By Daniel Clowes
“I feel like my stupid brain is trying to fuck everything up. It’s a fucking crime that I can’t enjoy my life at a time like this.”
That’s from a random text box in Patience but there’s a thousand more where that one comes from. People talking about how miserable they are. How everything sucks. How much they hate themselves and everyone else. How fucked up and stupid the world is. etc etc And so on and so on.
But whoops – maybe I should start from the start. Patience is the latest book from comic big shot Daniel Clowes (winner of loads of awards but probably still best known for Ghost World – which we did for the Book Club all the way back in 2015). It’s the longest book he’s ever done and it’s a bit of a departure too in that it’s science-fiction from a guy who’s mostly known for writing kitchen sink realism stuff about – well – depressed and lonely people.
No big surprise then that Patience is a comic about depressed and lonely people. But you know – with extra added time travel.
I’ve read this book two times now. One back when it first came out (all the way back in the sun-kissed fields of 2016) and the second time a few days ago getting ready to write this. The first time I thought it was a really impressive piece of work. A moving examination of loss and love and loneliness. A smart twist on the time travel story with an intricate and expertly constructed narrative that keeps tightening the screws until you feel like you can’t breathe. Daniel Clowes effortlessly folding outlandish sci-fi ideas into his own style and giving them a few interesting little twists here and there. All in all two thumbs up. Recommended.
Reading it now tho I can’t say that I’m as impressed (sorry Daniel). Mostly because of – well – how fucking miserable it all is. To the point where reading the whole thing kinda feels like taking a bath in cold tears and sadness (with an extra downpour of despair). And like I’ve gotta say – why do so many people seem to think that this is what “high art” is all about? Like Daniel Clowes might be the most successful creator of this kinda stuff but there’s a whole segment of comic books that has grown up in his shadow behind him and kinda spread itself out like a particularly malignant mould.
You know what kind of thing I’m talking about. Comic books that look like they’ve been drawn by someone who doesn’t know how to draw (and doesn’t want to learn). Storylines full of sad and miserable characters behaving in shitty ways to each other. Stories that never really resolve and instead seem actively hostile to the idea that you should have some sort of catharsis or whatever (ok to be fair Patience doesn’t do this but you still get what I mean right?).
And like yeah this isn’t new (this stuff has always been around) but the older I get the more I’m like – seriously? Why do you hate comics so much? Why does the idea of something that’s well drawn and entertaining and actually fun to read seem like it’s anathema to you? Like where did this idea that ugly comics are somehow artistically superior come from? I mean part of me can’t help but think that there’s somekind of class thing going on in the background here. In the same way that rich people like to slum it and dress in crappy cheap clothing part of me thinks that there’s somekind of moral safari thing going on – people talking a holiday by reading about the sad lives of poor people and going “well that sounds dreadful” and then going back to their nice comfortable lives. (While you know – poor people themselves prefer escapism and entertainment so that – well – they don’t need to think about their miserable lives for a bit LOL).
But whoops. I don’t know. Maybe this is all off the point a bit. Although seeing Daniel Clowes has now ventured so far as to write a book about science-fiction part of me wonders if maybe his next giant step will be to write something that’s actually fun to read (but maybe that’s a step too far?).
What do you think?
A) If you thought Daniel Clowes mainly dealt with kitchen sink realism in his previous work you’ve been reading it wrong. he has never been a realist, of any stripe. I’d say that his main stock-in -trade was satire. He nails a certain self-involved, hopelessly deluded, unthinking America better than any other artist I can think of from his country.
B) It’s all been fun, to me, at least, I find Clowes way more engaging and amusing than most mainstream comics about muscular blokes with angst fretting about power dynamics that mean nothing to me.
C) Clowes, most definitely DOES know how to draw.
I should give it a re-read it though. It has been a while.
Oh hi Mark.
