to cover everything. Maybe if Clowes actually made a superhero comic in which he constantly talked about how they are great, it would change your mind, but why would he do that?

        As for “clicking for other people,” at this point I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of the guy’s published work except for Wilson, “Mr. Wonderful”, and the super-early Cracked stuff, and… no, I’m not seeing it. I do see a running gag in the early days that boils down to “everyone makes fun of me for drawing cartoons, and they may have a point,” which is different. I think he’s spent at least as much time making fun of highbrow notions of the Graphic Novel (if you don’t see Harry Naybors as a figure of fun, then we may not even be speaking the same language) as he has on making fun of genre. The latter, especially if you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, is just taken for granted – it’s everywhere, it informs everything you do, you can’t escape from it and especially not if you draw comics. The only time Clowes really bothered to aim directly at it was in the Dan Pussey stories, and that has more to do with the bizarre saga of Image Comics and the unpleasant spectacle of a bunch of living caricatures getting rich by doing the dumbest superhero comics ever and not even doing them well.

        The bit you mentioned in David Boring is, I think, one of those cases where Clowes isn’t using superhero comics to say something about genre– he’s just taking them for granted. You can draw a few totally random panels of weird shit (and as Tomemos on the other thread pointed out, The Yellow Streak doesn’t really resemble any comic on Earth) and it instantly conveys “superhero comic”, and “weird artifact from childhood,” which is the purpose it serves in that story. Your metaphorical reading of the “nothing there” line is totally unnecessary; David is trying to decipher tiny shreds of a torn-up story!

        Also note that David’s dad wasn’t Jack Kirby or something– he was just another artist who worked on some odd stuff that was produced to be disposable (although he probably invested it with some personal qualities, and David might’ve found something there if his mom hadn’t destroyed it), and it was printed really cheaply and then forgotten about. That’s not Clowes being mean; it’s what a lot of careers in that field were really like.

        • Hob says:

          PS. I would like to point out that I refrained from making any J. Goldberg jokes about anything being “central to your point”, because I am a gentleman.

          However, I can’t resist the temptation to refer to the triumphant cry of the Dave Sim character in the bar fight scene in King Bacchus, as he’s being pummeled to the ground: “I’ve fixed it so I can’t be wrong!”

        • SEK says:

          But “even his unsympathetic losers are too cool to be invested in” is your construction, not Clowes’s, and (as people have been trying to point out at length on the corresponding Acephalous thread) it’s now utterly impossible for Clowes to do anything that doesn’t validate one of your complaints.

          I see why my position’s problematic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not correct. But before I begin, credit must given where due: my construction plays off the rhetorical situations Clowes creates in his novels, i.e. his characters are largely unsympathetic and he aims his misanthropy both at them, directly, and through them to the world of his narrative. The result of this is the argumentative impasse I’ve inadvertently created: any position I attribute to Clowes can be refuted on account of the notion that no author would use a reprehensible character as a proxy. Given that all of his characters are, to a lesser or greater degree, reprehensible, anyone who wants to say anything about Clowes’s attitude is left with nothing to appeal to but the words of people Clowes clearly considers assholes.

          I think he’s spent at least as much time making fun of highbrow notions of the Graphic Novel (if you don’t see Harry Naybors as a figure of fun, then we may not even be speaking the same language) as he has on making fun of genre. The latter, especially if you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, is just taken for granted – it’s everywhere, it informs everything you do, you can’t escape from it and especially not if you draw comics.

          The notion of comics as a “genre” instead of a “medium” may be where our difference originates. I think this may be because I’m so late to the indie comics scene: I read mainstream Marvel books from 1989 to 1992 before being turned on to Love & Rockets, so the sense of long-standing conflict between comic genres is liable to be a bit vitiated … and that’s also why Clowes’s antipathy toward the spandex books strikes me as such an antiquated and unnecessary gesture. Indie comics are as mainstream as mainstream titles are at this point. My local Barnes & Noble has a section devoted to Fantagraphics that occupies the same number of shelves as the trades by Marvel and DC. (This doesn’t even account for the manga section, which is nearly the size of the science fiction ghetto at this point.)

