Daniel Clowes' Opinionated Loner, 'Wilson'
NEAL CONAN, host:
Wilson, as he is described in the new graphic novel, is a big-hearted slob, a lonesome bachelor, a devoted father and husband, an idiot, a sociopath, a delusional blowhard, a delicate flower, 100 percent Wilsonesque. He is the title character of graphic novelist Daniel Clowes' new work. He brought us "Ghost World," "David Boring" and "Eightball" comics, among others. And "Wilson" has received glowing reviews from, among others, The New York Times and the Washington Post.
If you'd like to talk with the author about "Wilson" or about the graphic novel business, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Daniel Clowes joins us from Youth Radio in Oakland. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. DANIEL CLOWES (Graphic Novelist, "Wilson"): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And the first thing I think most readers will notice is that the story is told in a series of one-page chapters with titles like "Agent of Change," "Night Cap," "Bad News," "Post Office." Why did you decide to do it that way?
Mr. CLOWES: Well, one of my initial impetuses for the way the story was told was that I was reading the collected "Peanuts" editions...
Mr. CLOWES: ...that Fantagraphics has been putting out and - in which they have every strip from a given, you know, year or two. And to read them in sequence, it felt like a new way to tell a story, in a way. I mean, that wasn't Charles Schultz' goal was for you to read them all at once, that you're supposed to read them every day. But to read them in sequence, it really felt like it was replicating the way that you remember the passage of time in memory. It - you know, you remember just these sort of high moments, emotional highs and lows or certain resonating moments of a given year.
And you may have five of those in one day and not another one for two months. And that's - that was what I wanted the structure of the story to feel like that. I wanted it to feel like these days passing by. And with every day, we sort of have a different view of ourselves. And so each strip is drawn in a different style to kind of capture that.
CONAN: I, I think like a lot of people, start with the comics first thing every morning. And in a way, this book is a, like, return to that, as you suggest but a little more calculated. For example, I mentioned a chapter called "Post Office," where Wilson is mailing off a package which plays a interesting role later in the book.
Mr. CLOWES: Right, right. That's - that was sort of the fun of working on a strip. I hadn't thought of the payoff of that strip as I was drawing the first one. I just found that kind of a funny punch line, which, of course, the poor, you know, audience out there will have to find out for themselves.
CONAN: Find out for themselves, but it does - it comes back, I think, a couple times.
Mr. CLOWES: Yes, yes. It became sort of a leit motif in the story.
CONAN: There is also a change in style in some of the chapters. Each of the chapters is pretty consistent, but in some of the chapters, it's very realistic sort of graphic novel cartooning. In some of them, he's drawn very Sunday funnies-style.
Mr. CLOWES: Yeah, you know, when I first started to work on this, I was trying to come up with a overall style that would work for all of the strips. And I found I was veering wildly in my experimenting to see which - what that style would be. I was going from, you know, crazy kind of '50s cartoon wackiness to what approaches realism in comics, with shading and correct lighting and things like that. And I really couldn't decide. I felt like some of them worked for some strips and some worked for others.
And at a certain point, I realized that in some way my brain had figured out the proper style for the book which was to do all of these things at once and to kind of modulate each story with this style, to turn something that could just play as a kind of a stupid joke into something that reads more like, you know, a tragic punch line rather than a comic punch line.
CONAN: Yeah. The graphic - the panels give you the advantage of timing. You don't think of it that way, but you do. You can have the pause and then the punchline.
CONAN: Yeah. The graphic - the panels give you the advantage of timing. You don't think of it that way but you do. You can have the pause and then the punchline.
Mr. CLOWES: That's kind of the art of doing these kinds of comics, in particular is the pacing, and that's what all the time is spent on, you know. There's a strip in the book where Wilson is talking to his daughter that he's just reconnected with, and she's crying throughout the strip - you know, the way you show crying in a comic is to have someone says sob. And so, I spent literally a week figuring out every permutation of, you know, which panels does she says sob, and if it was in every panel, it seemed sort of monotonous and it didn't - it seemed sort of artificial. And if it was missing in some panels, it didn't seemed quite right. And so it's the little things like that that make comics come to life.
CONAN: Unless it's Superman, and then it's choke.
Mr. CLOWES: Choke, yes. I use choke too. I like choke.
CONAN: Choke is good, yeah. There are some panels in which Wilson's nose grows rather dramatically, and I could not discern that he was lying any more than he was in any of the other strips.
Mr. CLOWES: You're reading more into it than I intended, Neal.
