Daniel Clowes on His Most Personal Work Yet

Readers may not associate alternative comics legend Daniel Clowes with autobiography, but he’s always been present in his work.

“It’s funny. I always think every book is not really that personal,” the cartoonist, who’s responsible for the seminal Ghost World, recently told Vanity Fair over Zoom. “Then, I’ll go back years later and read it and every page has something that happened to me or that’s based on some true emotion that I think about every day. So they’re all really personal.”

His latest graphic novel, the pulpy and piercing Monica, which will be released by Fantagraphics on Tuesday, takes this to a new level. The book is made up of nine interconnected narratives that fit together to tell the life story of its titular heroine. After selling her eponymous candle company for a hefty sum, Monica decides to spend the first part of her retirement tracking down the bohemian mother who abandoned her with her grandparents during the height of the Swinging Sixties. She interviews all the freaks and weirdos who knew her mom, Penny, during the era and ends up “deep in the bowels of a dangerous cult, alone, and terrified for [her] life.”

Clowes has long been considered one of the finest cartoonists of his generation, grouped with the likes of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, but in Monica, he reaches a new artistic peak. Each chapter has its own distinct feel and calls back to genres that were popular when Clowes started reading comics but have all but disappeared today, like war, romance, and horror. The shifts suit the story but also allow the cartoonist to show off his love for the art form. Each section has a beautifully rendered drawing—whether it be a soldier lighting a cigarette or Monica wiping the steam from a bathroom mirror—that can be held up among the best of his career.

It’s heartening to learn that Clowes is still enthusiastic about comics, especially since he’s the rare cartoonist celebrated outside the medium. He and director Terry Zwigoff received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay for the 2001 adaptation of Ghost World, which starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. Clowes teamed up with the filmmaker again for 2006’s Art School Confidential and wrote the script for Craig Johnson’s 2017 movie, Wilson, both based on his comics. The cartoonist says working on movies was a lifelong dream, but that comics will be his focus going forward because of the creative freedom and potential they provide. “It just has so much as both an artist and a reader,” he said. “There’s so much that hasn’t been done that I want to explore. And this book, I just wanted to put everything I had into this one book in a way that I never have.”

In his latest work, central character Monica is around the same age as the 62-year-old Clowes, but that’s not all the two have in common. The cartoonist was also born into a chaotic situation that only grew more chaotic and was left to live with his grandparents when he was just five years old. Sure, some of the more surreal events in the comic are made up, like using an old portable radio to communicate with the dead or maybe triggering the end-times, but he relates deeply to Monica and how she feels.

“I was talking to my therapist—who’s not read the book, but he has heard me talk about the creation of it for years—and he was like, ‘Seems to me you just tried to create a friend, somebody that you could communicate your very complicated childhood to who would understand,’” Clowes said. “And I thought, that’s exactly what it is.”

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Monica is more than just a stand-in for her creator, though. She’s a complicated woman whose guard is always up, but who goes to increasingly absurd lengths to chase down even the most tenuous tip about her mother. She also feels like a fully fleshed-out person by the end of her surreal journey. Clowes mentions readers talking about some of his characters, like Ghost World’s Enid Coleslaw, as if they really exist, and admits they’re not alone in doing this. He may have drawn and written everything they do and say, but a lot of his characters feel real to him and he says that it is “almost inconceivable that they didn’t have some agency” in what ends up on the page.

By the time he finished Monica, Clowes’s own life had begun to resemble that of his main character in ways he had not foreseen. His mother died during the middle of the book’s creation, and his brother shortly after. Suddenly, Clowes, who has a wife and son, was the only remaining member of the family he was born into. That spared him some of the awkwardness that comes with creating art so clearly about yourself but also changed his relationship to the story he was telling.

“After [my mother] died, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to make her sad, because I knew it would,” he said. “But it also felt like I couldn’t lie about what I was feeling. Then the rest of the book became a lot about processing that loss.”

The world Clowes lives in also helped shape that of the comic. The cartoonist spent the last seven years working on Monica, a period marred by the Trump administration and then COVID-19. When Clowes was first thinking about the book, he imagined it would be set in a world where Hillary Clinton was president. But then November 2016 rolled around and the “unthinkable” happened and Trump won, changing history and the book with it. Clowes found himself in a period of upheaval not entirely dissimilar from the one his and Monica’s mothers had lived through. Sure enough, these real-world events seeped into the narrative. A man Monica can’t stand named Little Mark wears an all-too-familiar red baseball hat and there are references to idiotic tweets and a “first pandemic.”

“It just felt like everything, all of a sudden, was spiraling out of control, and I felt like I needed to do a book that encompassed all of that, but also controlled it in a way that I could process it all,” he said.

Unfortunately, neither Monica nor her mother had a project like this graphic novel to help provide meaning and purpose in uncertain times. That’s part of why they are drawn to the cults at the book’s center, the Opening and its spin-off, the Way. Clowes finds the phrase “world building” annoying, but he enjoyed inventing the two groups from scratch, picking bits and pieces from the cults he’s had an “unhealthy fascination” with since he was younger. He also made sure they had their own distinctive aesthetic—members of the Way wear Dutch boy haircuts and bright-colored tunics—and a charismatic leader based on a high school classmate. The process made him realize that making a comic isn’t all that different from leading a cult.

“It’s similar in a way to being a cartoonist,” he said. “You’re controlling these characters and making the world in your image and making people do what you want them to do. So it has a weird resonance in that way.”

Clowes pokes fun at the cult members, but is also sympathetic, something which has been true of almost all the characters in his comics. These are people who are lost, desperate for someone to show them how to be and live. This empathy may have had something to do with the fact that the cartoonist was seeing this sort of behavior around him more and more post-2017.

“It feels like almost everybody’s in some form of a cult that they’re not quite aware of necessarily,” he said. “Instead of having a wide range of different thoughts and opinions, people’s opinions get sucked into a straight line of doctrinaire opinions for whatever group they’re in.”

Monica has some of the acerbic wit that can be found in Ghost World, but it is more in the vein of another Clowes’s book, David Boring. That story, which was serialized in three issues of the cartoonist’s Eightball anthology series before being published as a stand-alone graphic novel, is a Lynchian coming-of-age tale about a young man searching for love and any information he can get about the father he’s never met. The cartoonist’s latest may look more colorful than its predecessor, but it’s tonally as dark and unsettling. It’s easy to imagine the book’s creation having been challenging, but Clowes says this wasn’t the case. In fact, he didn’t want the experience to end.

“Now I know how to draw and I know how to make things look the way I want them to,” Clowes, who’s been publishing since the mid-1980s, said. “I know what’s a challenge for me, and I know how to push into that and work through it, and it just becomes much more fun.”

Clowes doesn’t know what’s next. He’s playing around with the idea of an “experimental” project that will mainly be of interest to those already deeply interested in the making of comics. His next graphic novel will have to wait to take form until he finishes a brief book tour in support of Monica. The cartoonist does sound eager to get started, though, as it means more time at the drawing table.

“I can’t describe it, but I wish I could be doing it all the time,” he said with a laugh. “I need stories to draw. That’s the problem. I wish I had some leprechaun writing stories for me, leaving a script on my drawing board every night.”

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