Modern Autobifictionalographer: Daniel Clowes’s Big Fat Critical Year

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Daniel Clowes




Modern Autobifictionalographer: Daniel Clowes’s Big Fat Critical Year by A-J Aronstein

Daniel Clowes is the man.

November 17th, 2013 reset - +

IN THE FINAL ACT of Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, local astrologist, psychic, and suspected perv Bob Skeetes scans a windswept beach with a metal detector. He’s wearing a light jacket and a baseball cap, with a jaunty scarf tied around his neck. His buckteeth and bulbous nose protrude so far from the rest of his face that our protagonist, Enid Coleslaw, (whose name, famously, is an anagram of the author’s) immediately recognizes him from her perch atop a dune. We don’t see Enid’s expression at the moment of recognition, but when she calls for his attention from outside the frame of the bottom-center panel — a close-up of Bob’s ugly mug — we get a clear sense that Clowes is setting up the novel’s final climactic encounter.

Enid wants to confront Skeetes.

In the past year, there has been no shortage of excuses to (re)visit Ghost World, Pussey!, Eightball, Wilson, and other Clowes cartoons, and to consider more broadly his contributions to literary comics — or graphic novels, or graphic narrative, or serious comics, or whatever other designation we might choose. The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist has already been through the Oakland Museum of California and the MCA in Chicago (en route to the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, next May). Abrams ComicArts has published a gorgeous hardbound monograph for the exhibition, while Fantagraphics Books recently released the Ken Parille–edited volume The Daniel Clowes Reader: A Critical Edition of Ghost World. Bottom line: things have been going well for Clowes, and the flurry of attention serves as a chance for readers to engage with the work, as well as with criticism about the relationship between comics and other forms of literary expression.

All of this drives home once more that comics belong to the in-crowd of serious artistic forms — period. It’d be hard to suggest otherwise when, for more than three months, two massive comics murals of the Chicago skyline stared down on hushed museum crowds at the city’s most important contemporary art institution. In the context of an exhibition, it becomes evident that museums highlight one particular aspect of comics: the labor that goes into them. To see original drawings mounted vertically on the wall lays bare the intensive and intensely human process that making comics entails.

Clowes’s original drawings reveal numerous revisions, meticulous erasures, cutouts, screw-ups, and second (and third) tries. In a reversal of our usual experience with art objects in museums, we feel most drawn to unfinished originals. To finish comics requires multiple layers of technological interventions. Only on the page, in books, and onscreen do we see what counts as the finished product — retouched, color-corrected, smoothed, and layered. Readers are twice removed from the cartoonist. What we read in a graphic narrative is a steroidal, almost always photoshopped version of the “real” artifact that we see in the museum. The emphasis is on the auratic original, the page that bears the author’s mark. And perhaps the final product’s doubled aesthetic distance makes us crave the more intimate evidence of the author’s sweat that the gallery provides. It humanizes the cartoonist­­, while increasing appreciation for the complexity of the creative process.

Of course, this highlights a persistent phenomenon of comics and comics criticism: fetishizing the figure of the author. Discussion of the authorial intention has been a faux pas of most serious literary scholarship since Roland Barthes declared the figurative “Death of the Author” in his 1967 essay. But in comics criticism the author is often still fair game. This applies especially to Clowes, whose insertion of himself into so many of his narratives is a constant refrain of formal self-consciousness. He draws himself, cross-pollinates one work with characters from another, calls attention to the artificial nature of cartoon representation, and dares the reader to question his authorial right to manipulate the text. As Parille points out in a section of The Daniel Clowes Reader dedicated to the relationship between cartoonists and their audiences, “Clowes wants us to consider who’s the real narcissist — the navel-gazing autobiographical cartoonist or the reader, who seeks validation from the comics he or she reads.” His answer, it seems, lies somewhere in between these poles. To borrow a made-up term from another canonized cartoonist saint, Lynda Barry, Clowes’s work should often be described as autobifictionalography.

Barry smashed together this term to describe the similar way in which her cartoons blur the lines between fiction, nonfiction, and autobiography. Like Barry, Clowes helps us understand the ways in which even fictional graphic narratives should be thought of as shaded by the factual, if not altogether autobiographical. It can be useful to suggest (as comics scholars like Hillary Chute do) that something specific about graphic narrative — even fictional narrative — makes it easier or more desirable for the author to insert him or herself into the text. At the same time, the explosion of biographical material that accompanies Clowes’s work in the two recent volumes embodies the new challenge for comics critics and readers. Critical discourse about comics has ballooned without any clear sense of where to pare back the material considered valuable. An emphasis on the painstaking labor of comics authorship — and the many different creative inputs and styles of creation — certainly contributed to the case that cartoonists were worthy of membership in the “in-crowd” in the first place.

But the biographical and contextual information continues to accumulate and sprout more connections. Without a concurrently evolving account of whether that information adds to our understanding of the text, this comes off as, well, simply adding more stuff. At a certain point, biography and influence tracking take the place of a reader’s (or even a critic’s) ability to suggest meanings independent of the author. When do they start to hold back criticism and create new barriers to entry for readers, instead of providing openings for them to interrogate a text on its own terms? How much do I really have to know about zines, inking styles, R. Crumb, the 1991 Bulls, Chester Brown, pixilation, 1970s Chicago advertising, or Oakland to enjoy Wilson? Do I even really have to decide whether I hate or love the term “graphic novel”?

