If you can imagine a bricklayer who's had it up to here with bricks, or a pastry chef who's frankly a little ambivalent about the whole flour and sugar deal, then you get Daniel Clowes.
He works with words and pictures, but he's pretty suspicious of them. Wary. Quasi-antagonistic. When he draws, he longs for language; when he writes, he yearns for visuals with no dialogue at all.
That creative discontent — Clowes calls it a "seething quality" — operates like a hybrid engine just beneath the surface of his graphic novels, making them zip and buzz, leap forward and rock sideways. It makes them funny and surprising and occasionally disturbing, in a Is-this-guy-really-serious-here? sort of way.
"I always feel like the guy who's trying to give directions and then says, 'Let me draw you a map,'" said Clowes, 50, from his home in California. "I try to do stories that you could sort of follow without reading the words, if you couldn't speak English, you'd still get it. Once you see their faces, you know what they're going to say."
Clowes (rhymes with house) and fellow artist Seth, two of the most gifted, adventurous and inventive cartoonists at work today, will visit the Chicago area Thursday for an event at which they plan to interview each other. Clowes, who grew up in Hyde Park and graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, is the author of the cult favorites "Eightball" (1989) and "Ghost World" (1997); the latter was turned into a 2001 film starring Scarlett Johansson. His new work is "The Death-Ray" (Drawn & Quarterly).
Seth, also 50, lives in Ontario, and is the creator of the comic series "Palookaville" and the graphic novels "Wimbledon Green" (2005) and "George Sprott (1894-1975)." The latter was serialized in The New York Times Magazine. His new work is "The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists" (Drawn & Quarterly).
While Clowes' work is large and colorful and comes across as an ironic anti-homage to traditional comics — loud sounds are indicated by "Boom!" and "Crunch!" and scatological language is dropped as casually as cigarette butts in the alley behind a bar — Seth's work is quieter and more intricate. In his fictional Canadian hamlet of Dominion City, his characters amble and grieve, harboring their unfulfilled desires and private shames, and keeping their heavy coats closed around their secret hearts. When they walk down the dark streets of Dominion City, their footsteps echo forlornly against the cold pavement.
Reading Seth can be an overwhelming emotional experience. It's like unearthing a trove of letters in the family attic that, you gradually realize as you turn the fragile pages, records an ancient love affair between one of your parents and somebody you never heard of. The letters make you unbearably sad, reminding you of lost dreams and passions now crumbled to ash, but they also make you grateful to have discovered this new dimension of someone about whom you thought you knew everything.
"As I get older, I realize more and more that I'm writing about isolation — but not depression," Seth said. "I feel there is a baseline quality of sadness to human existence, but it is completely counterbalanced with joy."
He knew by his early teens that he wanted to be a cartoonist, said Seth, whose given name is Gregory Gallant. He changed his name in the 1980s, he said, when he joined a punk band and liked the idea of a one-word moniker.
"You grow up reading fantasy-based comics — so when you think you want to be a cartoonist, it seems like something you could really do. But when you hit your 20s, that's the turning point. You realize you don't want to do Spider-Man or a newspaper comic." Instead, he wanted to use cartooning to do something deeper, richer, stranger — such as decorating made-up cities and filling in their long, ornate, completely fictional histories.
"I'm as interested in description as I am in storytelling. I'm not as interested in human beings as I am in places — fake cities, fake places," he said. "You can flesh it out bit by bit."
Seth's work is often described as nostalgic, a label he loathes. Certainly his books have the look of a bygone era, with their large sedans and fedoras and tweed overcoats, like a TV set with the channel permanently set on Turner Classic Movies. But he's aiming at a much bigger target than ordinary reminiscence.
"I have a problem with the word 'nostalgia.' It is a narrow, pejorative term that drags you down. As a pursuit, nostalgia isn't very interesting. My work is about looking back — but my characters aren't trustworthy," Seth declared. "If my character is saying that the past is better than the present — don't trust that."
Yet the ugliness of the contemporary world, he admitted, is what motivated him to ransack the past for its elegant details.
"I complain every day about the ugliness, about how bad things have gotten. I walk around a city and I think, 'It's like living in the leftovers of some grander time,'" he said. "We live in such an opulent culture. It's a shame we don't use that skill to create a more beautiful place."
He finds his consolation in cartooning, Seth explained, despite the arduousness of the art. "So much of cartooning is refining and compression. You're constantly polishing each little element. It's like building a dollhouse. It's an art of the miniaturist — like painting on a grain of rice."
For Clowes, the goal is the opposite: Instead of creating an environment in his work that is specific right down to the notch in the rim of the ashtray in the tavern down the street, he wants to make a world more generalized and accessible.
"I'm always trying to make it as timeless as possible," he said. "To me, the best response is when people assume the comic is set in the town they live in."
His sense of place was first anchored on Chicago's South Side. After his parents divorced when he was very young, Clowes and his mother lived with his grandfather, who taught history at the University of Chicago. "The campus has such a medieval, fairy tale quality to it," he recalled. "My grandfather would take me around and we'd visit all his friends. We'd hang out with Saul Bellow — which at the time meant nothing to me.
"As a kid, I was so inspired by the stuff I was looking at. I was exploding with desire to be a part of it. I had an older brother who bequeathed me his gigantic stack of comics from the 1950s and '60s. It was my only form of entertainment. Like a typical Hyde Park family, we didn't have a TV."
But he was convinced he had to leave Chicago to be a cartoonist. "I was smitten with the idea of New York," Clowes said. "I had a fantasy that I'd walk into the offices of MAD magazine and they'd welcome me with open arms."
It didn't work out quite that way. Long years of apprenticeship followed. But when Clowes was finally able to see his own vision fulfilled in the pages of a graphic novel, he populated those pages with all-too-real teenagers such as Andy, the dopey, mopey star of "The Death-Ray," a nihilist suddenly endowed with the power to make his rage count. "Who am I?" Andy asks. "Your worst nightmare."
Daniel Clowes and Seth will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., Oak Park. Admission is $10 and can be applied to book purchases. The event is sponsored by The Book Table, 1045 Lake St., Oak Park.
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