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The Patch Interview: 'Ghost World' cartoonist Daniel Clowes

Clowes gives Patch a preview of his appearance at Unity Temple.

Comic book creator and screenwriter Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) returns to his native Chicagoland Thursday with fellow artist Seth (The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists) as part of the Writer’s at Wright Series.

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In his latest book, The Death-Ray ($19.95, Drawn + Quarterly) Clowes takes on the superhero genre. He talked with Patch about the genesis of the book, surviving high school in Hyde Park, Frank Lloyd Wright and why his schoolmates might be able to sue him.

Q: You take great pains to separate yourself from the work. In The Death-Ray there are panels with these intensely personal details. Can you give me an example of that?
Daniel Clowes: Well, I mean, the whole thing. The main character looks very much like I did, or at least has the same hairstyle and wardrobe that I did back in 1977. And I lived with my grandparents, and the kid’s grandfather looks quite a bit like my grandfather.

All of the kids in high school are sort of unintentionally based on kids I went to high school with. I was just sort of trying to draw kids that seemed real or seemed like they had some kind of resonance to me personally, and so I think, “Well, that kid should be similar to this kid that was in my science class in 11th grade.”

I was sort of approximating them the way I remembered them. I was thinking, “Oh, they don’t really look anything like the actual kids. They’re sort of vaguely similar.” But then, when I looked back at it, I really got them almost exactly. A few of the caricatures are uncannily perfect. They could actually sue me probably. [Laughs]

Q: Do you have close enough relationships with anybody from high school where that even would be a problem?
Clowes: I don’t. I have one friend from high school that I still talk to occasionally and that’s it.

Q: You’ve talked about getting harassed as a kid and your daily ritual to protect yourself. Can you elaborate?
Clowes: Yeah, my entire childhood was in Hyde Park. I used to get hassled or beaten up or had my bike stolen almost weekly on my way home from school. So I used to devise this really elaborate, complicated route to get home without having to cross paths with any other kids.

In school, I was very, very shy, and I didn’t want to interact with anybody and I wanted to just blend into the background. So over the years, I learned many strategies to become invisible to other kids — which I think served me well as a writer because I think kids would often forget I was there and talk freely in front of me, and I was paying close attention.

Q: You’re coming out here to . Have you been there before? What sort of associations do you have with Frank Lloyd Wright?
Clowes: Well, I grew up a block from the Robie House in Hyde Park, so I have that. And I’ve always been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. My grandfather met him many years ago. My grandfather was a professor at the university, and we have a couple autographed Frank Lloyd Wright books I’ve managed to slip out of the old house.

But I’ve never been to the Unity Temple. I never spent any time in Oak Park as a kid at all. I was either on the South Side or downtown. I almost never went north or west at all. So, this is virgin territory for me, and just looking at the pictures of how they restored it, it looks pretty exciting.

I’m used to doing these talks in a modern college auditorium made in 1978 with aluminum windows and things, and so this is a whole different experience to be in a place like this.

Q: You’ve said for years that your work is the opposite of superheroes. But now, here we are. So, explain.
Clowes: You know, that’s a good question. I realized that was a way to explain what I do to people who had no idea of what was going on in comics, the various different subgroups of comics that were happening. I realized, as a shorthand, I would say, “Well, most mainstream comics are superheroes, but what I do is something very different. It’s usually more the kind of stories that you would see in movies or television or novels and not about superheroes.”

But I realized that that really wasn’t accurate. It wasn’t just that it was not about superheroes, it’s a whole different approach to the way I was doing stories. So, it always nagged at me that I’d cut myself off from the possibility of doing superheroes by trying to give a glib, concise answer in interviews. So, I kept thinking, after I’d finished the book, I’d see and was looking for something new to do, and what would be the least likely thing I would ever do?

And I thought, to do a superhero story would be sort of unlikely, but I could imagine doing an ironic parody kind of superhero story. But I thought to do one that’s actually very earnest, that has no sense of irony to it and is not commenting on itself, that would be both the last thing I would ever do and possibly the worst idea I could ever have. That just made it seem like such a challenge. I felt like that was what I had to do.

Q: The Death-Ray echoes films that we’ve seen recently like Wanted and Kick-Ass, except that this kid’s powers are a curse rather than power that is ultimately wanted.
Clowes: I’ve never read any of those, and I will point out that they all came after the original publication of The Death-Ray [in his comic book series, Eightball--ed.]. I have to say the idea of a real guy getting superpowers -- that kind of story is totally uninteresting to me. And maybe it’s hypocritical since that’s what I did, but that’s not something I would ever seek out in comics.

Q: This is your superhero book, so if you could have superhero powers, what would you choose?
Clowes: [Laughs] Boy, if I could just get up in the morning without feeling tired, I’d take that. I’ve always been a night owl, and ever since my son was born, I’ve had to rearrange my schedule, and I’ve never quite gotten the hang of getting up at seven and getting to work.

Q: The Death-Ray is still with Jack Black’s production company. What is its status as a film project?
Clowes: I just finished a rewrite of it, and we’re talking to a director right now that we’re interested in. It’s still very much alive. I hate to even talk about film projects because they go through so many weird permutations along the way, and either they get made or they don’t. This one still looks like it has a very solid chance.

Q: There’s a monograph of your work coming out next spring. What’s that experience been like?
Clowes: It’s not really my book. It’s Alvin Buenaventura doing the book, but he’s in my studio all day. The book’s now just about done, but for the last six months, he’s just been over here almost every other day scanning stuff in my closet. My son comes home and he’s like, “Who’s the guy in the closet?”

For a while, I didn’t think much about it. I was like, oh it’s great to have somebody finally catalogue all of this stuff. And there’s tons of old stuff that was never digital and there’s no scans of it or anything, and so it was great to have all of that. But recently, we’ve been actually putting the book together, and I’ve been looking through it and making suggestions and stuff.

It’s a very, very strange, oddly stressful thing to see your life encapsulated like this. It’s not really a biography, but it’s certainly a visual biography. To know it will be released into the world is very odd. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s very personal and that’s only been seen by family members and close friends. So it’s a very odd experience.

Daniel Clowes and Seth will appear at Unity Temple on Thursday, October 13, as a part of the Writers at Wright program put on by , Midwest Media, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. Tickets are $10 in advance at the Book Table or here. Your ticket can be redeemed for $10 off the cover price of either The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists OR The Death-Ray at the event. Buy both titles and you get $15 off the total.

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