When people talk about comic books, and comic-book movies, they often only talk about superheroes, even though some of the best don’t have superheroes. Dan Clowes is someone who understands this, having penned both the books and subsequent screenplays for Ghost World and Art School Confidential. But he did dabble with superhero doings in The Death-Ray, in which a teenage boy discovers (by smoking a cigarette) that he has special powers; he inherits an instrument, the titular death-ray, that can annihilate anyone he chooses. The story, which was first published in 2004, was reissued last week and is also on its way to becoming a movie. Vulture caught up with the author at his book signing at the Housing Works Bookstore Café and got a progress report on which of his projects are being embraced by Hollywood, and which can’t seem to find any love.
Of all the things that could give you special powers, why smoking?
I think it’s because when I smoked, it made me feel like a different person, like I was an adult — a cool, brooding, interesting person sitting at the bar, you know? And then I realized it’s just an adolescent vision of what makes you an adult, and I thought it would be the perfect trigger for an adolescent to become a superhero.
Because he has very adolescent notions of what being a superhero means.
Superman’s always chasing after someone who just mugged somebody, and I’ve never seen that happen in my life. You never see a purse snatcher. What are the odds of that happening? There was a guy in Seattle recently who dressed up as a superhero, and he pepper-sprayed someone in the face, and it turned out it was a couple who were having an argument, and he misinterpreted it as a man attacking a woman. And that’s clearly coming from the insane view of someone who dresses as a superhero. That was exactly what I wrote this book about! [Laughs.]
You seem to bristle whenever anyone brings up Kick-Ass
I’ve actually never read or seen Kick-Ass. I just know it came after The Death-Ray [first appeared in Eightball], and when it came out, people said, “Oh, that’s a lot like The Death-Ray,” and now that this book has come out after the movie, people are like, “Oh, that’s a little like Kick-Ass.” And that’s the kind of thing I deeply resent, so I don’t want anybody thinking I’m responding to it.
The thing is, your protagonist has special powers, and a weapon. The guy in Kick-Ass has neither.
Oh, he doesn’t? I didn’t know that. [Laughs.] See? That’s very different. I won’t even have to address this question anymore. Now I know. I’m glad you told me. It’s more similar to Thor or something. [Laughs.]
You were planning to adapt Death-Ray into a film, with Chris Milk directing. How’s that going?
I have to finish another draft of the script. It’s really kind of an inversion of the story, where it’s more about the older version of the character than the younger, so it works. It makes sense, you’ll see.
Are you still scripting an adaptation of Wilson?
I finished a draft, and everybody seems very happy about it. Alexander Payne was making another film that was all ready to go, Nebraska, and Wilson is next. I’m about to go to Omaha in a few weeks to talk to him.
He’s trying to get Gene Hackman for Nebraska, but some of his other candidates would probably work for Wilson, too.
Robert Forster, that would be a great part for him, actually. If he can only hang on for a few more years! [Laughs.] No, he’s in good shape. I love him. I don’t know if we have something for someone as big as Jack Nicholson, though. But Alexander is a genius, and he’ll find the right guy. Everybody’s always very curious what I have in mind for casting, but I’m always thinking of actors from 1937! Like Sidney Greenstreet [who played “The Fat Man” Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon], or [B-movie villain] Rondo Hatton.
You had a great lineup for Megalomania — Steve Buscemi, Juliette Lewis, Seth Rogen. Why did that one fall apart?
When Michel [Gondry] made The Green Hornet, that took him away from that for two years, and when he came out of it, he just had no interest anymore. I think we both thought because it was an animated thing it would be really easy to get it made, and then we realized the budget for animation is actually higher. And he just took so long making that Green Hornet. Damn Green Hornet! [Laughs.] Maybe someday he’ll be into it again, but I can’t even remember what it’s about.
It’s a world where everyone is bald, and hair is a source of power
No, I do remember. [Laughs.] I just can’t remember all the nuances.
So that makes two movies you were going to do with Michel, including Master of Space and Time.
That never got beyond the two of us going to pitch meetings and trying to get people to give us money. We didn’t have an ounce of work into that. We just loved the book, but one producer said, “This would be like a $150 million dollar film, and it would make like $200,000.” Literally, the main actor switches from male to female in the middle of the film, so you lose your star, which is a great thing for a Michel Gondry film, but not a $150 million film. It just had no chance.
Did Raiders, the one where a group of kids would do a shot-by-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, have a chance?
It died the day the fourth Indiana Jones movie got green-lit. I got a call from my agent, “Put your pencils down,” because Paramount said we would never fund this dumbass little thing. That’s their big tentpole franchise, and they’re not going to have something that might confuse audiences. I also think they thought we were making fun of Raiders, but we took Raiders as gospel. They were the only company that could have made it, which is the frustrating thing, because they own the rights, obviously. And we can’t make it with Indiana Smith. Cincinnati Smith? Plus the new movie killed the idea of it being a relic from the eighties, because now it was new again.
So you’re about to have a museum show? Following in the steps of Tim Burton?
It’s like being Tim Burton, without all the millions of pesky fans to get in your way. [Laughs.] Like I’m a real artist. And then you get all these people digging through your closet, “Here’s a funny photo of you when you were 7,” which I’ve had my whole life, but now it’s out there in the world. Strange.
On your way to immortality
My wife’s grandma is 103. Still lucid, still calls us up on the phone, uses an iPad. That’ll be my claim to fame: My grandmother-in-law is the oldest iPad user!