The two Clowes books amount to almost 600 pages of reprinted stories, photos, ephemera, marginalia, trivia, critical essays, interviews, timelines, and cultural reference points for both new and old obsessives to lug around (there’s no ebook option for either). It’s an overwhelming and often disorienting amount of information. In the case of Modern Cartoonist, the effect is lessened in part because material is largely pictorial. There are simply fewer essays, making it easier to connect dots between several of the longer pieces, while breezing through images. Despite its breakdown into sections, The Daniel Clowes Reader’s diversity of forms and argument styles often leave the reader at sea. In the section immediately after Ghost World, for example, we get (a) a nine-page interview with Clowes that begins with a tirade against UPS, (b) a three-page personal narrative of sexual trauma and the palliative influence of Clowes’s work in a post-traumatic context, (c) an 11-page academic essay on adolescence in the context of critique of capital that leverages Jameson and Baudrillard, and (d) a five-page series of close readings of single sentences from Ghost World.

And so on.

One senses the challenge that Parille faced: to edit a collection broadly enough to appeal to everyone from comics newbies to graduate students. The result is a huge range of material that provides a certain breathtaking comprehensiveness. And yet there’s no index. Well, there’s a meticulously curated index for just Ghost World and a glossary of cartooning terms — smack in the middle of the volume. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to track ideas as they appear across the whole book. It could have been advantageous to design the volume with an intentional narrative shape and a singular vision for what it wanted to be. Instead, the Reader has three introductions, and much of the material seems to methodically retrace well-worn arguments about the significance of comics in general. In the second section of introductory material, called “An Aesthetic Biography of Daniel Clowes,” Parille writes in a very familiar register:

Comic books have a long history of critical neglect — and with good reason. Throughout much of the 20th century, the medium was dominated by second-rate children’s stories. If comic books had any value in the public’s eyes, it was financial: “If my mother hadn’t thrown away my comics,” countless adults have bemoaned, “I’d be rich!”

True, sure, but I found myself questioning whether a reader who needed this information would really want to sink her teeth into that essay about Jameson, or whether the graduate student who values the Jameson really needs a comics glossary entry for “Text-Only Panel,” which reads, “A panel with text and no image.” As to whether Enid Coleslaw might have been influenced by Scooby-Doo’s Velma Dinkley in her wardrobe choices (given that she’s an imaginary character created by Daniel Clowes), I can offer no concrete opinion.

There are certainly instances of essays that do some great critical work. In “Chicago,” a 1991 story published in the famous series Eightball, Clowes writes that the city is “a beautiful place; a dark and decaying testament to the sad beauty of bleakness and unfulfilled promises.” Though the complete story itself is noticeably absent from both of the recent volumes, the toughness and grittiness of 1970s Chicago overhangs much of Clowes’s portrayal of America’s urban and semi-urban spaces, and Parille is right to hang onto it. In “Urban Romanticism, Mad Magazine, and the Aesthetics of Ugly” (co-written with Anne Mallory), we get a spot-on reading of the lasting significance of Chicago to Clowes’s work:

[Clowes] identifies not with the city’s inhabitants (the faux-working class yobs who love everything he hates), but with the downbeat aura generated by gloomy, dilapidated buildings and their genuinely odd and old (not fake-old) signs. In this way, the city molded and mirrored Clowes’s late-twentieth-century urban romanticism.

In the authenticity of ugliness — the destroyed or decaying architecture of 1970s Chicago — we might identify the root of something authentic that runs throughout the spaces that Clowes’s characters occupy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a useful starting point for thinking about these characters comes from Clowes’s fellow Chicagoan and cartoonist Chris Ware. In the monograph that accompanies Modern Cartoonist, a touring museum exhibition dedicated to Clowes, Ware writes:

Most important, unlike most writers and artists who take it for granted that human beings naturally seek each other’s company, Clowes seems to keep asking: What is it we really want from one another, anyway?

Tense encounters between oddly (mis)matched, sweaty, worried, often literally misshapen characters are at the heart of much of Clowes’s work. When they collide in equally misshapen and ugly spaces, the strange and difficult-to-describe interactions of these characters produce some of Clowes’s best and most complex moments.

So at the end of Ghost World, Bob seems lost in thought as he passes the wand over the sand, searching for whatever buried treasure it is that guys who take metal detectors to the beach seek.

Jewelry? Doubloons? Cans with nickel deposits to redeem? When it comes to beach treasure hunters, there’s something portentous in their swooping motions, or the vague sensation of electric vibrations that their machines produce, that suggests the possibility of unearthing something grisly from beneath the coarse sand — that instead of treasure, you’d find some strange and ominous historical artifact.

But Enid, who chases down Skeetes to request a psychic reading, isn’t worried about the past.

“So what’s my future?” she asks, once the two of them take seats on opposite sides of a picnic table.

Tired of what she perceives as the drab and inescapable rhythms of anonymous suburban drudgery, yet unfamiliar with very much outside those rhythms, her decision to ask Skeetes for help comes off as both panicked and relatable. We find her on the precipice of adulthood, scared of and yet desperate to know what comes next without having to live through the uncertainty of an ever-unfolding present.

It’s a strange conversation that follows, but it seems not to matter that Enid Coleslaw may be a stand-in for Daniel Clowes. Perhaps it’s better to leave the last frames uninterpreted — to instead suggest that we should go back to the primary text. Because of all the things that can be determined about Clowes’s work based on biography and contextualizing material, it’s most gratifying that the final panels of his best work will likely remain stubbornly elusive anyway.

¤

A-J Aronstein lives in Chicago and teaches at the University of Chicago, but his bio doesn’t matter.

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