My friend's dad once said that I lived in a Daniel Clowes world, and I copied it down in my diary as the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me. His is one of glints of faith-renewal found among depressed landscapes and the lonely freaks discovered as heroes. I was first drawn in at age 13 when I read “Ghost World,” Clowes’ most popular book, about a teenage girl forced to create her own universe out of a grim and boring one. You should know it is nowhere NEAR the levels of cheesiness my description may have just brought to mind — and that it basically taught me how to live. I have two versions sitting on my desert island shelf: the 2008 special edition and a filthy normal copy meant for lending out. Even on a desert island surrounded possibly only by, like, Madagascar characters, I would find a way to share that book.
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"The Daniel Clowes Reader," edited by Ken Parille, is an exhaustively researched map of said world. I would lend this book to someone who has never read a comic book AND someone who has read every "graphic novel" AND anyone else who wouldn't judge me for my copy's multiple annotations reading "OMG," "SO TRUE" and, simply, drawings of teardrops. It's just really wonderful to see something you've spent so much time examining now properly examined by extra smart people.
The book's release coincides with "Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes," an exhibition on display through Oct. 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. It's exciting to get a look at his works up close, to see white gouache used to perfect black lines and new words pasted over old ones (what were they before?!). But the "Reader" offers context for his work in a way an exhibition can't — in his own life, in the lives of his loyal readers, in the history of comics and in alternative culture.
I don't know how to recommend the "Reader" to you without listing everything that's inside. It's accessible without pandering. It conveys the importance of cartooning as an art form without getting jargon-y and annoying. Every feature (beyond the handful of original stories printed in their entirety) strikes an unpretentious balance between plain joyful obsession and exploration of scary life truths. If you've ever felt not cool enough for his work — I know I have — that stops here.
I rigorously underlined lyrics that had been printed in full because characters from "Ghost World" listened to them. I fervently circled each fascinating line on repressed superhero homosexuality in a scene-by-scene Freudian analysis of "Black Nylon." I passionately asterisked the distinctions made between kitsch collectors and clothes horses who are sincerely sentimental, and those who are ironic hipster cowards. I drew hearts around an explanation of Clowes' consistent use of urban romanticism as an assertion of ugliness as truth and, therefore, as beauty. I finally understood my clinginess to things made before I was born through a meditation on "Ghost World," postmodern capitalism and adolescence's suckage: Vintage stuff symbolizes the same kind of purity the teenage brain associates with childhood, you guys! THANK YOU, Pamela Thurschwell, essayist and senior lecturer in English.
Many other anecdotes went starred: how Clowes modeled the gaze of the guy he drew for Coca-Cola's OK Soda series after that of Charles Manson. How he listened to Burl Ives as the ultimate act of rebellion for a 1970s teenager. How a 4-year-old Clowes, at the sight of a family dying of heat on the cover of an old Strange Adventures comic book, burst into tears and began hitting his head against a wall.
That last bit introduces the aesthetic biography portion at the very beginning of the "Reader," tracing all of Clowes' influences starting in preschool years. It also sets the tone for 358 pages of deepening one's understanding of the power of a comic book. Parille doesn't try to elevate comics to their more recent status as a sophisticated medium without offering a detailed history of deceptively lowbrow publishing: an essay is included on the significance of zines in the time of Enid Coleslaw; another note is repeatedly made of comics' advantage over other art forms as immediately nostalgic due to the mass-produced stories so many of us grow up with. Anyone who likes reading or making comics will appreciate the glossary of every kind of comic book convention and tool.
"The Daniel Clowes Reader" is also scattered with carefully curated (no part of it is excessive) excerpts from various interviews with Clowes, and it ends with the cartoonist in his own words. I marked up an excerpt from his "Modern Cartoonist" manifesto and an elaborate explanation of his process more than any other part of the book. By the end of it, I wasn't just noting anything that caused my ears to perk up. I was taking notes on how to create and live — and getting ready to place it on that same shelf where Clowes' other works sit.
Tavi Gevinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of RookieMag.com, a website for teenage girls. In 2012, Rookie published its first print edition with Drawn & Quarterly, and its second one is due out in October.
"The Daniel Clowes Reader"
Edited by Ken Parille, Fantagraphics, 358 pages, $35Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun