If we’re living in the most creative and fertile period in the history of comics, Daniel Clowes and Seth are two of a handful of cartoonists largely responsible for it. Clowes, born and raised in Chicago before relocating to California, is best known for his long-running “Eightball” comic, which spawned several graphic novels (and a couple movies), including “Ghost World” and “Ice Haven,” as well as last-year’s “Wilson.” The Canadian Seth came to fame with his long-running comic “Palookaville,” as well as the recent graphic novels “George Sprott” and “Wimbledon Green.”
This month, publisher Drawn and Quarterly is releasing Clowes’ “The Death-Ray” and Seth’s “The G.N.B. Double C: The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists” and, in the tradition of the old superhero team-ups, is sending them on tour together, with a stop this week at Oak Park’s Unity Temple. In that spirit, we conducted a three-way interview in advance of their visit.
I’ve been studying the books, trying to find points of similarity or connection between you two. Other than you both being among the greatest practitioners of your form alive, I’ve struggled a bit to find them. What do you two have in common?
Seth: I’d hate to presume to suggest similarities between myself and Dan besides the obvious. We are both about the same age and, I suspect, probably had some of the same isolated feelings as a teen that led us to the same career. Also, judging from his work I’m guessing that Dan probably hates people as much as I do!
Dan: While I may not qualify for the GNBCC, Seth and I are certainly brothers in the world of “alternative comics,” having come of age at roughly the same time with a similar set of values and interests. I think all of us in our little sub-group have greatly influenced each other in ways we probably can’t even fathom.
You both certainly have a retrospective character to your work, Seth in the fullest sense of story as well as images, but Dan more perhaps in your style of illustration and a bit in the simplistic life of your characters—they’re not living in a digital world so much, and have a certain naivete, undercut by a very dark soul, perhaps. Is this a conscious thing for both of you—a technique adopted in the interest of “story” or just a reflection of your personalities? Are you, as my technophobic mother likes to describe herself, “not of this world?”
Dan: I find that the digital revolution is in most ways a story-killer. Today, Sam Spade would just do ten minutes of research on PeopleFinder and the case would be solved. I’m always looking for ways to avoid having to draw Facebook pages, for example. As far as the style and technique of my drawing and storytelling, I’m trying to be as timeless as possible without sacrificing specificity, while leaving as much room as possible in the unspoken and unseen for the reader to bring his or her own particulars into the world of the story.
Seth: I really do kind of follow that old mandate of the Mennonites—”Being in the world but not of it.” Naturally I have a computer in the house (this is an email interview) but I try to keep its use in check. I mostly use it to buy things and to acquire information. I don’t use it for social purposes. When the computer entered my home my opinion of humanity dropped dramatically over the next six months. I think it may just be the worst thing that ever happened to Western civilization. An opportunity for individuals to inflict their thoughts and emotions anonymously throughout the society. I’ve never before seen such venal, ignorant and pitiful behavior so proudly on display. Give me that old-time repression any day. That and common politeness forced people to keep this stuff to themselves in the predigital world. Sigh.
Anyhow, my work is undoubtedly a reflection of the sad old man I am becoming. I spend far too much time alone in my studio protected by the bubble of my own carefully constructed world. Old music or old films playing away while I sit and ink the figures in my miniature dramas. Lately I find my work is more and more about describing and elaborating these small pretend worlds I’m fixated on. It’s probably a bad sign.
I’m not much interested in anything unless it happened fifty years or more ago. No wonder that’s reflected in the work.
Just the mere fact that cartooning requires a lot of time spent alone leads to an introspective state. What are you going to think about at that drawing table except your own past? It’s a natural turn of the mind.
You just started your tour together. Do you guys have an act worked out? Who is the straight man, for example?
Seth: Actually, you have caught us just before the tour so we will have to see about this. I’m curious myself. It’s an odd thing to have “a conversation” in front of an audience. The trick is whether you can have the real thing or not—or whether you have to “act” like you’re conversing. Even though Dan and I have known each other for years it isn’t the same as talking on stage.
Dan: Chicago (okay, Oak Park) is our first stop, so we have yet to see who emerges as the Bud Abbott figure.
Do you guys spend time together on the road offstage as well? What are you going to do while you’re in Chicago?
Dan: I’m going to try to avoid all the things about Chicago that bum me out, like the fact that it’s no longer 1978.
Seth: I’ve toured with other cartoonists before (many times) but this will be the first “road trip” with Dan. That said, I have no doubts whatsoever what we will be doing in Chicago. Spending time with Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti.
Do you guys learn from each other when you’re together like this; does the other’s work somehow inform yours? Or do you work hard to make sure it does not happen?
Seth: It’s impossible not to be influenced by the artists you like. It would actually be foolish to try and avoid it. As I have grown older I’ve become more convinced that being an artist doesn’t have much to do with being “original.” I think it has more to do with simply allowing yourself to follow a thread of interest wherever it takes you. This is why most of the artists I like the best get accused of “doing the same thing over and over again.” They have some pet interest or thought or obsession they cannot keep away from. I am never disappointed if an artist I love produces more work following their particular fetish. I never think “I wish Chris Ware would stop doing that same stuff over and over and do a good western.”
