Going Underground

"I don't have any feeling of my place in the world; it's just like I'm living with this blank slate. Of course, I grew up thinking of myself as an outsider because I wasn't in the in crowd in high school like everybody else, but now I don't know what I'm in." – Daniel Clowes, Salon, December 2000

Daniel Clowes may still feel like an indefinite outsider of sorts when he goes to bed at night, but it's getting harder every year for the rest of us to ignore the fact that the soft-spoken artist is on the inside track to becoming one of underground comics' most decorated figures. After all, we're talking about an artist whose signature comic series, "Eightball" – the wry, moving 23rd issue of which is out now from the stellar Fantagraphics publishing house – had already snagged all the major industry awards, including the Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz, around the time he was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002. The latter was an honor Clowes shared with director Terry Zwigoff for the screen adaptation of “Ghost World,” the hilarious but poignant film based on his "Eightball" selection and subsequent graphic novel of the same name. But if you think all of that has gone to his head, think again.

"That kind of stuff is such a long shot and so unlikely," Clowes explains, "And the films that win the Oscar are usually not ones that I'm particularly interested in. If I was thinking of writing an Oscar-winning film, then I would probably put in stuff that I don't really like. It seems that you could consciously write that kind of film, and I think people do, but it would be a stupid one."

“Ghost World” was anything but stupid. In fact, it was one of the sharpest condemnations of America's banal pop-cultural appropriation of subculture and strangeness since Alex Cox's ridiculously underrated “Repo Man” – and just as funny. Besides finally affixing the Hollywood spotlight squarely on Clowes and comics not involving superheroes in spandex, “Ghost World” also solidified the artistic symbiosis between Clowes and Zwigoff, the director behind “Crumb,” the canonical 1994 Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary on alt-comix lifer Robert Crumb and his exceedingly unique family. To mangle “Casablanca,” Zwigoff and Clowes' synergy on “Ghost World” spawned a beautiful relationship, and the two quickly reunited for the upcoming film “Art School Confidential,” a smart-ass satire of the scene-saturated art world based on, you guessed it, another one of Clowes' "Eightball" strips.

"With 'Ghost World,' neither of us had ever made a feature film," Clowes, who lives in Oakland, Calif., says. "Terry made documentaries, which in some ways are about as close to making a film as drawing comics are. We both had our specialized outside knowledge that we brought to the table, and we learned from each other how to make a feature film. So by the time we started working on 'Art School Confidential,' we were both bringing more than we did to 'Ghost World.' I think that now we both have a lot more experience and the knowledge of what's going to work in the editing room, what will actually be funny, moving and meaningful. I feel like this is a much more accomplished film from both of us."

That growth will be needed now that the world has become more and more familiar with underground icons like Clowes, Crumb and Harvey Pekar, whose own “American Splendor” series served as the basis for yet another indie comic-based Oscar-nominated film in 2003. Indeed, today's savvy audiences will no doubt demand a certain amount of hard-fought credibility from “Art School Confidential,” one untarnished by what comics aficionados often regard as the dominant culture's attempt to appropriate a fiercely guarded independence. As Enid (Thora Birch) tells Becky (Scarlett Johansson) in “Ghost World” after the latter complains about all the "creeps, weirdos and losers" that come into her gentrified coffee shop daily, "Those are our people." But for how much longer?

Clowes knows that battleground well, but also understands that cinema is sometimes more comfortable with broad strokes rather than understated ones. "'Art School Confidential' is a much bigger film," he adds. "With 'Ghost World,' we were smart to stay within this small realm that we could control, that we understood. But this new film is much larger, much more novelistic, rather than short-storyish, if that makes any sense."

Plus, the film is only loosely based on Clowes’ "Art School Confidential" story from the seventh issue of "Eightball," because that particular strip lasted only for a scant few pages. That ought to take care of any protests the comic purists, of which there are many, might have with the film adaptation of what remains one of Clowes’ most pointed, satirical and cutting "Eightball" selections.

