Ghost World Chronicles

The Art of Daniel Clowes

Apr. 11, 2012
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Daniel Clowes wrote Ghost World, one of the 21st century's greatest films, from his comic book series of the same name. Suffused with loneliness and ineffable yearning for something (perhaps meaning in a world that offers little?), the movie beautifully enacted one of the signal works from the Love and Rockets generation of graphic artists who emerged in the 1980s. Clowes collaborated once more with Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff. Their second film, Art School Confidential, was amusing but slight in comparison. It spoofed an easy target, the endemic pretentiousness of art academies, while Ghost World gently indicted the banality and disconnection of contemporary society.

The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist (published by Abrams) is a lavish, coffee table portfolio of his work—from childhood doodles through recent graphic novels such as Wilson and The Death-Ray and with a generous selection of New Yorker covers, commercial projects (including Coca Cola's failed campaign to capitalize on GenX) and unpublished pieces. Robert Crumb was an important inspiration and a few of the drawings in Modern Cartoonist show his influence, but Clowes came of age in an eclectic era and drew from sources as various as Peanuts and Superman.

Most of the essays chosen by editor Alvin Buenaventura shine some light onto the subject, yet the most illuminating comments come from the artist himself. His largely unsupervised childhood tended to promote loneliness, creativity and the ability to imagine himself into a variety of lives and situations. He was a child in but not of the '60s who despised what he saw as the pompous chaos of the hippie counterculture. “I related with incredible intensity to Jack Webb, probably because he was this no-nonsense guy.” Clowes gravitated to punk rock in college and some of that sensibility permeates his narratives, but comic books remained his touchstone. One of his favorite films is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo because he loves entering the world it depicts. “I kind of go into a trance, watching Jimmy Stewart driving around the city with absolutely no traffic… It's a ridiculous movie as far as the plot, which is retarded, and yet you don't care.”

According to one of Modern Cartoonist's essays, Jack Black is considering producing The Death-Ray and Alexander Payne is contemplating Wilson. And yet, although he was nominated for an Oscar for his Ghost World screenplay, Clowes' sophisticated musings have largely eluded Hollywood. Well, as one of the artist's unreliable narrators once said, “Those of us with a black sense of humor are never at a loss for amusement.”

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