CONAN: Okay. All right. So no Pinocchio analogy.
Mr. CLOWES: No Pinocchio references, please.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, this was the first we're told - all your other books - and you've written graphic novels before, but they were all serialized in - previously, and this is the first one presented as a whole. And...
Mr. CLOWES: Yes.
CONAN: ...even so, presenting something as a whole, you do it episodically.
Mr. CLOWES: Yes. Well, that's - I don't know. It felt like a book to me. It felt - as I was saying, it was - it came out of the, you know, the sort of uber-text of "Peanuts."
Mr. CLOWES: And so it felt like a collection of a comic strip, and that would be in book form. You know, I really wanted Wilson to be - I started out with the idea of him as a cartoon character. And I wanted it to almost feel like some forgotten, you know, third tier cartoon character that ran in a, you know, Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1975. You know, somebody you just vaguely remember. And that's why I gave him such a generic name, you know, Wilson. It's just such a comic strip kind of name.
CONAN: We all know him and we don't necessarily want him to sit at our table at the coffee store(ph).
Mr. CLOWES: No. You know, well, I find I have mixed emotions about Wilson. And he, in a way he's sort of my eternal nemesis. You know, I'm the kind of guy who's sitting at the coffee shop and the Wilsons of the world will look around and sit at my table and, you know, and say, it's been 10 years since I kicked my cocaine habit or, you know, start a loaded conversation like that. I have the kind of face that looks like I'm going to, you know, be a good listener. And so, on the one hand I feel victimized by the Wilsons of the world, but on the other hand I actually admire them.
I always - you know, when that guy finally leaves my table I always think, boy, I kind of wish I could do that. I feel like I'm very overly concerned with, you know, how I appear to others and not bothering anybody. And I kind of like the idea of someone who feels this sort of connection with others that he can just comfortably sit down, even though it ultimately causes him to have less connection with others.
CONAN: So you don't sit down and blurt out that you were nominated for an Academy Award?
Mr. CLOWES: Oh, yeah. No, I do that all the time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation.
Mr. CLOWES: You have a point.
CONAN: Daniel Clowes is with us from Oakland. Let's start with John(ph). John with us from Vineland in New Jersey.
JOHN (Caller): Hello.
JOHN: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.
JOHN: My question is about your use of color, Mr. Clowes, and tone, like hues. You use a lot, like in "Ghost World" and "David Boring." I'm curious as to why you do that instead of using broader colors, a lot of times where you do in "Wilson."
Mr. CLOWES: You know, with "Ghost World" it was a matter of economics. At the time I would loved to have done a full-color comic back then, but comics were such a - that was kind of before the big graphic novel boom and I was, you know, doing them in just those little comic pamphlets that we all grew up with and very few people were buying those things. And it was a miracle I could even get the added color blue that we used in "Ghost World" and - so it's often just a decision based on things like that.
With the - I did a book called "David Boring" that's mostly in black and white, but all of a sudden there are parts of it that appear in color. And I wanted to do that to show that it was conscious choice to make it in black and white, that I did have the option of making the whole thing in color, but that I was, I was opting intentionally for black and white. And I was really trying to sort of replicate the look of an old black and white movie, like, you know the feeling of being a kid and waking up in the middle of the night and going to, you know, watch on your black and white TV and catching some weird old movie that you don't understand. Of course that's an experience no kid today would ever have, but...
JOHN: Also, if there's enough time for another question - I'd like to know what your feelings of the term graphic novel are, opposed to comics.
Mr. CLOWES: You know, I was adamantly opposed to it when that was first proposed 15 or so years ago. I mean, it's a really - it's a terrible term because most of the stuff that is called a graphic novel is not at all a novel. You know, Art Spiegelman's "Maus" is not a novel. Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" is not a novel. And yet those are called graphic novels. And it's - it's just - it's kind of a insulting term to comics. You know, comics should kind of have its word, but...
JOHN: Yeah. It (unintelligible) marketing term, so...
Mr. CLOWES: It's a marketing term. And you know, I have to say, I've given up and I now I now realize that it's taken on its own meaning and I can talk to one of my neighbors and they'll say, oh, you do graphic novels - know - they'll about the term. And, you know, it's -you think about, you know, the term movies is a really stupid term and nobody really questions that anymore. And I feel like graphic novel is kind of headed in that direction, where we just - we don't even think of the words. It has its own new meaning, and I'm willing to give up and accept that.
