Tears of a Clown

Exhibiting comics: the graphic novels of Daniel Clowes and his contemporaries

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Chris Ware, Building Stories, 2012. Courtesy Jonathan Cape, London

Chris Ware, Building Stories, 2012. Courtesy Jonathan Cape, London

In his very irregular, and sorely missed, series of mini-books about comics and comic artists, Daniel Raeburn, in The Imp, wrote, by way of introduction to the first issue in 1997: ‘Comic books were intended for kids, meant to be comic and, despite many well-meaning attempts at homogenization, are still clearly the work of the devil. Witness our first imp, Dan Clowes, and his fascination with Satanism, sadism, sexism, racism and mass murder.’

Like the trope about comedians being the saddest people in the world, much the same could be said about ‘comic’ stories. One need only look at Daniel Clowes’s contemporaries, such as Seth and Chris Ware, or a cartoonist like R. Crumb or, hell, even Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts, to understand how the medium can decode the darker side of the creator, or at least his or her insecurities and alienation. Somewhere between the psychology of the storyteller and the inner life of the story lies something close to the truth. Anyone who encountered an issue of Clowes’s Eightball in the late 1980s or early ’90s, and didn’t see an analogue of his current emotional, developmental or financial state in the residents of his slightly ill-proportioned, warped world, had probably picked the wrong comic off the shelf.

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Self Portrait, 2010. Courtesy Fantagraphics Books Inc., Seattle

Self Portrait, 2010. Courtesy Fantagraphics Books Inc., Seattle

The Clowes comic arc – beginning with atypical private-eye Lloyd Llewellyn in 1986, continuing with the insufferable comic artist Dan Pussey, through to the tragic Wilson – illustrates a unique mastery of American banality and misanthropy. Clowes’s work is not in the operatic, sad vein of Chris Ware or the quotidian flatness of Adrian Tomine’s ennui, nor does it comprise the punk-rock codices that were Gary Panter’s addled apocalyptic landscapes, starring the steroid-pumped, Mohawk’d Jimbo. He’s imagined and set forth his own parallel reality in pitch-perfect speech bubbles of deadpan satire, scathing cruelty and the truth about what we’re all really thinking. This slight sense of unease is flawlessly interpreted through that curious teenage state that can be found in the seams between apathy, cruelty and curiosity and culiminated in the work he might be known best for, Ghost World (made into a movie in 2001, directed by Terry Zwigoff). It began as a recurring ‘episode’ in Eightball and spun off into its own universe, one revolving around the strip-mall milieu of record stores and sex shops. Teenagers Enid and Rebecca are in the swan song of their friendship. One has plans for college, the other none. Are they attracted to boys, or are they lesbians? Pranks fill in the holes of their days of aimless talk and meandering around a town being slowly subsumed by mass culture. The daily tedium and their premature world-weariness was emblematic of a generation engrossed in its own importance.

Claims regarding the ephemeral nature of the comic can now be dismissed. Robert Crumb was fêted this year in ‘Crumb: From the Underground to Genesis’, a retrospective exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and august New York publishing houses now vie to print myriad, formerly ‘independent’ comics in luxe hardcover editions for those who would never dare set foot in a comics shop. (Clowes is published by Pantheon, along with Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, among many others.) But to give the reader an idea of how marginal independent comics still are in the us, the Oakland Museum of California estimated that 90 percent of the visitors to this summer’s exhibition ‘Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes’ would be unfamilar not just with the subject of the exhibition, but with any comics beyond perhaps the Sunday funnies or the boxes of Marvel and dc superhero titles that still lurk in a childhood basement. At the same time, engagement with comics seems never to be higher – works by Spiegelman, Ware and Tomine routinely appear on the cover of The New Yorker and Hollywood still embraces superheroes and their attendant villains almost as much as it does vampires. But the acceptance of comic art as art with a capital ‘A’ or its assimilation into the gallery space is still a rare – and even more rarely well done – occurrence.

Roy Lichtenstein’s and Andy Warhol’s comic adaptations hardly need mentioning. There’s Rivane Neuenschwander’s ‘Zé Carioca’ series (2004), drawn over a Disney comic about a Brazilian soccer-playing parrot (and an ethnically parodying one at that); Jasper Johns’s Alley Oop (1956), which also obfuscates the original medium, itself painted onto an actual newsprint comic; and the groundbreaking 1983 Whitney exhibition, ‘The Comic Art Show’, co-curated by John Carlin and Sheena Wagstaff, that correlated paintings to the popular culture of the comic strip.

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Cover of Eightball 18, 1996. Courtesy Fantagraphics Books Inc., Seattle

Cover of Eightball 18, 1996. Courtesy Fantagraphics Books Inc., Seattle

The excellent 2009 exhibition ‘Silent Pictures,’ at the James Gallery of the Graduate Center of CUNY, in New York, went a long way to illuminate the universe of wordless or ‘abstract’ comics – a category which includes more painterly appropriations of the comic-book structure and its visual vocabulary. And this gets to the crux of the problem in Oakland. The work of Clowes and of many of his contemporaries has the capacity for solid, sometimes deeply moving (if humorous) storytelling and seamless commentary on a moment in time, which, one hopes, some of the best art also does. The talent and skill necessary to integrate the two distinct kinds of narrative – image and text – is rare. Some comic artists have clamed that it’s an impulse that starts young, this ability to draw what can be heard, and not only that, but in a contiguous, serial form. Clowes never enjoyed making single pictures, he has said; it was somehow ‘too simple’. The Oakland show missed an opportunity to provide a context for comics not only as ‘art’, but as literature, or subset thereof, or, at the very least, as a distant relative to Félix Vallotton, Pablo Picasso and Édouard Manet, who could combine word and image in subtle, incidental ways. (Relatedly, in 2007, a teacher in Connecticut, who assigned a 13-year-old student Eightball issue 22, was forced to resign when the student’s parents complained that the book was ‘borderline pornographic’, for its allusions to rape and the image of a hand up a skirt – clearly this us high school doesn’t have Shakespeare or Chaucer on the curriculum.)

Curated by Susan Miller and René de Guzman (who was responsible for the wildly popular street-art exhibit ‘Beautiful Losers’ at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, in 2004), the exhibition spanned the artist’s 30-year career. Enlarged wrap-around story panels from various titles ringed the gallery above eye level – an attempt literally to elevate the form, if making it slightly difficult to read. Original black and white pages, single panel pieces commissioned by The New Yorker, little-seen early work, and columnar plywood contraptions etched by the artist that have sliding doors and flippable ‘pages’, offered a good overview of Clowes’s career. The curators’ claim that the exhibit mimics the artist’s studio environment didn’t ring true to this viewer and, frankly, the studio doesn’t seem the important part of the story. It is, of course, a privilege for a real fan of the work to see original artwork with erasure marks, stray strokes and cut-and-pasted panels for text: the dirty work that gets Photoshopped away in publication. But to suggest that the studio is a sacred, indeed a privileged place where mere drawing occurs would be to undercut Clowes’s influence as a master storyteller, as well as an immensely talented visual artist.

Myriad comic artists have established themselves as masterful writers and interpreters: Panter has spent years translating the Divine Comedy into comic form; Spiegelman’s holocaust story, Maus (1991), won a Pulitzer Prize; and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012) have few equals in the canon of literary family dramas. Why the comic arts get such short shrift and are still lumped into the milieu of children and geeks, remains a mystery when some of the most current, relevant literature is being created through them.

Issue 150

First published in Issue 150

October 2012

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