"There is no real story to the comic itself," Clowes explains. "It's just four pages of 'Mad Magazine'-style gags, which I actually tried to write into the movie but eventually wound up only using a few in the final screenplay. And I think both of those were cut immediately after we shot them, because we realized they didn't really work. So there is literally nothing whatsoever from the comic in the film. And we're not really making fun of art class or using it as a cheap target; we're just using it as an interesting world to explore. It's not all easy jokes about modern art or people trying to create it. It's more about exploring a world that hasn't really been covered – that I know of – in any film. I thought it was a really rich terrain."

If the cinematic adaptation of “Art School Confidential” is as rich as Clowes' latest issue of "Eightball," then we'll all be lottery winners when it's over. Like the partially autobiographical “Ghost World” before it – Enid Coleslaw is an anagram of Daniel Clowes for a reason – issue 23 of "Eightball" centers on two outcast buddies, Andy and Louie, who eventually grow apart when their interior lives jut uncomfortably up against a lonely, confusing reality. Making matters worse is Andy's inherited superpowers and weapon, the nostalgically named Death Ray, which can erase anything in sight with a barely audible pop. The fact that Andy doesn't realize his power until Louie gives him a drag on a cigarette hints at the sensitive rite-of-passage narrative that characterizes much of Clowes' work, from “Ghost World” to “David Boring” and back again. And although Andy, as Clowes argues, might actually possess these devastating powers, the comic leaves enough of the story open to work, as with much of the artist's output, on a variety of levels, enough to vivisect the conventional nature of what has often become a hackneyed superhero master narrative.

"I always read superhero comics as a kid," Clowes confesses, "and I thought that, up to a point, they seemed realistic until they get their powers. Spiderman, at his origin, seems somewhat realistic at first, especially when he's just out for the money, trying to make a buck with his superpowers. But then he has his epiphany when his uncle dies and, all of a sudden, he's a superhero forever. And that just seemed so unlikely. It seemed like that might last for about three days, and then he'd be back to his true nature. I'd never known anybody who basically altered their true nature through any of that, and it just seemed so inherently false and anti-human in some way."

The anti-humanism of superior power, and its abuses, is best exemplified by Andy's Death Ray and Louie's scheme to start fights with potential brutes. "What good is having a friend with super strength if you can't even find some bullies to beat up," he whines after one unsuccessful conflict where the bullies don't take his bait. It is those kinds of clashes between superhero reality and fantasy that makes Andy and Louie's story so tragic.

"It's that whole 'With great power comes great responsibility' trip, you know," Clowes laughs. "It seemed very unlikely that an unformed teenager would fall into that with such a selfless attitude. And I thought if this was me, if I was in the same situation, I'd like to think I would be this heroic individual. But I know exactly the path it would take. When you start to think about the realities of this sort of vigilantism, how do you find people to vanquish, foes to take on? There aren't these guys flying around on jetpacks mugging people in the real world. I mean, I pretty much lived my entire life in really bad, inner-city neighborhoods and I've seen maybe two or three crimes in progress in my entire life. If I were out looking for them I can't imagine I would have seen more than 10 or 15 over the course of 40 years. It's frustrating."

The clumsy situations that Andy and Louie fall into while trying to live out their superhero fantasies-come-to-life deftly correspond to Clowes' past stories of nerds, geeks and outcasts at the mercy of the mostly merciless in-crowds that populate their nightmares and schools. But it is finally the inner turmoil of individuals trying to negotiate their way into adulthood that knit 'Ghost World' and the newest issue of "Eightball" so tightly together. In the end, even with boundless strength and a Death Ray that can wipe anyone he dislikes from earthly existence, Andy is a superhero left to drift alone with his own inescapable crimes, and no one lives happily ever after. Just like in real life.

"That kind of power isn't going to answer any of your problems," Clowes explains. "It just changes things. It's like getting a lot of money, a really good job or into a good college, things like that. They just change the situation; they don’t really change the person."

And although Clowes mostly admits that comics changed him as a person in his early life, he doesn't wish the profession on anyone. Unless, of course, the profession has already chosen first.

"Comics, as much attention as they're getting now, is still a terrible way to make a living," Clowes confides. "You have to do it as a labor of love. I always get these letters from kids who say, 'I'm thinking of doing comics as a career.' And I just think if you even articulate that thought, you should run. It's not something you do as a career. It's something that happens to you. You have no choice."
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