Am I allowed to say that I think it’s funny that any time anyone fires shots on Daniel Clowes and his ilk the first reply is nearly always “well – it’s better than all those mainstream superhero comics”? I mean I’m not really much of a fan of the vast majority of mainstream superhero comics. There’s a Batman comic that just came out by Scott Snyder called Last Knight on Earth. The main idea is that Batman wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world and his sidekick is the Joker’s head in a jar. I mean – yes. Sounds great. I was sold. But I couldn’t even finish reading it because it was making my head buzz too much – almost as if someone was filling it up with bees and ice cream. And not in a good way. After a while it just felt like I was eating paper. Like it’s all just – nothingness. Completely unconnected from anything real or interesting or exciting. And you know – that’s supposed to be one of the good ones.
But you know – just because I’m not really into superhero comics that doesn’t mean that people doing the exact opposite of superhero comics are any good either. And if all it has to recommend it is that it’s “not that rubbish thing over there” then well – I think you need to have a word with your marketing manager. You can’t just define yourself by what you’re not – right? (Or I don’t know – maybe you can? Like I kinda already said – “well – it’s better than all those mainstream superhero comics” is a line that I’ve heard a lot).
But also hey – serious question for all of you artists out there: what does it mean to say that someone knows how to draw?
Like obviously Daniel Clowes knows how to put his pen on a piece of paper and make shapes that look like human beings (I’ll give him that). But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a panel by him that was – you know – aesthetically pleasing. In fact mostly when I read his comics it feels like looking at someone else’s headache. Everything looks so flat and the tones look like they’ve been rendered with a box of old crayons that someone left out in the rain.
And yeah yeah ok – different strokes for different folks. And I know that different people like different things. And I’m not trying to be an arsehole here (I promise!). But I would be interested to hear the reasons why Daniel Clowes is held up as being this comics master.
Because yeah – reading his books is never really a pleasurable or interesting experience for me. Mostly they just kinda – feel like a drag?
I didn’t actually just mean superheroes when I said ‘ muscular men… power dynamics’ but rather the dominant American pulp ethos, be it in crime or fantasy or science fiction or samurai drama or whatever, it’s full of men trying to take or maintain control of an empire of some kind, enact their will upon the world, get revenge for this or that.
I think part of the reason I love Clowes work is that he slyly takes the piss out of all of that, either by having disaffected and confused protagonists (David Boring, Like A Velvet Glove Cast In iron) or people whose motivations and outlook make them entirely unsuitable for the ‘hero ‘ role (Wilson, The Death Ray,) as I remember Patience is one of the only times he has put a motivated man on a mission at the heart of a book. His America is full of obsessive, self-possessed types, speaking motivational blather, working some hustle, but they are generally heading for an obvious cliff edge they are utterly blind to.
As to Clowes art… well, if you can’t find anything aesthetically pleasing in his work then i don’t know what to tell you.
Art book sales, illustration career and hordes of imitators would seem to suggest that he has something going on.
For me, he has the perfect art to get across what he’s trying to communicate, a world of pop graphic suss is in there, and his vision is filtered through a deep love of fringe Americana. His characters may talk a good game, but their nervousness and unease is given away by the beads of sweat and bad posture. He largely eschews the conventional dynamism of the comic book page, (because it would kill the comedy stone dead,) but foregrounds a kind of deadpan line and composition. there is no gothic architecture here, but the flat, sun baked, two storey nothing-muchness of the Californian suburban landscape. Every aspect of his art has been thought through and hand rendered. The facial expressions are sharp as hell.
Ha. Ok. I’ll admit it. Those are some good points.
And whoops yeah – my bad. You didn’t say superheroes and obviously I assumed too much. Sorry. And yeah I totally agree that the dominant american pulp ethos is well – dominant men exercising their power – although usually the way the story goes is that it’s about a submissive guy who’s being kicked around and taken for granted and the story is basically that he gets some sort of power and gradually learns how to wield that power / get what he wants / dominant other people and get together with the sexy woman. Roll credits.