          All of which is only to say, if making fun of genre comics is just something you do, that means you belong to a different generation of comic reader than I do. That’s not the sort of rhetorical tic that, as you said it, I “take for granted.” It seems a deliberate knock at a particular genre, not just a thing you do. Does that make sense?

          • SEK says:

            (Also, I’ll get to the Boring points you made as soon as I’ve finished re-reading it.)

          • Hob says:

            Of course comics are a medium and not a genre. I was using “genre” to refer to superhero comics (since romance and horror aren’t at issue here). I avoided using “mainstream”, as you did in your original post, for the same reason you just mentioned: Clowes is really more mainstream than Rob Liefeld these days.

            I couldn’t figure out what you meant by your last paragraph until I looked at my comment again and saw some unclear grammar. When I said “the latter… is just taken for granted,” I meant genre comics– the existence of them, the pervasiveness of them in pop culture, and the fact that that’s still what “comics” means to a lot of people– rather than, as you took it, the act of making fun of them. That would’ve been a weird thing for me to say, since obviously I just plain don’t agree with you that Clowes has a persistent habit of making fun of superheroes more than he makes fun of anything else, but I did do some sloppy writing there.

            Again, to me, the Harry Naybors and Wilson bits say exactly the opposite of what you take them as saying. I see a satirical portrait of a pompous ass who, completely in character, expresses pompous disdain of pop culture– and in Naybors’s case, praises the highbrow stuff he likes (including Ice Haven itself) in such ridiculously abstruse terms that he clearly is someone who really can’t enjoy anything at all, much like the Gary Groth character in Pussey!. Now, unless you think that Clowes just becomes instantly tone-deaf whenever his superhero allergy kicks in, I don’t see any reason to read these passages as “this guy is an asshole AND HE IS RIGHT” rather than “this guy is an asshole and in fact he’s the particular kind of asshole who holds forth about how much he hates pop culture just to show his superiority.” To me they’re clearly written as the latter, and I really think that as buffoon types go, he’s visited this one (the Very Serious Person) way more than the Dan Pussey kind, and in a way that suggests that they bother him more deeply than Batman ever could.

            None of this means Clowes doesn’t hate Batman; it just means that as he is a satirist who writes in character very well, he could write the same scene regardless of what he thinks of Batman, because it’s not about fucking Batman, it’s about Wilson.

            Also, it’s not actually true that all of his characters are assholes, or even most of them. David Boring, Enid, even the guy in Caricature, are well-intentioned a lot of the time, they just have huge blind spots. Clowes clearly sympathizes with them at some times and is making fun of them at other times, or at the same time, but I just don’t agree that the key to sorting this out is to refer to what you believe the author’s opinions to be outside of the text; I think in most cases it’s really right there on the page. He’s perfectly capable of writing a character who can have a negative opinion about something without being as over-the-top awful about it as Wilson.

          • Hob says:

            Sorry to be so wordy, but there was one other thing I wanted to say:

            Even granting your premise– even if Clowes rabidly despises all innocent pulp– that page from Wilson doesn’t do what you say it does! At all!

            1. Not a damn thing is said about comic books. Wilson and the cab driver are talking about a famous Hollywood movie, The Dark Knight. I believe you’re familiar with it.

            2. What sets Wilson off is the cab driver’s clumsy attempt to explain why The Dark Knight is for grown-ups: because “it’s got all this stuff about terrorism and Guantanamo, and, like, all this political…” Wilson apparently finds the guy’s high-mindedness itself laughable– either the idea that those things are important, or that a “dull-witted” guy like the driver really cares about them. It’s “like religion, or patriotism.” He doesn’t just think Batman and superpowers are escapist– he seems to think believing in things is escapist.

            3. Clowes, being a resident of this planet, is undoubtedly aware that Batman does not have any superpowers. Wilson clearly doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. Yet another writerly choice that would be rather odd if Clowes were actually trying to convey the message that Batman is stupid.

            4. The punchline: Wilson asks if Iron Man is any good.

  7. DocAmazing says:

    Say what you will, the key to Clowes’ work is “Needle-dick the Bug Fucker”.

  8. jholbo says:

    I have to agree with the disagreers. I see the alleged strenuous insistence as of a piece with standard Clowes bitter self-mockery.

  9. SEK says:

    FYI: Ahem (or something).

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