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Cartoonist Daniel Clowes on Creating Wilson and Understanding the Alt-Right

Daniel Clowes

If the alt-right were a fictional movement in an eerie comic book, it’s easy to imagine Daniel Clowes being the guy who dreamed it up. Not because he’s a hatemonger — far from it. He’s a soft-spoken, politically liberal cartoonist from Oakland who’s generated a body of tenderly humanist work over the course of a decades-long career. But he does have an uncanny ability to conjure eccentric, misanthropic loners who spend a lot of time alone seething about how the world has wronged them. In works ranging from Ghost World to Art School Confidential (both of which have been adapted for film) and David Boring to Patience (the latter of which is being adapted as we speak), he’s given us a pantheon of brilliantly oddball protagonists.

Few are odder than Wilson, the star of the eponymous graphic novel Wilson, which Clowes released in 2010. It follows the adventures of a lonely middle-aged man who complains to total strangers about his grudges with society and teams up with his ex-wife to track down their long-lost daughter. The book is as funny and heartbreaking as the rest of Clowes’s work, and it’s just been transformed into a feature film starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, with Clowes penning the screenplay. We caught up with him to talk about designing the character, understanding online trolls, and why he avoids film sets.

One of the thing that strikes me most about Wilson, as a character, is how much he looks like himself, if that makes any sense. You take one look at him and can tell he’s going to be a malcontent who makes people uncomfortable. How did you build out the way Wilson looks when you made the graphic novel?
The way that I imagined him dressing, is the way a … If you went to a science-fiction convention in the ’80s, there’s a certain way that all science-fiction authors used to dress. With a kind of not-clean button-down shirt that they had taken to the laundry and had pressed a year ago, and it still had the press to it, but it’s a little coffee-stained and half-tucked-in. Black pants that probably looked okay until they got stains from the subway on them. And mismatched old brown shoes. It was this standard look. One day, I noticed it and was like, Everybody here is dressed that way! That’s how I saw Wilson dressed. I actually thought for a little while thought of making him a science-fiction author. Every once in a while, I’ll see a guy like that, and I know he’s involved in old-school SF fandom.

What about his forehead? It’s quite pronounced.
Yeah, I wanted him to have this sort of intense look about him. I wanted him to almost be scary in certain panels, where he’s got these bulging eyes that are staring straight ahead and this intense, bulging, dolphin-like forehead. I just wanted to imagine his brain as racing and thinking at all times to the extent that it makes his forehead bulge or something.

How did doing Wilson differ from doing Ghost World and Art School Confidential?
This one, I didn’t want anything to do with making a film. I did that twice and it was fun to do, but it’s not my thing. I don’t think it’s a good way for me to work at all. I don’t like to get up early in the morning and be forced to be creative and work on somebody else’s schedule. It’s no fun and I don’t feel like I do my best work in that world. And as a writer, you’re really kind of useless on a film set. You can help people with little suggestions, but nobody really wants you there.

So, with this film, I decided, I just want an experience where I’m gonna write this script. I wanted to write a script that didn’t have a lot of visual suggestion. I wanted to write it in a very Spartan way, where the filmmaker can add their own thing to it and hand it off. I actually wanted to not see it until it was out in the theater. That was my goal, but it’s hard to avoid, when you’re having to do publicity and stuff. I’ve had to see it now three or four times.

And was seeing it a positive experience?
It wasn’t the experience I was hoping for, which was to be able to see it as a movie without even thinking about my involvement in it. To have this completely unvarnished experience of, “Hey, I’m watching a movie called Wilson.” And of course, the second it starts, I’m like, “Wait, where’s that scene that I …” and “Why didn’t they use that line?” You can’t see it that way. But I found, I think the last time that I saw it, it was probably the third time, I was able to watch it as a movie and I really got into it. I really, really liked it. I was really laughing my head off.

The ending of the film is substantially more optimistic than that of the comic. Why switch around the tone?
That was something that came in the process of making the film. I wrote an ending somewhat similar to the ending in the comic. In the comic, I imagine, in the end, a lot of time has passed. But I always think that doesn’t work in a movie, when you all of a sudden have somebody who’s supposed to be much older and they’re wearing some kind of weird makeup. I felt it needed to be more in the timeline of the last part of the story. Then, when the director was making the film and editing, he saw a different version of Wilson was coming through, and different emotions were coming to the fore, and that it didn’t really work to have a super-downbeat ending.