(When I wrote that the first thing that sprang to mind was The Mask. But it’s basically like 99% of all mainstream stories out there right?)
So yeah – men learning that they need to become dominant in order to succeed. Superman doesn’t get where he is just because he’s nice to people right? It’s because he’s got superpowers and could totally fuck you up if you don’t play nice.
There’s a line in what you wrote Mark that I think encapsulates pretty well our differing points of view. Namely this: “He largely eschews the conventional dynamism of the comic book page.”
I mean – I think you’ve stacked the deck a little here by saying “conventional” (ha) but I think that the main thing that keeps me at arm’s distance from Daniel Clowes and his endless imitators is basically well yeah – apart from all the miserable people being constantly miserable – his comics are just never really dynamic are they? They’re all just kinda… flat.
Of course different people can mean different things using the same words (I feel like that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learnt in life) and like the first thing that comes to mine talking about dynamism is music more than comics. Namely like – music that has big jumps in terms of volume level is said to be dynamic and music that just starts at the same temperature for the entire duration is… not dynamic. And well yeah Daniel Clowes to me definitely feels like the second type. His comics are lukewarm and maintain that same setting throughout and to me that’s just kinda… boring? Like my feeling with any medium is that it’s most fun and most interesting when you push it into new and cool places and see how many things it can do. You know – oooh. Let’s try this. What happens when I do this? What’s the effect of doing this? Oooh – will this mess people up if I do this? etc etc And Daniel Clowes is much more well – safe and unadventurous in terms of the comic book stuff it does. Like I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s always lots of talk about making his stuff into movies (apparently there’s a Patience movie in development at the moment) because you know – there’s nothing that’s really irreducibly comic booky about his work. And I think that’s a feature not a bug.
Mark – you mentioned all the “art book sales, illustration careers and hordes of imitators” that exist in Clowes’ wake and yeah you’re 100% right – there’s a lot of people out there who really dig his stuff but I can’t help that there’s a kinda bait and switch going on. Clowes has a reputation of being “serious comic books for people serious about comics books” but I can’t help the feeling that once you get past all of the depressing stories all of his stuff is actually really… safe.
Like what do his books demand of you? Not much really. It has all the trimmings of something important and grown-up (because dynamism is for kids right?) but at the end of day it barely has any effect.
Right, panic mode – get down the thoughts tht’ve been mulling over in my head since this thread started…
Totally nothing to do with the book we’re discussing, but I don’t agree with “Superman doesn’t get where he is just because he’s nice to people right? It’s because he’s got superpowers and could totally fuck you up if you don’t play nice.”
Exhibit A : All-Star Superman is full of alternate supermen, and the thing that stands out about Kal-El is not his ability to tally fuck people up, but his compassion and selflessness. Haven’t read it in years, but the bit where the Kandorians can’t reverse his illness so he takes them down to the childrens’ cancer ward that popped up incidentally a few episodes earlier really defines the character.
Exhibit B: The first MCU Captain America film, the scene where he leaps on the grenade while the big strong macho candidate goes and hides behind the jeep. Not even a comic, I know, I know…
Ok, got that off my chest. Moving on to the more interesting thing about ugly static artwork. Yeah, Dan Clowes art is accomplished, and totally totally eschews looking cool. It’s ugly, and depicts ungainly people looking sweaty and ill at ease in the world and in themselves. His earlier work in Eightball often has a stylish use of black and white, which the panels shown here don’t – I won’t go off on one about the folly of colouring in comic art that’d be better off not coloured in, I’ve done that in this forum already with Steve Yeowell and David Lloyd recently, IIRC.
A lot of comic artists do cultivate stylishness. Frank Quitely up above has a gorgeous economy to his line, echoes of Moebius. Chris Bachalo springs to mind too – and even with less detailed artists, the likes of Walt Simonson and Mike Mignola put stylishness centre-stage. Clowes is going out of his way to alienate, to make something ugly and clumsy, as an aesthetic and storytelling choice.
Signing off now…
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