Daniel Clowes spent the first half of this decade living in the past. The longtime cartoonist helped assemble a career-spanning monograph (2012’s The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist) as well as last year’s deluxe collection of his influential ’90s alt-comic series Eightball. All this looking back, however, ended up informing Clowes’ first graphic novel in six years. Patience, out now, centers on a man who travels back in time in an attempt to thwart his wife’s murder. It’s his most complex narrative yet, and it brings Clowes, now 54, into the fourth decade of an already legendary career. We talked with him about time travel, digital comics, and—most surprising—learning to have sympathy for yourself.
Time travel is a well-worn trope in pop culture. What prompted you to explore it in Patience?
Time travel is one of those things we all think about: “If only I could go back to third grade, with my knowledge now, and tell that guy some witty retort, my life would be changed.” That’s something that’s always run through my consciousness, ever since I was a kid—that notion of even going back to yesterday and redoing things. It has a primal validity to it beyond the clichéd genre stereotype.
How do you avoid the clichéd genre stereotype?
Well, I did it by not really having any knowledge of the genre. I have only the most passing knowledge of the very basic, Back to the Future kind of stuff. I made a careful point not to read anything about it. I wasn’t going at it as science fiction at all—there’s no science whatsoever in my book. [Laughs.] It’s more about the metaphor of how we think about ourselves in different times and confront other versions of ourselves.
I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of the flowcharts of our lives, how random things add up and affect our trajectories. And if you go back and just jostle them a little bit, everything would change around. I think there are certain days of my life that everything changed to such a drastic degree that if that had been altered—if I had overslept or had a migraine or something—I might be in a flophouse right now.
What was one of those days?
There’s the day I met my wife. I was at a real low point in my life, really depressed, living in Chicago. I was out in California on a very tiny comic book signing tour. And she was at one of the signings randomly, getting an autograph for a friend of hers. She had never read my comics or anything—she knew about the signing from a little ad in the Berkeley student newspaper. And I still know the guy who placed that ad. He was working for the comics store at that time. I always think, That guy changed my life. If he had missed the deadline or something, God knows where I’d be.
The protagonist in Patience speaks disdainfully of “sci-fi bullshit.” Is it fair to say that reflects your own viewpoint?
Not really. I like science fiction as an idea. I like Philip K. Dick and all the obvious guys. But I’m more interested in characters than in the situations they’re in. I always hate in time-travel stories where the everyman protagonist somehow understands all the stuff behind it. I thought it made much more sense with who the guy was that he wouldn’t really feel like he was grasping all the paradoxes.
So where and when would you go if you could travel through time?
I had a really tumultuous childhood; my parents had an angry divorce early on. I really didn’t have a sense of what the world was like in my house, it was all kind of kept from me. So there are always these enduring personal mysteries in my life that would probably be horrible to observe but that I would like to have a better sense of. Also, I never once saw them speak civilly to each other, so it would be really interesting to go back and see, like, They were in love.
Speaking of time travel, last year you released a compilation of your early comic anthology series, The Complete Eightball 1-18—
—which was sort of a big part of why this story had such a grip on me. Before I did The Complete Eightball, I had a monograph and a traveling exhibition of my original artwork. And they were all things that I thought, Oh, I’m going to let somebody else deal with that. And of course, I wound up wasting years of my time on both of them, just sifting through my files, digging out stuff I hadn’t seen in years. I never look at my old comics at all. It’s not helpful to me; I want to think I’m starting from scratch every time. So to dig all this stuff out and to confront this young man who did this stuff was really interesting, and it’s really similar to what the character Jack is going through in Patience.
What kind of things did you learn about yourself by looking back?
I saw times when I was trying to have this sort of gallows humor. I could tell that I was actually deeply sad and reaching out for help in a really inappropriate way—in some cases by just lashing out at the world. Just the naiveté of a young man who had no idea what was going on in the world or what the future could possibly hold. And I gained a real sympathy for myself at that age. It was such a strange time to be a cartoonist back then; there was just no precedent for anything we were doing.
Your last full-length original graphic novel, Wilson, was released in April 2010, the same month the iPad came to market. In the meantime, Web comics have exploded. What are your thoughts on how technology has affected the world of independent comics?