As for Mr. Clowes, of course his work has had an influence on me. I’ve been reading Dan’s work since the mid-eighties and he’s in the top five or so best cartoonists in the world. I’m a tremendous fan.
Dan: I am hoping to use this tour as an opportunity to learn many things about the mysterious “Seth.”
Seth, what do you think about Dan’s book? Dan, what do you think about Seth’s book?
Dan: I loved every panel, and it made me sad that I wasn’t Canadian.
Seth: Talk about an awkward question! What do you think I would say? “I hated that book”! I’m about to spend a couple of weeks traveling with the guy!
Seriously, next to “Ice Haven,” it’s my favorite book by Dan. It’s a brilliant book. The kind of thing you wish you’d written yourself.
My own current book is a much more off-the-cuff kind of sketchbook project so it’s unpleasant for me to have it directly paired up with one of Dan’s best pieces. Not a comparison I am eager to encourage.
Seth, your book is a fascinating and very realistic but in large parts fictional (I think?) history of a Canadian tradition of comics making. I say “I think” because, and I expect this is perhaps a subtext for you, that with the exception of a handful of folks like you, the popular history of comics is heavily skewed to the United States. Your history here is often so plausible that I found myself Googling a few of these “legendary” cartoonists to be sure. Some I found, many I did not. Could you expound on this a bit? How many are real vs. imagined?
Seth: The book is mostly made up with a handful of real individuals peppered in just to muddy the water. Like everything in Canada, there was (and is) a lot less cartooning than in the States. America has always been a giant cultural treasure-house compared to Canada. We may be the larger country but we have always had a miniscule population in comparison…and so therefore our cultural history is considerably more modest. I wanted Canada to have a more interesting cartooning history so I decided to just make one up, however I still wanted it to reflect the strange corny and folksy imagery that is Canada’s old iconography—boring Mounties and eskimos and the like. Really just a pure vanity project. It was fun to create this kind of thing off the top of my head. Like most of the boring subjects I am interested in I have read (or collected) so much stuff relating to the subject (in this case, old cartooning) that it’s no effort to spin variations off from the real thing.
You’ve set the story in a fictional club, one that resembles the old-fashioned business-social clubs that are still very prevalent in Chicago, even as they exude an old-fashioned, very male way of doing business. Did you have a specific club in mind that you based this on?
Seth: Not at all. I’m not even sure why I picked a club as my starting point. I don’t know where that came from. I wasn’t all that interested in them and the image I had of them was strictly pulled “out of the air”—based on no more information than any average person has about these kind of organizations. Strangely, just now, years after this story was drawn, I have become kind of interested in the”Gentlemen’s clubs” of England. I’m actually reading a book on the subject right now!
I’ve often thought, from my outsider’s perspective, that contemporary comics artists are kind of a club themselves. You guys all seem to hang out together. Is this true? Any thoughts of starting a real GNBCC?
Seth: Yes—there is a bit of a clubishness to cartooning. Probably more so in the recent past than right now. What I mean is, until not too long ago (say, a decade ago) you could probably count the good contemporary cartoonists on a couple of hands. It led to a natural sense of community between these few individuals. I think it was pretty clear among these artists about just who you felt were your peers. That can’t help but create some kind of a defined little group. It wasn’t utterly rigid. Artists were added (and subtracted) over time. I don’t think this is as true any longer. There has been a real growth in younger, interesting cartoonists in the last decade. Way more than I would have ever imagined. Things feel much more scattered now. I feel like I am more simply a part of a generation now than belonging to any kind of group of “elites.”
Would I like a real club? Hmmm. Probably not. Something like that would only appeal in the imagination—where you might wander in and see Charles Addams or Edward Gorey over at the bar or something. In real life you’d go in and there’d be rap music playing in the lounge and some boring asshole in shorts talking to you about web comics all evening!
You wrote something of a “this-is-just-sketchbook work” on the cover and in the introduction, but it’s packaged in a very rich manner, and the story does not feel sketch-booky (no doodles, story fragments, girls with super-sized breasts, etc.) but is a fully formed story. What makes the final product a sketchbook product?
Seth: To be honest, I don’t have “sketches” in my sketchbooks. All my sketchbooks are filled with pretty finished drawings or comic strips. I never really do that kind of loose sketching that a lot of artists do in their sketchbooks. But this is sketchbook work and I want that clearly stated on the book because it is done with a lot less polish than my usual cartooning and it is written with much less planning than a usual “graphic novel.” This book, and “Wimbledon Green,” were more spontaneous than something like “George Sprott.” I feel uncomfortable with people thinking this work is done with the same care that more finished work is done. It’s also a good dodge if people say the book is terrible. “Hey—don’t be so critical—it’s just some fluff from my sketchbook.”
As for the format of the book. I love to design a fancy book. It’s one of my main pleasures in life. I couldn’t have packaged this in a less modest manner if I tried. I sometimes think I do these sketchbook things just to have an excuse to design the book.
One final question, actually. Chester Brown shows up, sort of, as one of the “greats” being honored. And you’re a character in his new book. What’s the story behind this?
Seth: We have a contract demanding we mention each other in all future books and interviews. I’ve tried to get out of it but my lawyer says it’s “ironclad.”
Dan, your new book is a reworking of the last “Eightball,” #23, which was acclaimed and won all the major awards when it came out in 2004. What’s the story behind this coming out now?
Dan: “Eightball #23” is long out of print—it sold out almost immediately back in 2004. I only did it as a comic then, and not directly as a “Graphic Novel,” because I couldn’t yet face the prospect of canceling “Eightball,” but it made no sense at all to do it as a confusingly titled (“is it called Eightball or The Death-Ray??”) stapled magazine that was only sold in comic stores and was basically unavailable to eighty-percent of my audience, so I immediately made plans to re-release it in the appropriate format, and it only took me seven years to get to it.
Your protagonists here (and in “Wilson”) are not always likable guys, misanthropic even, though Andy starts out OK and then makes a lot of questionable choices. Is that a reflection of a side of your personality, or just the kind of friends you like to hang out with?
Dan: Probably both of those, but I would say I have a very low tolerance for the falsely likable characters of most movies and fiction. Like villains, disagreeable characters give you so much more than the amiable ciphers one is usually asked to identify with, but I think it’s essential, over the course of each story, for the author (i.e. me) to find a way to fully embrace and understand his protagonist’s humanity and, in the final reckoning, to find a way to love and forgive his misguided monster.
The death-ray in the title raises moral issues for the characters, but they do not resolve in the traditional way. Could you discuss your ideas about morality that you’re exploring here? Andy seems very conscious and guilty about what he does, but he keeps doing it.
Dan: I’m not sure how much I’d want to go into it, but I am certainly opposed to the very idea of moral absolutes in all but the most extreme cases. It is very often, as in poor Andy’s case, more likely to be a case of fifty-one-percent-to-forty-nine-percent.
One similarity between your book and Seth’s is the reader’s uncertainty about “fiction” and “reality,” though your entire “reality” here is of course fictional. Andy seems delusional in some ways, certainly in his romantic notions. Is the death-ray real or just wishful imaging? Is it just a real gun? Any comment on this?
Dan: The entire story is one-hundred-percent true.
Did you have a death-ray toy when you were a kid? Did you ever use it on your friends?
Dan: I wish! I did have a toy ray-gun similar to the one I drew in the comic that made a loud, comical POP sound when you pulled the trigger, which is why I used that sound effect in the story.
Could you both discuss the physicality of your books? Each of these is very distinct in their size and finish, not just from each other, but also from many other hardcover books on the market.
Seth: I’m a person who is pretty interested in the look and feel of objects in the physical world. The aesthetics of the man-made world are real important to me. I want a book of mine to have an individual feeling to it. A quality of beauty and eccentricity and character. It should match the subject of the book but mostly it should just look and “feel” right. A lot of my design work is done fairly intuitively. I’m going for “something” and when it it is achieved, I’m happy. It’s certainly easier to design the look of the book than to make the content.
Dan: It’s our duty as keepers of the flame to make our books as beautiful as we possibly can, and for our creations to stand proud and defiant in their book-ness.
The implication of Seth’s book, and especially its ending, is that though the glory days of comics were never as great as one might imagine, that such as they are, they are behind us and things are much worse. Yet you two and the profile of your work, as well as a large number of other creators working now, seem to belie this notion. You may hate this question, but Seth’s book kind of demands we address it: Can you both comment on the state of the world for comics today?
Dan: It seems like there are more very good-to-excellent cartoonists than ever before, though it also seems like there are not as many engaging stories as there need to be to keep this whole graphic novel racket going.
Seth: I think the history of cartooning is mostly the history of junk publishing. Not that I have a problem with that. I’m very interested in that sort of thing. I like a lot of junk. Certainly there were great artists working in the medium (Schulz, Kurtzman, Crumb etc.) but mostly it was hack work turned out for a buck. Some of that hackwork turned out to be pretty interesting in the long run. However I don’t have myself fooled that cartooning’s past is something to be studied with some kind of deep reverence.
I think this is the best period of cartooning in its history. Probably the first time you had cartoonists working with the same adult concerns as writers and artists in other mediums. The very best work ever done in cartooning has surely been done in the last twenty-five years.
What’s next for both of you? What are you working on?
Seth: Just struggling with a bunch of projects. Trying to finish up “Clyde Fans,” as usual.
Dan: I’ve got a monograph coming out in 2012, and am working on a longish comic and a few screenplays. I was supposed to have an illustration on the cover of the New Yorker this week, but it got bumped by Steve Jobs (&%$#!).
October 13 at Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park, at 7pm. $10 admission can be applied to purchase of the books.