Over the course of his long career comic creator, Dan Clowes has evolved into one of the creative pillars of literary comics as well as one of its most well-known figures. Last weekend, Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts opened an exhibit celebrating his work and hosted a lengthy conversation with Clowes about his life and work.
On walking into the Wexner Center, I was greeted by blaring techno beats you’d not exactly associate with Clowes (later some more appropriate garage rock and foreign 60’s pop was played). The sprawling multi-room space of the lower level of the Wexner was filled with people chatting and sipping drinks from the open bar. One of the things I’m getting used to with the various symposiums and gallery openings we’ve been having in Columbus is seeing cartoonists receiving these big open bars, and folks dressed up for events in their honor. It’s nice.
The Clowes portion of Wexner's exhibit, titled Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Dan Clowes, a travelling exhibit co-organized by Susan Miller, is stunningly laid out. The exhibit is packed with work on the walls as well as several interesting sliding display cases etched with items from Clowes’ studio, including one display with a couch for lounging. Clowes’ originals are larger than I expected and incredibly pristine. Real crisp and clean lineworks. Lots of space for his flat color work. The lettering work done directly on the page was clean as well though with corrections and paste-ups visible. There was large case displaying actual copies of his comics and graphic novels that really showed off his gift for striking cover designs.
The second exhibit, organized by Clowes with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum’s Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk, was dedicated to Clowes’ influences, and it’s the usual mix of Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library treasures. While we’re kind of spoiled here in Columbus where seeing original McCays, Goulds and Bushmillers are a routine experience, it never stops being stunning. I always see something that shows me with how overlooked and rich the medium’s early history is.
There was also a supposedly related exhibit called Comics Future, which had a few interesting pieces, but was largely dayglowly abstracts with placards saying they were about consumerism and kitsch. That exhibit’s connections to comics seem to be vague notions about “cartooning” and bright colors. There was a film projected that could best be described as the most pretentious episode of Tim and Eric ever. Very much an example of the fine art world missing what makes comics great, and really what comics are at all.
That exhibit highlights a certain difference in mood between some of Billy Ireland’s other events which have been cozy, relaxed and welcoming. They are always free entry and allow photos, whereas the Wex feels a little too polished, traditional, and impersonal. That’s not inherently negative, but it’s a less effective space for mingling than its OSU museum neighbor. Disregarding the opening night feel, it’s still a well done set of exhibits illuminating the work of one of comics’ greats and well worth a trip. Especially if paired with a visit to the Bill Watterson/Richard Thompson exhibits in the Billy Ireland Museum next door.
That divide came up again the next day during Clowes’ talk while discussing his Art School Confidential work, inspired by Clowes' shock at receiving his student loan bill and the sense he’d learned nothing in school. He skewered the fine art world, his teachers, and fellow students. It also addressed how he was discouraged from doing comics by a professor who was doing spot illustration for plumbing books. Clowes did add that one of things about art school that had changed since that work had come out was that they were more open to comics now. He also cited the New York Times Magazine’s attempt to do a comics section, in which he participated, as a sign of comics’ increased cultural capital.
Clowes was interviewed by Hillary Chute, who opened the talk by embarrassing Clowes with the two or three photos of him smiling that exist (he was very young in them), before showing several photos of him glowering in the back of group shots. Clowes possesses the comics industry’s greatest “Resting Bitch Face” and always has a certain gravity about him, but the conversation also showed his thoughtfulness and self-deprecating sense of humor.
The interview spanned the alt-comics legend’s career. His break in Cracked Magazine (“the best of the Mad rip-offs” that had been “Methadone for Mad” in his younger days) occurred when Clowes’ roommate Mort Todd went from a low-level position to editor of the magazine in three weeks by exposing that the previous editors were using cheap reprint material and pocketing the saved budget money. His more well-known work in Eightball was covered in depth, from Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron to Ghost World. Clowes said he originally planned to change the title every few issue, but he couldn’t think of a better one than the blankness of Eightball.
The interview also touched on his attention to typography and design as essential elements of his comics making, and that in comics, word could be pictures and pictures can be words.
When the talk was opened to audience questions, local artist Julian Dessai got the chance to ask a question on how Clowes’ super-clean pages were produced. Clowes said working methods have varied over the course of his career but he often does loose roughs on tracing paper or in very light pencil.
Another local comics creator, Colleen Clark, asked about how he captured the authentic teenage girl experience in Ghost World, Clowes said that he was just capturing the conversations of the women he hung out with. He said that he had never seen characters like that in comics, and that he felt it was almost too easy to produce with the ample source material he had to work with.
Clowes said he made the jump to graphic novels after realizing both the book were often the optimal form for his work all along, mixed with fear at the idea of books going away. That fear led him to design Wilson as the sort of book that could “take a bullet.” Clowes also mentioned that he was currently working on the longest work he has done to date, but when pressed wouldn’t give details on what it was about.
Chute (and later the audience) did a good job of giving Clowes opportunities to dig into his process and creations, and well as having the choice to deploy his dry, misanthropic humor. Beautiful art, thought provoking conversation, occasionally funny and a little alienating, it really was a very Clowseian set of events.