CONAN: Collecting every six-issue story arc of "Green Lantern" is now a graphic novel, so...
Mr. CLOWES: Exactly. Exactly.
JOHN: So trade paperbacks, as I grew up to call them.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.
JOHN: All right. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: We're talking with Daniel Clowes. His new book is "Wilson." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to Mark(ph), and Mark with us from Cleveland.
MARK (Caller): Hello, Mr. Clowes. "Wilson" would probably a better choice in the Plain Dealer than some of the comics they're running now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: They might have a problem with some of the language, but other than that...
Mr. CLOWES: Yeah.
MARK: Yeah. Anyway, I haven't read "Wilson" yet, but I wanted to ask you about your earlier book about Dan Pussey, the poor pathetic cartoonist and it follows him through his life. What prompted you to write that book, and do you think anything will have changed for that character, you know, in the years since you wrote it?
Mr. CLOWES: Well, you know, that book came out of, you know, I began doing what would be classified, I suppose, as underground comics, comics in the tradition of Robert Crumb and that crowd. And in the late '80s I started doing my own comic called "Eightball." And it was - it had nothing to do with superheroes or with any of the kind of common tropes that were very overwhelmingly present in comics at that time.
And so I'd find myself going to comic conventions or comic shops, and my comic would always be in, like, a cardboard box in the back of the comic shop that would say, you know, like, adult pornography or something. You know, it was - we are always ghettoized in such a way that I started to get really angry at the whole - just the acceptance that, well, superhero comics are obviously the correct form of comics and all this other stuff is just, you know, kind of an annoying sideline to the industry.
And so I would - I did those comics about a comic artist named Dan Pussey, who is a, you know, sort of a consummate superhero comics professional. And it was based on all the stories I had heard about comics professionals being treated horribly over the history of comics, just being exploited by publishers and - it was sort of a fun way to get my anger out about it. But I sort of quickly lost interest in that whole side of the business, and I realized that it's now taken over the entire media. You know, the superhero movies are the biggest movies. And it's -again, I give up, I'm not fighting that fight anymore. And I'm, you know, I'm happy to just not really pay much attention to it.
MARK: Besides, a couple of your works have become movies as well.
Mr. CLOWES: There you go.
CONAN: There you go. And they even gave them capes.
Mr. CLOWES: That's right.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much.
MARK: Have a good one.
CONAN: The economics of the business have changed enough - you didn't have to publish these in black and white pamphlets that would end up in a cardboard box in the back of the comic bookstore?
Mr. CLOWES: Well, I mean, it's actually to the extent that people are actively discouraging you from doing those pamphlets. You know, it's -nobody wants to sell some floppy thing that they, you know, that gets all bent on the shelf. You know, no bookstore wants to carry it because the profit margin is so low. You know, everybody hates them, so I just felt like - why continue with this? It seems like, you know, you always hear the story, you know, if you took an ant and blew it up to the size of a dog, it would collapse under its own weight, and it's almost like that's what's happened with the pamphlet comic book. You know, it's gotten so expensive and it just - it doesn't work the way it used to. It used to be this disposable throwaway thing that you bought for, you know, 10 or 25 cents, and you didn't worry about it. And now it's - you know, I don't even know what they cost five dollars?
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. CLOWES: And, you know, it just - I think books make more sense at this point.
CONAN: I've read the comic about that giant ant, and he's got super strength, actually, so physics be damned and biology be damned.
Mr. CLOWES: He can fly.
CONAN: He can fly, exactly. We've gotten a lot of calls with people theorizing about the inspiration for Wilson. Was it Charlie Brown?
Mr. CLOWES: Well, not, not, you know, I wouldn't say Wilson is Charlie Brown, but I - Charlie Brown does have a certain, you know, Wilson is very egocentric and kind of sees the world through his own filter, and I feel like Charlie Brown is a particularly egocentric character. You know, he's always - you sort of look at Charlie Brown objectively and he seems to have plenty of friends and, you know, he seems to have a fairly happy, normal life, and yet he's forever, you know, awash in misery over little sleights and feeling abused by the world. And I think Wilson has a bit of that.
CONAN: Daniel Clowes, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. CLOWES: Oh, thanks, Neal. It's a pleasure.
CONAN: Daniel Clowes is an Academy Award-nominated American author, screenwriter and cartoonist of alternative comic books - he writes comics. He joined us from Youth Radio Studios in Oakland, California, where he lives. His new book is called "Wilson." You could see several panels from "Wilson" in our excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.