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If you didn't get enough of comic book characters as "The Avengers" opened over the weekend, you could pick up an actual comic book. An art form that used to be cheap and disposable has grown up. Some are even released on nice paper with hard covers and a grown-up label - graphic novel.

Daniel Clowes is one of the artists who made comics respectable and now, he has a museum show. And the label outside the door warns: Mature Content. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Even those who don't read comics may be familiar with Daniel Clowes' work. Two of his stories have been made into Hollywood films: the Academy Award-nominated "Ghost World," and "Art School Confidential." But Clowes never aimed to be the kind of artist that museums collect. Now, he stands in an exhibition hall at the Oakland Museum in California, where the walls are covered with his drawings.

And here you are now. You're in a museum. It's...

DANIEL CLOWES: Quite embarrassing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: After a stint in art school at Pratt in Chicago in the 1970s, Clowes tried unsuccessfully to get work as an illustrator. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Pratt is located in Brooklyn, N.Y.] He was sitting around drawing comics and on a fluke, he sent a strip to underground publisher Fantagraphics. Clowes was expecting rejection. Instead...

CLOWES: They called me up, and offered me a monthly comic book. And I felt like I hadn't earned anything. I felt like I had just done this one strip, and I had no idea what I was doing. You know, it's like all of a sudden, you're being made president after you've been, you know, like the - on the city council in Cleveland.

SYDELL: Clowes rose to the occasion - or, some might say, sunk. In 1989, Clowes created the comic book series "Eightball," and he billed it as "An Orgy of Spite, Vengeance, Hopelessness, Despair and Sexual Perversion." His main characters are unmotivated and cranky. The work skewered everything - televangelists, macho men, fashionistas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GHOST WORLD")

THORA BIRCH: (as Enid) That's $500.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (as Rebecca) What?

BIRCH: (as Enid) Five hundred.

JOHANSSON: (as Rebecca) You're crazy.

SYDELL: That's Enid Coleslaw in the film "Ghost World," selling her clothes to avoid getting a real job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GHOST WORLD")

BIRCH: (as Enid) Well, why do you want it? I mean, it would look stupid on you anyway.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: God. (BLEEP) you.

JOHANSSON: (as Rebecca) Now are you going to get a regular job?

SYDELL: Enid is classic Daniel Clowes. She's an outsider. She doesn't like to play by the rules. She doesn't want to get a job. She doesn't want to go to college, and she speaks her mind.

CLOWES: Enid, if she knew about "Ghost World," she would just hate it. She would be like, this book is, like, so horrible.

You know, my characters are like all the worst customers I can imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: On the gallery walls, we can see the original drawings of Enid, and dozens more of Clowes' eccentric characters: David Boring, on a quest for the perfect wife; "The Death-Ray," a super hero spoof about Andy, who gets special powers every time he puffs a cigarette. "Wilson," Clowes' most recent work, is an unemployed, divorced and grumpy loner. He talks to people in public places and when they tell him to go away, he sarcastically laments that he was just trying to find a brief moment of human connection.

Clowes says there's a bit of Wilson in him.

CLOWES: I certainly share a lot of the anxieties, and the world view, of a guy like Wilson - although he's a much less palatable version. He is me at my worst moment. You know, he's like me in my moments of like, road rage, when I'm safely inside my car and I can say what I feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: But Clowes says what he tries to bring out is the nobility in characters like Enid and Wilson.

CLOWES: He really just wants to connect with people by being his exact, true self - which is something none of us ever do. And he's not interested in changing himself to connect with people, which is what all of us do, do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLOWES: It made him seem much more noble when I figured that out about him.

SYDELL: Those these are comics, you've probably figured out they are not for children. In fact, over a decade ago, curator Susan Miller discovered the work in the adult section of a comic book store in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury.

SUSAN MILLER: There was some pornography in there but there was also Dan's work, and the Hernandez brothers, and a bunch of comic artists that were making work that didn't fit in the superhero shelf - at all. And I think adult meant sophisticated.

SYDELL: Miller was struck by the themes of loneliness, alienation - mixed with humor and empathy - that ran throughout Clowes' work, as well as the high level of design. It took her six years to finally get the show up. And over that time, comics have been seen, increasingly, as serious art - though unlike most work in a museum, Clowes' art is mass-produced.

MILLER: The quality of that work is lost in the reproduction. So you can actually see the work as it's originally drawn. And you just won't get that in the printed material.

SYDELL: One of the ironies of having Clowes' work on display in an art museum is that he often pokes fun at the fine-art world. In his comic "Art School Confidential," his main character, Jerome, finds himself the underdog in art classes because he likes to draw rather than create abstractions or conceptual pieces. Here's a scene from the 2006 movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as charactor) Your drawing looks like it was done by a machine whereas Flowers' - Flowers' is full of playfulness and - yeah, like humanity.

MAX MINGHELLA: (as Jerome) What's so great about humanity?

SYDELL: Clowes says the scene mirrored his own life at Pratt in the 1970s, where his teachers were abstract expressionists and minimalists.

CLOWES: They were all so beyond figural drawings, and all that stuff. That was so buried and in the past, they couldn't believe anybody was bringing that up again.

SYDELL: Even worse, Clowes told his teachers he wanted to draw comics.

CLOWES: And they would just say, well, just - comics are basically, inherently stupid. The preponderance of the evidence was such that that was possibly true. There were just years and years and years of really dumb comics.

SYDELL: Yet, the world has changed. Clowes cites the work of Robert Crumb as one of his inspirations and now, he and other artists that were printed by Fantagraphics Comics are among those lighting the way for younger comic book artists. There work is regularly printed in hard cover, and turned into movies.

And an exhibition like this one also has the power to open minds. On a weekday afternoon, Jeff Cullen, one of the museum's docents, says when they first told him about this show, he didn't know what to make of it.

Are you generally somebody who likes comics?

JEFF CULLEN: No, no, not since, you know, I was a little kid.

SYDELL: But since seeing Clowes' work, he's been trying comics again. He was especially moved by "Wilson."

CULLEN: It was disturbing. You almost don't like him. But then by the end of the story, you really feel a sympathy - or I felt it; you know, a sympathy for him.

SYDELL: Cullen says it does what art is supposed to do: It holds a mirror up to us.

"Wilson" is being made into a movie. This exhibition, "The Art of Daniel Clowes," is making stops in Cleveland, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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