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Interview: Graphic Novelist Daniel Clowes on Oakland — ‘Sad, Lonely, and Enthralling’

| May 7, 2012
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Photo: Oakland Museum of California

On NPR’s Morning Edition today, Laura Sydell reports on The Serious Comic Art of Daniel Clowes

Comics used to be seen as cheap throwaway entertainment for children and teenagers. But over the last few decades, comics have grown up; they’re even released in longer formats, on nice paper with hard covers, as graphic novels.

Daniel Clowes is one of the artists cited for turning the form into serious art — in fact, the art has gotten so serious that his work is now in a museum. Clowes is one of the best-known comic artists working today, with two of his books made into Hollywood films: the Academy Award-nominated Ghost World and Art School Confidential.

Clowes never aimed to be the kind of artist museums collect. But now, the walls of the Oakland Museum of California are covered with his drawings. It’s “quite embarrassing,” he laughs. Full story

That’s right, the Oakland resident who brought you such graphic novel classics as Ghost World, Art School Confidential, and the hyper bizarre but strangely compelling Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron is the subject of an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, running through August 12. Reviewer Justin Gilmore writes in Oakland Local today that “walking through the exhibition’s Clowes-adorned corridors, dark undertones of cynicism assorted with modern forms of alienation create a quixotic mixture that’s sure to be felt by those who are subject to any level of generational dejection.”

Sounds right up the entire human race’s alley!

Laura Sydell was kind enough to pass along some material of local relevance that didn’t make it into her final piece. Here’s a conversation about Oakland she had with Clowes…

Audio: Daniel Clowes waxes poetic about Oakland

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NPR’S LAURA SYDELL: This town you sort of ended up in. Do you like Oakland?

DANIEL CLOWES: I love Oakland. I feel very comfortable here. I feel like it’s sort of a decent bunch of people. You feel like the default person you might meet is like a vegan who rides a unicycle. It seems like a nice place.

Whenever I go visit some other city, like back in the Midwest, I’m always shocked to see Sarah Palin bumper stickers or something like that. In Oakland that’s a criminal offense.

LAURA SYDELL: I wonder to what degree the city is in any way a muse? It’s an underdog city…

I love Oakland. I feel very comfortable here…You feel like the default person you might meet is like a vegan who rides a unicycle.

DANIEL CLOWES: A couple of weeks ago, I was showing somebody around Oakland and I said ‘I’ll take them to Jack London Square.’ Which should be the bustling seaport of Oakland. And we went down there, and we were walking down the train tracks at Jack London Square and there was not a soul to be seen. It was out of a zombie movie where there was just nobody on the street. It was a Tuesday afternoon. And we finally saw one guy kind of wandering in the distance, and I thought that’s kind of like an Edward Hopper painting come to life. And I thought what a lonely, sad place I live in, and yet in a way that I find enthralling. That has a certain Hollywood magic in it. There’s a poetry in it that’s hard to imagine in a lot of other cities.

More from the conversation…

Audio: Daniel Clowes on the Berkeley Marina in Wilson, and how he uses Oakland in his work

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LAURA SYDELL: There’s a panel in Wilson where he’s sitting and there’s graffiti…

DANIEL CLOWES: That’s supposed to be the Berkeley Marina. You go down there and it’s really kind of a beautiful spot and it’s well designed and set up for people to hang out, and you’re taking your little five-year-old son there, and all of a sudden there’s giant letters, obscene graffiti everywhere. And somehow it’s perfect.

LAURA SYDELL: The Tribune tower pops up now and again in your work.

DANIEL CLOWES: That’s kind of the only architectural icon of Oakland. It’s not like anyone else in the world would recognize it, but somehow it has status to people who’ve actually lived here.

LAURA SYDELL: To what degree do you want anything in your comic books to be undeniably Oakland?

DANIEL CLOWES: Well Wilson is sort of explicitly Oakland. I don’t want to have to get the geography correct, where he’s turning a corner and he’s on a street that he couldn’t possibly be on, while in the middle of the same thought, I don’t want to be beholden to that.

So I keep it somewhat abstract. I want to suggest rather than document. I certainly don’t go out and take photos and try to slavishly copy the photos; I try to memorize things and draw things from memory. Because it’s really more about my brain interpreting the space rather than trying to just draw it accurately. There’s no real point in that; you might as well just try to take a photo.

It’s funny how when you draw that way, things become very clear. I can look back at panels 20 years later and know exactly what I was trying to get at with only a few lines. It’s a much better way to work.

I can keep it all in my head and sort of have a reference of anything. It’s almost like in [old] Hollywood, you’d have four guys you could pick from to be the drunk-comedy-relief-cowboy’s sidekick, and it would inevitably be one of those four guys. You wouldn’t go out and try to pick somebody new; it was a stable of archetypes. Oakland has that quality. There’s one or two of everything and you can kind of cast them in that way, and it makes everything much simpler. My brain can’t process anything more complicated than Oakland, I think.

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