This summer marks the long-awaited release of Daniel Clowes’ The Complete Eightball 1-18, collecting, as its title says, the first eighteen issues of the acclaimed anthology comic book published by Fantagraphics. Containing serialized graphic novels like Ghost World and Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, as well as shorter works like “Art School Confidential” and “Caricature.” Each one of this deluxe two-volume slipcased hardcover’s four hundred and fifty-four pages is full of the observant, acerbic, often caustic hilarity that has earned Clowes his reputation as one of America’s finest cartoonists. Clowes, who appears Friday night at LA’s Meltdown Comics from 6 to 10 PM for a book launch party and signing, spoke with me last week from his home in Oakland and described the forces that made Eightball the leading anthology comic of the last twenty-five years.
NERDIST: Do you see a distinct line between your Eightball and post-Eightball work, or was it a gradual evolution?
DANIEL CLOWES: At the time when I was doing comics with the name Eightball on them, it all seemed like part of a continuum, but now stepping back from it a little bit I can see that the eighteen issues that are in The Complete Eightball volume are very distinct from the ones that came after it. David Boring was a three-part continued story and there were no backup features or anything like that in the comics. It really should have just been a standalone graphic novel. And then the next two books I did that were also called Eightball were the books Ice Haven and The Death Ray. Those were both really just graphic novels with the world “Eightball” on the cover, which was nothing but confusing to people who weren’t sort of steeped in the whole world of comics and serialization and all that. People would go, “Oh I really love that book you did, Eightball.” And they would be talking about The Death Ray. [Laughs.]
N: How did the series begin?
DC: It was in the mid-80s and I had done a comic coming right out of art school called Lloyd Llewellyn, which was sort of miraculously published by Fantagraphics at the time. And that was a real kind of trail by fire. I had no idea how to put together an entire comic book. I don’t think I’d ever done more than seven or eight pages in a row at one time in my entire life. So that was kind of my first attempt to do a comic book, and I wasn’t really happy with it. I didn’t feel like I had the skills to do something that ambitious right out of the gate. And when that was cancelled I was just starting to feel like I really knew what I was doing and I could do something that was more in line with what I wanted to do. But I felt like I had blown my one chance. So Eightball was really conceived as kind of my farewell to comics. I thought that I would do a couple of issues and do the very best I could and then go to dental school or whatever. And when I was the age that I am now I would look back and go, “I did these pretty good comics back in the ‘80s, before I became a pickpocket.”
N: Did you consider it a means of exorcising all the thoughts and frustrations you had at that time?
DC: That’s what I do with all my comics. It has to come from a place of your true emotion, and what’s sort of flown through your brain and is present in your inner thoughts. So I just always wanted to get that stuff out on paper as directly as I could. In a way that expressed it as impactfully as I could.
N: Your style began to change almost immediately when you moved from Lloyd Llewellyn to Eightball. And your influences seemed to change from artists like Bernard Krigstein to a wider assortment of folks. What comics were you taking in at that time?
DC: I think I was interested in the whole broad variety of things when I was doing Lloyd Llewellyn, but I felt sort of safe in that world. I felt like I wanted to do what I felt I was capable of doing, which was in that vein — that sort of Bernie Krigstein, Johnny Craig, early ‘60s aesthetic. But I was very interested in all kinds of comics, and that was something I really wanted to get to in Eightball, and work in all these different styles that I was so inspired by. From the kind of crazy underground styles — and not just in the way that that the stories looked but in the way that stories are even conceived. There are stories in Eightball where I’d just start with a panel and work my way through it without any idea of where it was going next. But also sort of vernacular style, things like Jack Chick or the old Love Is… cartoons. Things like that, I wanted to respond to that and distill everything through my own vision. That was kind of the goal.
N: Did the idea of doing serialized work like Ghost World come gradually or did you originally view the book as a means of doing both short and long works?
