How Daniel Clowes Reinvented Comic Books

How Daniel Clowes Reinvented Comic Books

“My earliest memory is of anxiety!” cartoonist Daniel Clowes tells an interviewer in The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, the first serious monograph of the work of this seriously funny and seriously ambitious artist. Anxiety rules much of Clowes’ world, but it’s the anxiety that comes with questions of identity and belonging—all wrapped in a quirky and hilariously human package. “Unlike most writers and artists who take it for granted that human beings naturally seek each other’s company,” writes friend and fellow cartoonist Chris Ware, “Clowes seems to keep asking: What is it we really want from one another, anyway?” It’s Clowes’ complex technique matched with such deep questions as that one that lead at least one critic to claim that Daniel Clowes has reinvented comics.

Kristine McKenna lists Clowes’ themes as “longing, shame, loneliness, cruelty, and compassion,” which he handles with “a very light touch” despite their profundity. “That’s the great art part,” she adds. Clowes’ parents divorced when he was 2 (hence the anxious earliest memory), his stepfather died in a car accident when he was 5, and he had heart surgery in 2006 at the age of 45—just a few highlights of misery. Asked if he was depressed as a child, Clowes responds, “Not as a child—I got to that later.” “Later” meant the depressing experience of striving to become a working artist after graduation from art school. “I don’t think we’re in control,” Clowes muses. “I think it’s mostly random.” The closest Clowes comes to a secret to life is when he offers that “[l]ife is much easier when you’re only aware of your own little orbit and the injustices in that. Once you become aware of the global situation, as far as injustice, it’s almost too much.” Think locally, not globally, when it comes to wrong in the world, Clowes suggests, something that comes out in his often insular, but always intimate brand of darkly humorous analysis.

Eightball, which ran from 1989 through 2004, first showcased Clowes varieties of anxieties. The cover of no. 17 from August 1996 (shown above) looks like Clowes’ subconscious laid bare, complete with Freud himself at the piano. “Eightball is different…” Clowes wrote in a two-page advertisement for the series, “it might be a little bit scary at first… there’s some ugliness, gratuitous violence and weird sex… but stick with it…” In that free-form forum Clowes created a cast of characters grotesque yet familiar as versions of ourselves. Sex in myriad forms predominates in Eightball, but only to draw out the flaws of individuals and social mores in what volume editor Alvin Buenaventura calls Clowes’ “sardonic take on American culture.”

Almost all of Clowes’ major projects (Lloyd Llewellyn, Pussey!, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, David Boring, Ice Haven, and The Death Ray) got their start in Eightball, which he stopped writing in 2004 to concentrate on such larger projects. Work on two film adaptations of his cartoons (Ghost World in 2001 and Art School Confidential in 2006, both directed by Terry Zwigoff) brought Clowes’ work to larger and larger audiences. But as Clowes seemingly got more “commercial,” he actually got more and more nuanced and mature. “What started as pleasingly manic chaos,” Chip Kidd writes, “has graduated into something more mature, bold, and sharply focused.”

Clowes’ Wilson and Mister Wonderful stand as his, so far, crowning achievements in the eyes of these critics. Ken Parille goes so far as to claim that Clowes has reached “the end of style” in a style-less style of sorts found in “[t]he narrative complexity of his post-Boring comics [that] works in unison with their highly accessible cartoony surfaces.” Using a generous helping of visual examples (the entire book is a feast of Clowes’ imagination on display as much as a catalog of his evolution), Parille shows you as well as tells you exactly how “[b]y the end of the post-Y2K decade Clowes had completely reinvented comic-book storytelling.” Big words, but Parille shows how Clowes can back them up, especially in the masterpiece Wilson. Clowes draws the title character in a variety of styles—all drawn from the visual lexicon of comic history stored in his head—so seamlessly you might miss what those differences are doing. “Each style communicates Wilson’s feelings about himself,” Parille believes. “Unknowingly, he becomes the visual narrator who inflects each page’s images with his thoughts and emotions at that moment.” Yet, Parille continues, “[d]espite Wilson’s many styles, there’s only one Wilson.” Clowes illustrates the very “paradox of identity” in which we’re constantly shifting yet still somehow “stable in our essence,” Parille explains. It’s deep stuff, but Clowes makes the comic medium seem the perfect outlet for exploring it.

In his hilarious tribute, “Who’s Afraid of Daniel Clowes?” Chris Ware writes that “[a]s does Robert Crumb, Clowes draws like nature,” while “[a]s did Vladimir Nabokov, Clowes writes like water.” Making Daniel Clowes sound like the odd love child of Crumb and Nabokov would make a great storyline for Eightball, but in the real world it works, too. The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist demonstrates in words and pictures just how central Clowes was and still is to the modernization of cartooning to the status of high art in a seemingly low-brow package. If you want to know what’s been happening in cartooning in the last 25 years—and what will be happening in the next 25—read The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist.

[Image: Daniel Clowes. From Eightball no. 17, August 1996. Copyright Daniel Clowes.]

[Many thanks to Abrams ComicArts for providing me with the image above and a review copy of The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, edited by Alvin Buenaventura.]

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
Surprising Science
  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
  • The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
  • The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
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If we do find alien life, what kind will it be?

Three lines of evidence point to the idea of complex, multicellular alien life being a wild goose chase. But are we clever enough to know?

A scene from the 1996 Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

Credit: "Mars Attacks!" / Warner Bros
  • Everyone wants to know if there is alien life in the universe, but Earth may give us clues that if it exists it may not be the civilization-building kind.
  • Most of Earth's history shows life that is single-celled. That doesn't mean it was simple, though. Stunning molecular machines were being evolved by those tiny critters.
  • What's in a planet's atmosphere may also determine what evolution can produce. Is there a habitable zone for complex life that's much smaller than what's allowed for microbes?
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