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The Toils of a Clowes: A Review of Daniel Clowes: Conversations

By Shauna Osborn

Parille, Ken and Isaac Cates. Daniel Clowes: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

The Clowes quote that opens Daniel Clowes: Conversations is not what one would expect for an interview collection: “If I had to do it all over again, I probably never would have done an interview” (vii). Despite Clowes’ negative view on the interviewing process, Ken Parille and Isaac Cates thought enough of these 15 interviews to gather them and publish a book. The interviews come from fourteen publications of varying influence and availability. The final interview is one previously unpublished that was conducted by Parille. The interviews span from the years 1988 to 2009 and cover many works of Clowes—his illustrations, his graphic novels, his characters, the movie industry, and screenwriting. The collection attempts to show the progression of Clowes as an artist and his standing in the above professions. It caters to academic readers as well as to hardcore Clowes fans with its addition of a lifetime chronology preceding the interviews and the inclusion of a helpful index. The lifetime chronology also lists many of the prestigious awards Clowes has received for his writing and art, making it easier to identify his more celebrated works. These additions would be helpful for those readers unfamiliar with parts of Clowes’ career or those attempting to research particular elements within his work.

Many variables can make the interview experience fall short of its potential. Studying 200 pages of Clowes interviews really helped solidify the characteristics of a good interview subject and a good interviewer. For an interview to be truly good there has to be a rapport between the two. This happens in some of the interviews in Conversations, notably in the interviews with John Battles, Todd Hignite, Joshua Glenn, Carlye Archibeque, and Ken Parille. Clowes can be interesting and his best projects display his spark of attention-grabbing charisma. This part of his personality comes out best when he feels comfortable with his interviewer. In these interviews, Clowes’ answers seem natural rather than forced, even when he is confronted with difficult questions.

What becomes the most apparent within the pages of Conversations is the high level of narcissism involved in Clowes’ process. During the multiple discussions of his work, it becomes impossible to ignore the level of perfectionism he expects of his endeavors. From the development of his characters to the steps necessary to complete a single page within his projects, Clowes is present and in control. He does everything involved in the creation of his work himself: writing, drawing, inking, etc., and mostly by hand. He explains that he uses computers to correct spacing in word balloons and to get true color matching from the printers, but he will not draw on the computer or make corrections to the art from one. Many of his characters are versions of himself, be it physically, situationally, or essentially. In fact, an overarching theme within his discussions in the collection is how Clowes fits himself into his work.

The questions asked and answered in these dialogues have to be distinctive and relevant for the interview to go beyond mediocrity. This occurs at various levels within the interviews collected in Conversations. However, many of the interviews repeat the same questions. Clowes gives rote answers in response, which is understandable. After reading the questions and answers a few times, it is easy to memorize Clowes’ answers. The editors address this problem somewhat in the introduction to the collection; however, shouldn’t good editing require a solution rather than just an admission of the problem? The problem could easily have been be solved by publishing excerpts of the full interviews instead of including this annoying repetition of stock interview questions and answers.

Everyone involved in the interview process has to be aware of the target audience and willing to cater to it for the interview to approach greatness. The bare minimum qualification for this to happen is that each person involved has to be open to the experience. There are numerous moments where Clowes shows his distaste for the interview process. Sometimes he does this by having the interviewers answer their own questions as they believe he might, telling them to “make me sound interesting/good.” He also often discusses how awkward he feels talking about his work and expresses his need to have a scroll that answers the stock interview questions he routinely gets asked. Clowes’ aversion to the process haunts the collection throughout, even in the strongest pieces, which solidifies Clowes’ sincerity in his remark used to open the collection. Clowes even repudiates his quotes within other interviews, most notably with Todd Hignite (38-39). Knowing how easy it is to be misquoted by people you grant interviews (I have had it happen three times to me out of the five interviews I’ve given), I can understand Clowes’ frustration. However, Clowes admits to telling this unfavored interviewer to “Rewrite it and make me sound good.” This makes me question the validity of the answers given as his within all the interviews in the book. As a scholar, how can I know these answers aren’t the interviewer’s idea of what makes Clowes sound good?

These concerns overshadow the interesting tidbits about Clowes’ characters and projects that the collection elucidates. I spend most of my time after reading his responses wondering: Is there a chance that the comments credited to Clowes that make him sound misogynistic or narcissistic are the product of his interviewer’s choices and not his own? Can this really be him? Then I begin to flip through the other interviews, looking for clues, trying to piece together the elements within.

Of course, some researchers will not find it difficult to utilize the passages in the text to further their work. Having words that resemble the author’s thoughts about the work can be greatly illuminating when delving deeply into a text. This reason alone can make this Conversations volume an important work for those academics who study Clowes. In time, I may join them in viewing the text this way. However, after reading the entire collection, I am left with the first question that I had upon reading Clowes’ quote in the introduction: How does one deal with an entire book of interviews featuring a subject who laments giving them?

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