Graphic Novelist Daniel Clowes (LAB ’79) Comes Home

“[Clowes] rejects all ready-made tropes, peeking instead into the woodwork of the quotidian…”

By Grace Hauck

American cartoonist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes drafts dark realities in sucrose color. From his cult classic comic-series-turned-movie Ghost World (1997) to covers for The New Yorker, Clowes’s vision thrives on stories both personal and painful. He constantly probes, exploring the question: What is weirdly universal in a way that you wouldn’t expect?

This past Tuesday, the Special Collections Research Center welcomed back the ’79 University of Chicago Lab School graduate to celebrate the opening of its newest exhibition, Integrity of the Page: The Creative Process of Daniel Clowes. Curated by Ashley Gosselar, the exhibition showcases the progenitors of three famous Clowesian works acquired by Special Collections in 2015: Ice Haven (2005), The Death-Ray (2011), and Mister Wonderful (2011). Tuesday’s event featured a conversation with the artist himself, a Q&A session, gallery viewing, and book signing, complete with mascarpone and pinot noir.

Clowes took the stage a half-hour late in a thin grey sweater and his characteristic black-framed glasses. Professor of creative writing Daniel Raeburn joined Clowes on stage to moderate the discussion, marking the duo’s first interview since 1997. They began with a brief minute of self-deprecating banter—feigning surprise at the abnormally large (70-plus people) crowd—before plunging into the real work: defining the integrity of the page.

“It’s thinking about each part of the page,” Clowes said. “And the real challenge is that it all has to be me.”

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For Clowes, superfluous and mechanized art bastardizes comics. He rejects all ready-made tropes, peeking instead into the woodwork of the quotidian to root out narratives that are bizarre yet ubiquitous. A self-proclaimed control freak, Clowes reflected on the solitary and controlled nature of the comic book genre, admitting that he can’t really read comics to his 11-year-old son at night. His son doesn’t get to assemble “Mr. Protagonist” in his mind. Instead, he sees what is already invented for him. He is told.

“It’s the perfect one-to-one relationship from artist to reader,” Clowes said.

Integrity of the Page dissects the construction of this relationship in two parts: a minimalist step-by-step breakdown of the comic book process and a point-by-point investigation of Clowes’s detail work. Lining the far wall of Special Collections, a process timeline pinpoints the anatomical evolution of the comic, slowly accumulating layers of flesh—from the lightbulb moment to the final print.

With a basic understanding of the craft in mind, the viewer can proceed through the gallery of featured drafts and doodles. Each glass case explores a different facet of illustration technique: how Clowes crafts the perfect eye, sculpts the head, or formats dialogue. One work, “Cropped Scan of Line Art, Mister Wonderful,” reveals Clowes’s dozen attempts to construct the face of Marshall, his iconic romantic divorcee. For fans, this graphite skeleton exposes the gritty adolescence of an eternally middle-aged friend. For Clowes virgins, however, this work—like the exhibit itself—is a visual thought process significant for its artistic merit alone. Thanks to Gosselar, you can peruse this work and more online through the Special Collections Archive.

At the heart of the show and the gallery itself, you’ll find the three published texts, each perched on its own stand. Viewers are welcome to leaf through an Ice Haven or Death-Ray to compare final product and preliminary sketch. For the technologically inclined, a fourth pillar holds a touch-screen pad with a slideshow tutorial detailing the arduous coloring process. (After coloring eight hours a day for a year, Clowes started to dream in Photoshop).

In his conversation with Raeburn, Clowes illustrated a few aspects of his process that never hit the page. He revealed that when it comes to birthing characters, he conducts mental casting calls in his “fantasy film studio,” recycling character elements from earlier works to repurpose them for new ones. When asked about his stance on the ethics of revision, Clowes came down hard: it’s moral if done during the “heat of battle,” but harmful if indulged post-production.

Titles? For Clowes, these come first. Despite the heroic promise of the title, however, Clowes rarely knows how his story will end until his pen hits the page.

“It’s a paradox,” Clowes said of endings. “It has to feel both surprising and inevitable.”

The hour-long chat concluded with applause, cheers, and a book-signing line out the door. Still, in emphasizing the virtues of Clowes’s artistic process, Integrity of the Page omits the addictive ingredient that won him more than a dozen awards and propelled his works into more than 20 languages: the virtues of his narrative purity. For that, you’ll just have to read his books.

Integrity of the Page: The Creative Process of Daniel Clowes runs through June 17.