It's a cliché because it's true: Life can change in an instant. Often, of course, we can’t tell which choices will shape our lives until they’re years away in the rearview mirror, given weight and color by the present. So it’s oddly fitting, perhaps, that Patience, Daniel Clowes’ first book in a half-decade -- the renowned graphic novelist’s most ambitious, reflective, weighty work yet, and one that took him five long years to birth -- is obsessed with events that take place in a matter of seconds.
Clowes was one of the first comics artists to propel the graphic novel into the mainstream literary world. Though a devoted, far-flung fan base had been following his delightfully weird Eightball series for a nearly a decade, it was the bleak comedy of 1997's coming-of-age story Ghost World that, for many, cast a whole new light on what comics could be. (The screenplay adaptation of that book earned Clowes an Oscar nomination, revealing a new talent of his, as well.)
In the nearly two decades since, Clowes has become something of a respected elder figure within the comics scene (no matter how uncomfortable that delineation might make the 54-year-old) as his art fills retrospectives and museum exhibits alongside current New Yorker covers. But his hallmark remains: an uncanny ability to imbue a seemingly dull interaction between characters with a level of nuance that leaps off the page, not in spite of but because of its quietude: the simple melancholia and hilarity of everyday existence, the hopes and pitfalls of loners and weirdos, are rendered with as much urgency as any bank robbery or high-speed car chase.
In a departure from much of his earlier work, Patience (Fantagraphics; $29.99) sees Clowes blending literal action -- ray-gun fight scenes, seedy gambling dens straight out of Blade Runner -- with his usual subtle human drama. Over the course of 180 bright, color-saturated pages, the reader follows a couple (the titular Patience and her husband Jack) on a surrealist, time-traveling adventure; Jack fixates on the past, attempting to change the course of history in order to ensure his family’s future.
Clowes, who lives in Piedmont with his own wife and son, made some time to chat about the book ahead of his appearance on Wednesday, March 23 at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. (This interview has been edited and condensed, if you can believe that.)
KQED Pop: One thing I’ve always admired about your earlier work is the degree to which you experimented and changed styles between comics, even within a single issue of Eightball. So I’m curious what it felt like to work on one cohesive project for five long years?
Daniel Clowes: You put the proper gravitas in that question. It’s funny, because I know the book looks fairly uniform, but I’ve gotten to the point where there are all these subtle shifts in style that made it seem jarringly different from page to page, and that’s in no way perceptible to anybody but me. But that was enough to keep me from feeling like I was stuck in a method I got bored with.
Also somehow I knew that this was going to be a book that was all about the coloring. In the past, all my color books started out, like, ‘This could still be black and white, or maybe just one color,’ and then I morphed into color mode by the end. In this one, I knew what I wanted it to look like. I think the color brings it all together and you don’t really notice the slight stylistic shifts from scene to scene.
[In terms of the narrative], carrying all the initial inspirations all the way through over five years really was that feeling of carrying a lit match across a windstorm.
With some of the action sequences, I was thinking about in Calvin and Hobbes, when Bill Watterson would use Spaceman Spiff to let out that adventure-action comic strip he always wanted to do. Are these images things you’d been wanting to draw for years, and this was your chance?
There are a few things I’ve wanted to [do] for a long time -- not necessarily specific images in my head that I wanted to get on paper. But I love that idea of seeing a little bit of the workings of the universe behind the visual reality that we all see every day. I’ve always felt that presence, that there’s some infinite mathematical void that’s in the wings behind the stage, behind that play that we’re looking at as our reality, and thought about how to best depict that. There are [other] comic artists that allude to that -- mostly guys from the '50s, post-war guys with PTSD, looking at the world in a bigger way than their stories would indicate. I was always very inspired by that.
The time-travel stuff, the ability to go back and change a specific moment in the past -- did that come out of anything in particular for you?
Well, the notion of examining your past very carefully ... the last 10 years or so, I’ve had a whole bunch of retrospective projects, which are the kind of thing I normally just run from. I really don’t want to go back in time. But I got roped into doing a museum show of my work, and that led to a monograph, and then at the same time I had agreed to do a reprint of all the early Eightballs, and that box set. It was all stuff that I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll let somebody else do that and I’ll work on my own thing.’ Then, of course, I got really drawn into the whole process and found myself in this odd dialogue with this younger version of myself. And in some ways it seemed like no time had passed at all, and in other ways it seemed like I was talking to a different person, in a different era, and it wasn’t myself at all. I didn’t even recognize myself in some of it.