I’m sure [Web comics are] something that I would have been totally into if I were starting now. There’s something very appealing about getting an instant response. But I have such a fetishistic vision of how I like to read comics, and books, too: I can’t read them online. I don’t have the patience when I’m looking at the screen. But as kids like my son grow up looking at screens, it will be very comfortable to read that way. Though, as much of a computer obsessive as he is, my son still loves to sit and read a book in a chair and not on a pad.
Do you have any problems with comics published on the iPad?
I have a problem with my comics on an iPad, because they’re specifically designed, very carefully, to be printed on paper with the color mixtures exact and everything. And whenever anyone shows me one of my comics on a pad, the colors are adjusted weirdly. It’s not at all what I intended. I can imagine people who make TV shows and pour their heart and soul into it, and then when it’s on TV, there’s a little moving ad in the corner for Taco Bell. It’s that kind of a thing.
That being said, will Patience be available for the iPad?
I hope not. [Laughs.] I’m sure it will be, but not in a way that I’ll get any money from. Maybe at some point we’ll put all this stuff on e-books, but it doesn’t really appeal to me. I’d rather just have the books out there.
In January, you pulled your name from consideration for the prestigious Grand Prix d’Angoulême comics award because there were no female nominees. What was your immediate reaction when you saw the list of nominees?
I wish I could make it like I looked through the list of nominees and was outraged, but I didn’t even know about it. Nobody ever tells you these things. And I try to not pay any attention to awards—especially European stuff, because there’s just too much of it. So I had no idea, and then I got an email from somebody who said, “We’re organizing a boycott of this, and it would be great if we could have some of the nominees put their names on it.” And I immediately wrote an email back, saying, “Yeah, that’s ridiculous. I’m happy to boycott it.” But it was like 15 minutes of my life writing an email back.
How did it feel to make headlines for a stance that you took so quickly?
I feel like that’s just the nature of the modern world. You can struggle and work really hard over something and get no notice at all. And then you can do something that fits very easily into a Twitter feed, and it’s huge.
Speaking of making headlines, a couple years back you were in the spotlight when Shia LaBeouf was caught—and then repeatedly apologized for—plagiarizing one of your comics in a short film of his. For someone who’s relatively anonymous in the world of pop culture, how did that feel?
It felt awful. I kept thinking, Man, if this was happening to somebody else, like one of my friends who are cartoonists, I would be loving every minute of it. It would be such a riot to watch it happen. But to be the actual guy was really, really unpleasant. It brought out a lot of disturbed people are. I got [online] death threats, and all I ever did was say, “This is basically word-for-word taken from my comic.” And I would get people saying, “I’m gonna come and chop your head off!” You think, Who cares about Shia LaBeouf that much that they’re going to risk scrutiny from the feds over that?
Clearly nobody chopped your head off.
No. That would have been a good way to die: DERANGED LABEOUF FAN CAN’T HANDLE… [Trails off.] And then there were so many people who would say things like, “He should thank Shia because I never heard of him before this happened,” and I would think, Anybody who would say that is the type of person I don’t want to have ever heard of me.
You’ve made no secret of your distaste for superhero movies. How has it been watching Scarlett Johansson go on from the film adaptation of your graphic novel Ghost World to star in The Avengers?
I’ve never seen it, so I don’t know. But I thought she was fantastic in Under the Skin. I just don’t have any interest in those superhero movies. I’ve taken my son to see a couple, and almost the second the credits rolled, I couldn’t remember what had happened. I realized I wasn’t thinking about the movie the whole time.
Even when I was kid buying every single Marvel comic, I didn’t like superheroes. I just liked the idea of comics, these colorful drawings. I would always read the parts where they’re in their secret identity, where they’re just normal, in their job, and then kind of skip through all the superhero parts. I had friends who would read them and talk about how awesome all the fighting was, and I would think, Why don’t you just watch a movie? Reading the fighting in a comic seems really sad somehow.
Now that Patience is coming out, what are you working on?
I’m starting up a new book. It’s really in the sketch and early note-taking stages.
Are you done with sci-fi for now?
This one I don’t think will have any science fiction. It may be more of a gothic horror kind of thing. It’s a bunch of stories that I’ve had kicking around for years that are starting to come together into something bigger.
Are you thinking along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe?
I’m thinking more Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s not quite horror. I don’t know. There’s just a feeling to it that’s stuck with me for the last few months, and that’s usually a good sign that I’m onto something.