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Cartoonist Daniel Clowes On Time Travel And Giving Readers Their Money's Worth

In Daniel Clowes' <em>Patience</em>, a man turns to time travel after his true love is murdered.
Daniel Clowes
Courtesy of Fantagraphics
In Daniel Clowes' Patience, a man turns to time travel after his true love is murdered.

Growing up, cartoonist Daniel Clowes liked to draw, but he never thought he'd make much of a career out of it. "I was expecting to work for Cracked magazine for four years, and then try to get work putting up aluminum siding or something, doing my prison drawings while I was down for a DUI," he jokes to Fresh Air's Sam Briger.

But instead Clowes, 55, has become one of the most influential artists in the independent comics world. His comics Ghost World and Art School Confidential have been adapted into movies, and Clowes was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Ghost World.

His latest book, Patience, is a love story that was five years in the making. In it, Clowes uses time travel to explore themes like tragedy and regret. He is particularly interested in the ways in which unique events can set a life on a new path. He says that with time travel "you can kind of examine this person that you were back here, when you're down the road here, and see: How the hell did that happen?"

Interview Highlights

On what inspired him to write about time travel

I'd spent a long time, prior to working on this, putting together an exhibition of my old work and a monograph that went with it. And that entailed digging through drawers and looking at all my early work and all the stuff that I deeply repress both in my own mind and physically into drawers in my house and never look at; and to sort of have to grapple with that and go, "Oh I was this guy and now I'm this guy, based on these three random events in my life that kind of took me to this point." And it struck me as something that would keep me interested in a story for five years.

On why his speech balloons sometimes drift off the page

Daniel Clowes' other books include <em>Mr. Wonderful</em>, <em>The Death-Ray</em> and <em>Wilson</em>.
/ Dan Clowes
Dan Clowes
Daniel Clowes' other books include Mr. Wonderful, The Death-Ray and Wilson.

It's one of those things that just sort of happens by necessity. I think I started with that Mr. Wonderful book, and the idea was that I wanted the book to be all inside his head. So you see his thoughts and they're always in the foreground, and whatever anybody else is saying is covered up by those thoughts.

It's sort of the way that we normally are talking to eachother where we're thinking about, like, "I really gotta go," and somebody is telling us something and we're not focusing. I wanted to capture that.

On how he feels about cartoonists lettering with a computer

I don't approve of that. I can tell a mile away and it always — I feel like I'm reading a robot.

On how he feels today about his seminal comic book series Eightball, which ran from 1989 to 2004

If something is just a few years old, it makes me cringe — I look at it and go, "Oh my God, this is a disaster." If it's 10 years old, well, I was a young man. And this stuff seems so old, I was very forgiving of it. ... I remember working all the time — every day, all day — doing this stuff and trying to learn to do that kind of artwork, and a real tenseness on my part. It was very difficult.

I was really down on myself during that era. I was always like, "I gotta get better, I gotta get better." And then looking back on them, I was sort of forgiving myself. I was like, "You know, you did a good job. These are pretty good."

And they're dense and I always felt like I gave the readers their money's worth — they were like $3 or whatever — and I would kill myself for those issues, you know? ... I think the comic was supposed to be quarterly and it was always like nine months per issue. It was hard to make a living on a $3 comic that came out once a year. ... I did everything there could be done.

On how parenthood has changed him

I resisted having kids for a long time because I was terrified it would affect me. And I thought, I'm going to try to get through this without even noticing ... that little brat in the other room. But the minute you're sort of faced with that responsibility, you find out things about yourself that you maybe didn't want to face. You find out what your true opinions are.

I find that when I'm talking in front of my son, I find that I try to say what I really feel rather than some version of myself I would've had in my 20s where I had some pose that was just, "I want to be contrary." ... I want him to know what I actually really feel and what are my real values. And you find yourself kind of [thinking], Do I believe in this? Is this an actual opinion of mine, or is this just some masked thing I'm trying to put out to the world?

I found it was very profound in that way. I sort of became more myself in a certain way.

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