I heard that Oakland Museum exhibition was great, but it also sounds a little bit like being eulogized before your time?
It absolutely felt like that. It was like attending your own funeral and hearing what people say about you -- which was all very nice. There’s a movie called Scarlet Street that opens with Edward G. Robinson going to his retirement dinner, and he’s presented with this gold watch and everybody pats him on his back and then that’s it. He leaves and he has no friends or life after that. It really did feel like that. It was weird. I disassociated myself from it and started to just think of myself as a collector of Daniel Clowes artwork after a while, because you’d see name tags on things like they were on loan from a collector -- but it was ‘on loan from Daniel and Erica Clowes.’ I would be so proud. Like, wow, I have artwork loaned to a museum!
Are there works you specifically noticed that, if you could go back, you would change?
The time in my life I most thought about going back and changing things was when I was much younger. Like, “I wish I could go back to Thursday and not have said that stupid thing in class.” You know, the whole “If I could only do it again, I’d have the perfect comeback for that guy.” Stuff like that. And then as you get older, you have so many of those moments you couldn’t really pick one. It would be your entire life. [Laughs.]
I also sometimes think, when I look at my old comics, “If I could redo that now, I could make it really perfect.” But that would be such a terrible idea. A, it would make it worse, no matter how well you drew it or wrote it, and B, it would crush your life as it is now. It’s just not a good way to think. The more I got into the story, the more I realized that I have no desire whatsoever to do that, and I embraced the way that events unfold in a way you can’t really imagine.
With a lot of artistic depictions of dystopian futures, there’s usually a nostalgia about the past, a romanticism about decades gone by, and I really didn’t get that in Patience. It seems like Jack is pissed off to be in the '70s or whatever. “This sh*t, really?”
[Laughs.] Yeah, if somebody sent me back to 1985, I would just be so sad. It’s funny, because I really love certain past aesthetics, and I’ve always felt that the way history just steamrolls the past, especially art history -- the way there’ll be a perfectly good method of painting or writing or something and then the next thing will come along and destroy that. I’ve always been interested in going back and finding these old modes that were cast aside too soon and seeing what there is in them and combining them with other modes, things like that. I’m certainly not someone who’s 100 percent forward-minded. But I don’t have any desire to go back to any other time. I think as crazy and chaotic as things are, things are always slightly improving in some way.
That’s a message I think a lot of people could use right now.
And I didn’t really want to depict the future as a dystopia. I think people always have the feeling that they’re in the end times and everything is crumbling. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. I feel like it’s just getting more fragmented and hard to grasp.
Since you mentioned the, uh, end times: there’s a kind of blowhard evangelical political TV personality in the book. Was that based on anyone in particular?
I just like that kind of American demagogue character. Of course, now it seems really prescient that we’ve got actual people like that vying for the White House. At the time, I was writing it and I thought ‘What would it take for a guy like this to become president?’ I thought that seemed really far-fetched, and now it seems much less so. But yeah, he came out of guys like Glenn Beck and people like that, who are clearly not speaking truthfully to their audience, projecting an image that’s not necessarily true in any way.
I’ve read that you didn’t show this to anyone as you worked?
I did not let anybody read it. People come in and out of my studio all the time, and pages are out; pages are there. People who saw it had no idea what was going on, and I think a lot of them thought I had lost my mind when they were just looking at the art. My wife wants to read it all at once -- which, I would never want her to be reading something and go “hmm.” That would throw me off so intensely. Just a little “what?” And then that’s all I would think about. Zero response is the best. Then when it’s done, I’m more than happy to hear anything, negative or positive, but not while I’m in the throes of it.
I’m interested in your relationship to feedback in general, because the reader feedback you used to publish -- the letters section in Eightball -- was always so entertaining. Even the hateful letters made it such a hilarious little community to be a part of.
That was such a fun era. And I felt a responsibility back then, because there was no internet; there was no forum where people who read these comics or were interested in this stuff could connect with each other. I would set people up -- literally, I’d get letters from two different people in Danbury, Connecticut, and I would [write back] saying “There’s this girl who lives in town. You should call her.” I felt like I had to write back to everybody. Anybody who did any comics at all, I’d write them encouraging letters.
