I've never been a fan of Daniel Clowes, but a recent art book has changed my mind.
Not that I don't admire Clowes' craft and skill -- I do, I do. He's the writer/artist of the "Ghost World" graphic novel, and the screenwriter of the 2001 movie (starring Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi and a teenage Scarlett Johansson).
His writing is nuanced, subtle and open to interpretation; his artwork is detailed, meticulous and professional. Everything in a Clowes story is thought through and has meaning, from the size, shape and placement of word balloons to the use, or non-use, of color (both indicating any number of things, from chronology to emotional state). These are all good things.
What puts me off about Clowes' work is that a major element -- often the entire point -- is the inability of some human beings to form genuine emotional connections with one another. His protagonists are usually sad, damaged loners who are socially maladroit and painfully unhappy. I have shied away from Clowes' work because it usually depresses me unutterably.
Of course, that's catnip to English majors, especially the ones who have become literary critics. Clowes is a huge favorite of the literati. His 2007 work "Mister Wonderful" was serialized in the New York Times Magazine, and he is a frequent cover artist for the New Yorker. This makes Clowes somewhat in demand in cultural centers such as New York and Hollywood, unusual for a comic book artist.
Which all leads to the inevitable coffee-table book, "The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist" (Abrams, $40). The editor, Alvin Buenaventura, takes an unusual approach with the book (which almost seems a requirement, given the subject matter). Instead of writing endless pages analyzing Clowes' career and work, he has collected (or possibly commissioned) a number of essays about different Clowes stories or chapters in the artist's life.
Some names are familiar (Chris Ware, writer/artist of "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth"; Chip Kidd, award-winning book designer and writer), but most appear to be literary critics of some kind. This brings a more highfalutin brand of review and analysis than you usually find associated with comics, and forced me to re-examine my assumptions about, and antagonism to, Clowes' work.
In fact, it converted me. Now that I understand so much better what he's doing, I might be ordering such collections as "$&!: The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection," "Art School Confidential," "The Death-Ray," "Ice Haven" and "Wilson." After reading "Modern Cartoonist," you might feel the same.
Or you might just do a monologue about it and remain sad and lonely all your life before dying quietly of cancer. In which case you might be in a Daniel Clowes book.
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