Daniel Clowes Biography

Graphic novelist

Daniel Clowes

Born April 14, 1961, in Chicago, IL; son of an auto mechanic mother; married Erika; children: Charlie. Education: Earned art degree from the Pratt Institute, 1984.

Addresses: Home —Oakland, CA. Office —Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115.


Contributor to Cracked magazine, 1986–89, including "The Uggly Family" series; worked as a freelance illustrator; signed with Fantagraphics, 1986, and launched his own series with them, Eightball , 1989; hired by the Coca-Cola Corporation to provide the graphics for its shortlived OK Cola brand, 1994; contributor to Esquire magazine's 1998 fiction issue; adapted his original stories of Ghost World with director Terry Zwigoff as a motion picture of the same name, 2001; co-wrote film Art School Confidential , 2006.


Daniel Clowes' funny, subversive tales have made him the leading underground cartoonist in the United States and beyond. In 2001, one series of his, Ghost World , became a critically acclaimed movie that did surprisingly well at the box office, too. Since then Clowes has made another movie with director and Ghost World collaborator Terry Zwigoff, but Art School Confidential failed to capture the same enthusiasm with critics and audiences alike in 2006. Each film featured Clowes's mordant humor and anti-establishment anti-heroes, trademarks of his work in his long-running Eightball comics series. "Clowes' characters," wrote Sarah Kuhn in Back Stage East , "are often described as outsiders, misanthropes, and malcontents; it bears mentioning that they are also wonderfully real, tinged equally with melancholy and humor."

Born in 1961 in Chicago, Clowes is the son of a woman who was an auto mechanic, and his parents divorced when he was still quite young. His stepfather, a race car driver, was killed in a crash when Clowes was four, and he was sent to live with his grandparents in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Clowes recalled that the pair "bought all of their stuff right after the war, down to the canned food and Perry Como records, and basically never bought new stuff," he told Sarah Van Boven in an interview for Newsweek . "I felt like I was living in the past my whole life."

Clowes led a solitary existence as a child. His grandfather was a history professor at the University of Chicago, and though renowned writers and intellectuals came to dinner at the house, he was included only as an observer. "I spent my whole childhood not saying a word," he explained to Guardian writer Craig Taylor. "I would just sit there not being able to participate, so I fixated on the rhythms in the way everyone talked. I wasn't listening to the content, just to the various little quirks and tics. That was the way I got through the boredom I was subjected to every night. And this was people like Saul Bellow sitting at the table."

From an early age, Clowes was fascinated by comic books, and spent years absorbed in the irreverent humor of Mad magazine. He also exhibited an artistic streak, and spent countless hours drawing standard comic-book figures and, later, characters of his own creation. When it came time for college, he was accepted at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, but his art-school experience was not a fulfilling one, and his comic-book pretensions were derided. "Here I am spending hundreds of hours creating a narrative with words, while someone else puts a tampon in a teacup and calls it art, and all they can do is give me a lot of blank stares," he told New York Times journalist Jori Finkel years later. "The students were not interested, and my teachers were actively discouraging."

Clowes spent a few lean years after graduating from Pratt in 1984. Unable to find work as an illustrator, he drew comic strips merely to keep busy, and one day went to a comic-book store. He picked up a title called Love and Rockets , one of the early series issued by what would become the leading graphic-novel publisher in the United States, Fantagraphics, and sent some samples of his own work to their Seattle offices. Fantagraphics called and offered him a contract, and his debut series featured a heavy-drinking private detective, Lloyd Llewellyn, which first appeared in Love and Rockets .

In 1989, Clowes began to produce Eightball for Fantagraphics, a series that allowed him to create one-page topical riffs in addition to longer, serial-format stories, such as the one that eventually became Ghost World . Others included Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron , which centered around the travails of the half-woman, half-fish Tina, and Orgy Bound , about a boy with a peculiar sexual fixation on insects. The last two series were collected and published in book form in 1993 and 1996, respectively.

Clowes remained largely unknown outside of the devoted readership of underground comics, but that began to change when he met Terry Zwigoff in 1994. That year, Zwigoff had scored a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival for his documentary about the life and work of the legendary R. Crumb, considered the founder of underground comics in 1968 with the first issue of his immensely successful Zap Comix . Zwigoff heard about Clowes through Crumb, who liked his work, and contacted the younger cartoonist, who was by then living back in Chicago. The pair began working on the screenplay for Ghost World , which featured two bored, cynical teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, who spend their time critiquing the world and the raft of humanity that lives on it with a defiant contempt.

The screenplay took months to write, and an even longer battle brewed with the studio executives who wanted the film to look a certain way, star well-known teen actors, and even have a sappy, double-wedding ending for Enid and Rebecca. In the meantime, Clowes still produced Eightball for Fantagraphics, and in July of 1998 became first cartoonist ever featured in Esquire magazine's annual fiction issue with his six-page story, "Green Eyeliner." He and Zwigoff—who had signed on as director for Ghost World —held out and eventually won over the studio bosses, and their movie became one of the surprise hits of 2001.

In the film version, Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson played Enid and Rebecca, and were joined by Steve Buscemi, who played Seymour, an aging collector of vinyl and vintage Americana who is initially one of the victims of the personal-ads phone pranks the teens like to pull. The plot centers around the post-high-school graduation uncertainties for both: Enid must make up an art class over the summer in order to actually get her diploma, while Rebecca dreams of her and Enid pooling their resources and getting their own apartment. Enid is appalled, however, by the coffee-shop counterperson that Rebecca becomes, one of the very people they used to mock. Further complications ensue when Enid seems to develop romantic feelings for the loner Seymour.

