Daniel Clowes is the author of comic-turned-Scarlett-Johannson-starring-movie Ghost World, and creator of the long-running, influential comic series Eightball, which he started in 1989. In Clowes’s new graphic novel, Wilson, the title character is a middle-aged man who, like Clowes, was born in Chicago and lives in Oakland, where Clowes resides. Wilson is also a middle-aged egoist bent on reuniting with his ex-wife and finding the daughter she gave up for adoption. Just how much do author and creation have in common?
So you grew up in Chicago?
Yes, I grew up in Hyde Park, which is the weirdest neighbourhood in the world. It’s a bubble. I grew up thinking that racial inequality was a thing of the past. Like I truly had no idea what the rest of the world was like. It’s this sort of leftist dream of how things could work out.
Is there any part of Wilson that is particularly like you? There seem to be obvious connections, like Chicago and Oakland…
He’s certainly got my history to some degree. I’d like to keep that as vague as possible because some of what he’s about is exactly me and some of it is the opposite of me. It’s made up for the most part. There’s a grain of truth to it all, and everything is made up. That’s why I never wanted to do autobiography, because it’s so much easier to make things up. And things work out so much better in the story than if you did autobiography.
One of your early books makes fun of the comics world.
That was the thing everybody talked about, and that’s what got me all the attention. Because nobody had ever done anything like that.
In what sense?
Now it’s such a part of the culture to do things about nerds. But at that time, nobody wanted to make fun of that crowd. And I was so resentful of being stuck in that world. I felt like the comics I was doing had nothing at all to do with the marketplace. I’d go to these comic book conventions and sit next to some guy who was drawing 20th-rate superhero comics and he’d have a line out the door, and I’d have nobody.
So then what happened?
Somehow there were enough of us – me, and the Hernandez brothers, Peter Bagge, Charles Burns – that we created our own little audience: indie-rock college student types, who somehow stumbled onto these comics.
How do you feel about being accused of always having misanthropic characters, especially, say, in Ghost World?
I’d hope that if you really read the work carefully, that wouldn’t be all you took from it. Because certainly that’s not my intention. I usually find whatever I’m doing to be funny. And often I’m surprised when people say, ‘I was so depressed for two weeks after reading that comic.’ Not me. When I work, my wife hears me upstairs laughing at my own stupid jokes. [Laughs]
Wilson is more than twice the size of Ice Haven, your comic-strip novel containing 37 stories. Why did you decide to make it so big?
I just wanted everything about it to be easy to read. I wanted it to have the feel of a kids’ book, almost – sort of heavy, weighty. I wanted it to feel like it could take a bullet – like you could hold it in front of your chest, and it’s like the bullet didn’t make it all the way through. I felt that in a world where everybody is downloading books, it was saying, ‘I’m a book, damn it – deal with me.’
Interview by Hillary Chute. Wilson is published by Drawn & Quarterly