DC: No, I really didn’t want to do serialized work. At the time I remember thinking, “Nobody wants to read a continued story. Myself included.” [Laughs] At the time I would get really irritated having to wait six months to read another eight pages of somebody’s story. So when I started out I thought the Velvet Glove thing was just gonna be one story and Ghost World certainly was just gonna be one story. With the Velvet Glove thing, it was so off the cuff, I never really had a plan for it. [Laughs] So I was winging that the whole time. It started out as one or two stories, then I thought it would be five at the most; and it wound up being ten. But with Ghost World, I did that first story and then I just had so many more ideas for those characters. I thought, “Well, I’ll do another one.” I thought it would be like the Dan Pussey thing, where every couple of issues I would maybe go back and do a Ghost World story or not. It didn’t have a through-line built into it, but somehow in the back of my brain it was turning into an actual story that had pieces of a beginning, a middle, and an end already built into it without my even knowing it. So then it was very easy to turn it into more of a book.
N: Was your Dan Pussey strip an amalgamation of various folks you’d encountered in your career? Were there any particular individuals who inspired it?
DC: I think that’s filled with very specific references to people who I’d had encounters with, or people who I’d read about in the sad history of comics. I remember a big influence for that book was… Will Eisner had done a book called The Dreamer, and it was all about this very thinly disguised version of his early days in comics. It was such a sort of light romp about a young man coming of age in the world of comics, and I thought, “He’s just sort of glossing over all the horrible exploitation and misery that comic artists need to express about their career.” [Laughs] Even guys you think of as unassailably great artists have such a trail of tears in their early careers from back in those days, and I thought that there needed to be a more realistic version of that. It was sort of a world that nobody had ever depicted before. Certainly comics fans had no interest whatsoever in depicting their own world. They were all very firmly about escaping from the grim realities of their own lives and going into this fantasy world. That was the big draw of comics. So to kind of turn that around and go into that world… At the time that first story came out, people were sort of shocked that anybody would ever even try to do something like that.
N: Comics fans, myself included, have a tendency to overly romanticize the past and imagine a world that didn’t quite exist. I recall you once remarked how we’d like to think Alex Toth created all kinds of great noir comics in the ‘50s, but he didn’t. He was a great artist, but he was no Chandler or Hammett.
DC: No, he never did a book you would recommend to a normal person. You would recommend it to somebody who was studying the beauty of what ink can do on paper. But you would never tell somebody who reads John Updike, “You’ve got to read Bravo for Adventure!” That would not go over well.
N: Yet it almost seems like some of your early work was an attempt to reclaim the great styles of ‘50s and ‘60s developed by artists like Toth, and finally give it material of which it was worthy.
DC: That’s certainly always been my goal. That’s a tough thing to try to achieve for sure, but I’ve always wanted to kind of keep the beauty of the visceral, pop-art imagery of comics, the stuff that really is alive and energetic on the page, regardless of the material. I always wanted to sort of give that the kind of narrative material that justified it more than just the pictures. But that’s certainly a tall order. I don’t know how close I’ve come to that. [Laughs] But yeah, to do that. To do that Alex Toth story with a script that is at least worthy of a good Howard Hawks film or something. That’s certainly a noble goal I think.
N: You mentioned Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Of all your stories during that period, that’s the one that most defies categorization. It’s so wonderfully out there. How did that strip come about?
DC: I had been a film major for a little while in art school and got really obsessed with that kind of crazy, surrealist cinema from [Luis] Buñuel and all that stuff. Up through crazy movies from the ‘50s. Like, there’s a movie called Butter of Horror. That’s kind of a disturbing, dreamlike scenario, that was almost impossible to see when I was a kid. I saw it once when I was very young, and that really had a lifelong effect on me. I wanted to try to capture that kind of dark, nightmare feel that you would get from those films. It was a very kind of black-and-white vision. But as a kid, I grew up with a black-and-white TV set watching shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits when I was five or six years old, and they seemed so terrifying and mysterious and really affected the way I actually dreamed. They had such an imposing vision of that dream world, that I think it affected not only my dreams but the way I saw the mystery inherent in these narratives. So it was something that was really building up over my childhood that I kind of needed to release onto the world.
N: Velvet Glove is also reminiscent of things like Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, the Criterion DVD for which you did the cover art.
DC: Totally. Or The Naked Kiss even more so.
N: I’m hard-pressed to think of another comic that captures the particular strain of madness found in those films.
DC: Well to see a film like The Naked Kiss or Shock Corridor when I was twenty-two years old, it was almost impossible. Those weren’t available anywhere. So if you did get a chance to see them it was usually late at night on TV with ridiculous commercials in between, and it had such an elicit feel because of that. That was a big influence. Just the impurity of stuff like that.