When I talk to other artists from my era, like the Hernandez Brothers [of Love and Rockets], we all talk about how we basically knew 40 percent of our readers by name. On this recent tour a woman came out who had been at a signing I did in 1993, and I completely remembered her name, because she’d written me.
Is there a modern version of that? Do you keep up with what fans are saying on the internet? It seems like once you open that door it’s another thing entirely.
Yeah, it’s too overwhelming. I can’t get involved in it. It’s just different: there was an ease to it. You’d send a letter and then you’d wait three weeks and get a letter back… every Sunday I spent an hour doing it. I wish I could go back to the old way. It was the ideal scenario, and it was fun: I’d go to my mailbox once a week and it was like Christmas every time. Now, I just have no connection because it’d be too much. But that’s why I really do actually enjoy going on book tours and signings, because you see the demographics. You see, "Oh, good, I still have young people showing up."
You posted a sweet piece about your friend and assistant Alvin, who recently passed away. I thought it was such a great note to end on that he took your social media passwords with him.
Yeah. He was a wonderful guy, just a kind soul and a really good friend of mine. I miss him every minute. And yeah, he was very protective of that stuff. He took it on himself --"I'm making you an Instagram page." "Okay." I never asked for any of it. And he hated social media!
Have you had to wade into the social media waters yourself since then?
No, I immediately tried to get somebody else to take over. [Laughs.] I want people who are looking for info about the book to be able to find it, but I have no desire to craft little jokes and post four times a day or whatever. That seems hopelessly sad to me, to imagine people I really like and respect sitting there and racking their brains to think of a little joke, to get that little jolt of dopamine or whatever. I just feel bad for them that they feel like they have to do that. And you see people who have done 200,000 tweets and you think, that’s just all gone. That’s buried. Nobody will ever, ever look at anything before yesterday. I couldn’t face that. It seems really Sisyphean.
I wanted to talk about setting a bit -- I know you live in Oakland, and your love for it came through so clearly in Wilson, your last book. But the city’s obviously changed a lot since that came out in 2010, even.
Right. So, they’re working on a movie of Wilson -- it’s pretty much done, actually -- and I tried so hard to get them to shoot in Oakland. I wrote the whole script with specific Oakland locations; every one is a real place. But because of regulations it was almost impossible to shoot a movie here. So they shot in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is really weirdly like a version of Oakland from about five or six years ago, before it got the five-star restaurants and all that. It was a good solution, but disappointing.
Do you feel like the city’s changes have seeped into your work at all?
Well, I’m always responding to stuff much later than it’s actually happened. If I were doing a daily strip or something I’m sure it’d be all about the weird developments in Oakland, but it’s stuff that seeps into the work after the fact. I’m guessing my next book will have quite a bit of that, because every single day I find I’m talking to my friends about, “Oh my god, that place went out business and now there’s this new thing.” It’s bizarre, because Oakland seemed so stagnant for the first 15 years I lived here. I used to go downtown all the time and just walk around the abandoned parts of downtown Oakland and think "How can this be? How can this big structure for commerce just be sitting empty?"
Can you imagine having moved here now? There’s obviously a different situation than you moved into, for artists and creative people trying to make a living.
I’m pretty aware that there will probably never be a community of young cartoonists here, which really bothers me. You go to a place like Portland, which I’m sure will wind up like Oakland in about five years, but there’s just hundreds of cartoonists there, and it feels like this real community. Here, it’s just daunting. I wouldn’t even recommend anybody who wants to do something like cartooning live here. You can do it anywhere! I guess if you’re somebody who’s really skilled with tech stuff you could get an easy job and then do it in your spare time or something... but most cartoonists aren’t really tech people. It’s a very different part of your brain.
Do you have a sense of what’s next for you after the tours for this book are over? Do you have the itch do shorter things after working on something so lengthy?
My whole goal after this was to take a month off, not think about anything, just read books and hang out. And after about two days of that, I was going insane. I started to feel like, I have this limited time on the planet and every day is precious. I have that Midwestern work ethic drummed into me, I think. So I started jotting down ideas for a new story. I always look through my old notebooks and see if anything pops out that I maybe dismissed earlier, and I came up with a couple things that hold my interest. I’m piecing something together. But it’ll probably be a while! We’ll see.
Daniel Clowes discusses Patience at Green Apple Books on the Park on Wednesday, March 23 at at 7:30pm. Details here.