Ghost World earned superlative reviews from most critics. "Its incisive satire of the boredom and conformity that rule our thrill-seeking, individualistic land, and also its question-mark ending, reminded me of The Graduate ," wrote New York Times critic A. O. Scott, who also noted that the filmmakers "never waver in their sympathy for Enid and often share in her withering contempt for the world around her. The movie makes fun of ignorant video store clerks and highbrow cineastes, educators and parents, the politically correct and the politically incorrect." Writing in Time , Benjamin Nugent commended Ghost World as a refreshing change from the usual teen movies filled with well-dressed, assured young men and women, and hailed it as "the Heathers of the new century, the movie that shows how morose and furtive an ordeal growing up can be."

Clowes and Zwigoff were nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay in the category for works based on material previously produced or published, but lost out to A Beautiful Mind . They were eager to work together once again, and came up with a new project based on Enid's art-school class and the smarmy teacher, played by Ileana Douglas, who belittles her efforts. The end result was their next film, Art School Confidential , for which Clowes had written a part tailored to the actor John Malkovich, one of the producers. Malkovich had liked Ghost World so much that he asked Clowes and Zwigoff to keep him in mind for future projects, and they cast him as an unctuous professor at a prestigious American art school where the film's main character, Jerome Platz, begins his studies with an ambition to become the world's best-known artist.

Platz was played by a relative unknown, Max Ming-hella—son of Academy Award-winning writer/director Anthony Minghella ( The English Patient) —in the 2006 film, which takes place at the fictional Strathmore Institute. Minghella's character is disturbed to find that his top-rated school is rife with "poseurs, phonies, goof-offs, blowhards, and members of the artsirati—including … Ethan Suplee as a talentless would-be filmmaker, and Jim Broadbent as a fetid failure of an alumnus," wrote Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly . "Jerome learns that the reality of art-world success has nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with scheming."

The plot of Art School Confidential hinges upon a series of unsolved murders, which more than one critic felt was a poorly thought-out storyline. The juiciest praise came from the interaction between students and teachers, familiar to anyone who ever took a higher-level art course and endured the group critique sessions in which students judge one another's latest work. Austin American-Statesman reviewer Chris Garcia called it "a multihyphenated satire-romance-murder mystery that finds traction on none of these fronts. It wanders, arms outstretched, bumping into things, before dropping with a huffy sigh of resignation." Scott, the critic for the New York Times , compared the film with Ghost World and found a clear difference in their protagonists. Enid, Scott wrote, "was mean-spirited but also clear-sighted, and she served as a sympathetic foil for the audience and the filmmakers alike. Jerome is a murkier, mopier character, and the movie grinds its gears, much as he does, between defiant romanticism and nasty cynicism."

Clowes lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, Erika, and son, Charlie. He spends ten hours a day working in his studio/office, from which he still produces the Eightball series. One of its more recent serial stories was "The Death Ray," which featured his first superhero protagonist. Predictably, the nerdy Andy—who discovers his superhuman strength when he takes a few puffs from a cigarette—uses his gifts to lay waste to his tormenters. Despite the bleak humor, Village Voice writer Robert Ito called Clowes's newest tale "infinitely more human than any of the superhero series it parodies, and about as funny as any tale about a homicidal loner has a right to be."

Clowes has ventured into writing an original screenplay based on a real-life tale: he was fascinated by the story of three boys from Mississippi who in 1982 began to make their own home-movie version of Raiders of the Lost Ark , which took them seven years to finish. Though he never harbored any plans to work in the entertainment industry, the side work is unexpectedly fulfilling, because "the great thing about film is it's so malleable, right up 'til the very end. You can change things drastically just by putting different music on a scene or reediting things," he told Gordon Flagg in Booklist . Even if future screen projects fail to garner him any more Oscar nominations, he is contented—more or less—to have fulfilled his childhood ambition. "It's like a kid who wants to be a fireman when he grows up and becomes a fireman: It seems like it's really emotionally unhealthy on some level," he admitted in the Back Stage East interview with Kuhn. "Perhaps I should have developed more responsible goals."

Selected writings

       (comic book series), Fantagraphics (Seattle, WA), c. 1980s–.
Lout Rampage , Fantagraphics, 1992.
Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron , Fantagraphics, 1993.
The Manly World of Lloyd Llewellyn: A Golden Treasury of His Complete Works , Fantagraphics, 1994; published as The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection , Fantagraphics, 1997.
Pussey , Fantagraphics, 1995.
Orgy Bound , Fantagraphics, 1996.
Ghost World , Fantagraphics, 1998; revised edition, Ghost World: The Film Edition , 2001.
Caricature , Fantagraphics, 1998.
David Boring , Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Terry Zwigoff) The Ghost World Screenplay , Fantagraphics, 2001.
20th-Century Eightball , Fantagraphics, 2002.
Ice Haven , Pantheon Books, 2005.


Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), May 12, 2006, p. E5.

Back Stage East , May 11, 2006, p. 8.

Booklist , March 15, 2006, p. 39.

Chicago Tribune , May 11, 2006.

Entertainment Weekly , May 12, 2006, p. 56.

Guardian (London, England), November 3, 2001, p. 60; July 27, 2005, p. 4.

Newsweek , April 27, 1998, p. 70.

New York Times , July 20, 2001; April 30, 2006; May 5, 2006.

Print , July-August 1998, p. 90.

Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), October 20, 2002, p. 22.

Time , July 30, 2001, p. 54.

Village Voice , July 27, 2004.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: