3.15 / Review

Modern Cartoonist

By Mark Van Proyen May 17, 2012

Daniel Clowes is the John le Carré of the graphic novel, the poet-warrior of the disillusioned children of hippy parents, whose belated discovery that their lives were not quite as special as they were supposed to be led to deep and irresolvable psychic scars. Like the novelist le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley, Clowes also runs a kind of circus where the self-deceptions of those who would diagnose the world around them become exploitable tragic flaws to be manipulated by the master diagnostician. In other words, Clowes is our unique misanthrope, and his anthems of isolated frustration are damned funny, as proven by the Oakland Museum of California’s recent exhibition of close to a quarter century’s production of his brilliantly caustic work. The exhibition was organized by Susan Miller and René de Guzman and accompanies the release of a book about Clowes’s work, edited by Alvin Buenaventura.

Parsing the history of the comic narrative into three phases brings Clowes’s work into a truly unique focus. The first of these phases is the superhero phase, which roughly corresponds to the age of American triumphalism in the Second World War and early Cold War guises. While millions of neglected teenagers followed the antics of leotard-clad alter egos, they could fantasize that they would someday be powerful enough to not have to clean up their rooms. And the superpowers of their favored protagonists did say something obliquely relevant about the way that various technological innovations were reshaping the world in which they would soon live.

The second phase was the underground comics phase so brilliantly exemplified by R. Crumb, Bill Griffith, and George Kuchar. In this phase, the target audience was the legion of rambunctious college students who had arrived in the cities from the suburbs, away from home but not quite on their own. Their challenge was to find a place in a quickly changing world that only made absurd sense. Insofar as comics were concerned, the key point is that the social world was no longer pictured as something evil, over which the protagonist might heroically triumph, but was instead a place populated by flamboyant characters that cultivated their idiosyncratic absurdities while refusing gainful employment, as might be witnessed by Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead or Crumb’s Mister Natural. Such characters were thoroughly suffused with the generational optimism of sexually active baby boomers, who were able to bring an immoral war to an end simply by throwing a giant, collective tantrum that most often took the form of unlistenable music. But then came punk, which threw an even louder tantrum, albeit one that was much less efficacious in relation to a new and more draconian political front, with which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher aggressively rescripted the relation between private and public wealth. Clowes’s predominately white post-punk protagonists live in the placeless, vaguely nightmarish every-world that resulted from that rescripting. Despite their deep commitment to fits of misguided effort followed by sociopathic inertia, they work very hard at negotiating the omnipresent disappointments that seem to lurk at every turn of their so-called lives, and each in his or her own way is a connoisseur of the resignation and absurdity that comes part and parcel with that task.

Cover of Wilson, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist and the Oakland Museum of California.
Daniel Clowes. Eightball 18, 1996; gouache on white board; 22.5 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Oakland Museum of California.

Take the über-snarky Enid, from Clowes’s mid-1990s series, Ghost World. For her, identity is a kind of prison that threatens to rob her of the right to be ambivalent about everything, and her relationship with her partner in thought crime, Rebecca, plays out as a prolonged inversion of the superhero narrative. Such characters, based on a lack of character, is where Clowes truly excels, and one can see how their petty ruses and silly self-deceptions led to Clowes’s nomination, with Terry Zwigoff, for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the 2001 film version of Ghost World. An earlier work, the strip from 1991 titled Art School Confidential, was the basis for another Zwigoff-directed film released in 2005. As a long-time teacher working in an art school setting, I can say that seeing the original drawing for this comic was an experience akin to viewing the Mask of Agamemnon, and all I could do was fall to my knees to weep warm tears of appreciation.

One of the treats of this exhibition is the section that contains the actual drawings from which the zines and graphic novels are made, and these reveal something quite intimate about Clowes’s brilliantly unpredictable process of story formulation. We might note a blue registration line peeking from behind a few panels, and we also can see that Clowes occasionally makes use of a collage technique. Nonetheless, the drawings are always crisp and seldom brittle, and he organizes the visual information in each of his panels in such a way to include complex information without succumbing to visual clutter. This is particularly evident in the drawings for his most recent character, the adorably standoffish Wilson (2010), who seems like an intellectually gifted cousin of Mr. Wilson, of Dennis the Menace fame. Whereas most of Clowes’s characters tend to embarrass themselves while trying and failing to be hipsters, Wilson refuses such folly and broaches no nonsense, nor does he suffer fools gladly. He is interesting and morbidly funny precisely because he doesn’t suffer his own foolishness either, even as his circumstances give him no real choice in the matter.


Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through August 12, 2012.

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