N: I know you’ve spoken at length many times about Ghost World, but, for the sake of the uninitiated… Was it something that had been gestating in your mind since you yourself were a teen? Or did that spring fully formed in your head when you created it for Eightball?
DC: No, it just kind of blurted out. it was just one of those things. It had started out a very different strip. I had wanted to do a strip that was about two young girls, just because I had done only strips about guys who were pretty obvious stand-ins for myself, even Dan Pussey to some degree. [Laughs] So I thought, “I want to do something about people who aren’t anything like me, so I can sort of write from the outside in rather than the other way around.” It started out as this kind of weird science-fiction story, and I never could get interested in that somehow. At the time I had started dating my wife and she was telling me all these stories about when she was in high school and she had a friend like that, and she was sort of very Enid-ish. I had known many women in art school who were like that. I thought, “You never see these types of people in any art form.” At that time there was nothing that depicted women in that way. I thought, “Well, that seems like something I could do.” [Laughs] So I did. Again, they just sort of became alive. Certain characters come to life, and kind of take you on the story without you really knowing what’s gonna happen. That’s when it becomes really interesting and fun. It was very easy to do those stories. Those were some of the easiest things that just sort of poured out onto the page without much thought. They were already alive.
N: Looking back, are you surprised by the reception to Eightball? That people cherish it as much as they do? That single shorts like “Art School Confidential” would go on to inspire entire feature films?
DC: Yeah, yeah. Because it’s as close to the real me as there could be. Much more so than I feel like talking to me in person. [Laughs] I felt like I was a very specific person that didn’t have a lot in common with people. But I was clearly saying something that tapped into some universal message. I don’t know if you can call having a bunch of readers, that are sort of this self-selected fringe audience, “universal.” But there was something that people were responding to, that they felt like I was speaking for them.
N: The fact that there wasn’t much else like Eightball at that time, was that helpful to you as an artist, to have the field all to yourself? Or as a comics fan would you have preferred to have seen more of that and less of the material we were getting throughout the ‘90s?
DC: I certainly felt like the culture in the late ‘80s, when I started that, and the early ‘90s… If you could get out of the clutches of that oppressive mainstream culture of the time, there was just so much material you could do. I remember Eightball became kind of a favorite with comedy writers and comedians at the time. They were always saying, “Wow, I wish I could do stuff like this.” Nowadays you could. Nowadays, pretty much anything in Eightball could be on Adult Swim or whatever. But back then there was just nothing like it, nobody could do anything like that. People were so jealous of the freedom. I would always say, “Well, you can do it. I’m doing it. Nobody’s stopping you.” [Laughs.] But doing it and making a living was another thing I guess.
N: Right. Again, it’s easy to look back and romanticize.
DC: Yeah, well people who were TV writers and successful at that kind of thing, they’re not gonna all of the sudden turn off the source of income just because they wish they could do something that was a little more freeing. That’s not how it works.
N: Did you have comedians calling you up to buy original pages?
DC: A lot of it is in retrospect… There’s a part in Amy Poehler’s autobiography where she talks about how her days were spent reading Eightball. Stuff like that, where you’re like, “Really? I didn’t know that.” My biggest regret almost in my career was… Once Bob Odenkirk and David Cross called me up and they said, “We’re big fans. We’re LA comedians and we’re gonna do this show on HBO called Mr. Show, and we want you to do the title sequence and do some animation for it.” At the time, I just thought, “Eh, comedians.” I just pictured these guys, like, in their rainbow suspenders in front of a brick wall telling bad jokes. Literally, that’s what I pictured. I just thought, “No comedian is gonna be good.” I had no idea of what was going on in the comedy world. So I was dubious. I just said, “Look, you know… I’m busy. I don’t think I can do it.” Then of course the show came out and I was like, “Oh, this is the greatest show in the world! Why didn’t I do it?!” [Laughs] I still regret it, because I know that’s the kind of thing I know I could have really done a good job on and it would have been so much fun. But, oh well…
N: What are you working on right now?
DC: I have a book that’s my longest graphic novel, called Patience, that’s coming out next March. I feel like the less I say about the better it will be, because it somewhat defies description. It’s sort of a science fiction story, but I use that term in quotes. [Laughs]
N: Thank you very much for your time, Dan!
DC: Thank you! It’s great to talk to you. Thank you so much.