But it’s really a matter of how that last scene is edited. There were versions that were very grim and just sort of cut out at a certain moment; that felt really like a deathblow. And there were other versions that were even more hopeful. So I think Craig found a balanced tone on that one. I think every film has an alternate ending, because that’s the hardest part to get. On all three films that I’ve worked on, the ending that was conceived and written in the script is very, very different than what actually happens in the editing room.

Did you have any interactions with Woody Harrelson before the movie was done?
My wife and I got to go to the set for two days, so we got to meet him and all the other actors and kind of be there. On the other films, I’d be there the whole time and you’re in the way of the guys in the crew and everybody’s sick of you. But when you just go for two days, everybody’s like, “Wow, it’s the writer! Here’s the guy! This is his book!” And they’ve all read the book. I was a big deal for two days. But if I stayed another two or three more days, it would’ve been like, “Okay, now get out of our way.”

And you have a fourth movie in the works. How’s the adaptation of your latest novel, Patience, coming along?
I’ve started. I’m sort of roughing it out, getting an outline down. That one’s gonna be a tough slog. So I’m gonna be working on it for a while, I would guess.

Will you be more hands-on with that one?
No, I think I’m hands-off from now on. It’s not a fun use of my time. I’m really devoted to doing as many comics as I can, where I have to hang up the green eyeshade that we cartoonists all wear. [Laughs.]

Huddled over the drawing board.
With our sleeve garters.

Speaking of isolated comics work, you’ve said in the past that you’re a longtime megafan of recluse comics pioneer Steve Ditko, the guy who co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Why did he speak to you when you were young?
It wasn’t at all about the way the individual drawings looked. It’s about how they worked as comics. I was coming of age in the mid-’70s, when a lot of things were just about stuff like Barry Smith and those guys who were all about drawing these detailed, Pre-Raphaelite images that didn’t really appeal to me as comics. The characters all felt like they were just drawings, rather than people. And Ditko, you felt like, These are living, breathing people who exist in this weird country that only Steve Ditko knows about. They all look like they were from the same gene pool, and they all felt like they were a projection of his own particular worldview. That’s what I’ve always strived for, because that’s where the real power of comics lies. That kind of expression of your own inner self through these characters.

Much like a lot of individuals in your work, his characters usually looked startlingly ugly. In an artistically fascinating way, but still.
He probably didn’t necessarily see it that way. I’m sure [co-writer] Stan Lee was like, “Make [Spider-Man alter ego] Peter [Parker] have a cute girlfriend!” and then [odd-looking love interest] Betty Brant is what he came up with. My guess was that’s just his aesthetic. His women often look like men wearing wigs. Betty Brant often looks like Peter Parker wearing a wig. I just think of it as an incestuous gene pool that he’s drawing from. It’s like when you see portraits of royalty and they all look kind of alike, they all have the same nose or something.

Are you a fan of his weirder, self-published stuff?
If you say “his weirder stuff,” I literally have no idea what you’re talking about because that could be everything. [Laughs.]

Fair enough. I was thinking about his Objectivist superhero Mr. A, the guy who murders people who violate the teachings of Ayn Rand.
Oh yeah, of course! I remember reading Mr. A when I was 16. I remember reading it and thinking, I’ve got to live this way. Ditko thinks this is the right way. There is no grey area. But I just can’t do it. If ever there were a living example of how a philosophy plays out in real life, it would be Ditko. Instead of being the multi-millionaire celebrity that he could be, he’s still the angry guy in his little studio in New York. You gotta love that, but you also gotta think, most libertarians or Randians don’t imagine that’s the way it would turn out if you really committed to it. I’m not sure how many of ’em would get into it.

People probably think you, too, are a misanthropic loner, like your characters. Are you?
I mean, I’m alone. Like, all the time. I have a wife and child, so I’m socialized to some degree to deal with other parents and stuff. But I spent my teenage years almost entirely alone, drawing and reading comics with a couple of friends. It kind of set me on a pattern of thinking of myself in a solitary way. I don’t think of myself in relation to groups of people, and if I have to spend a lot of time interacting with groups of people, I get really overloaded. Exhausted. That’s part of the reason I don’t really like working on the movies. It’s just too much. It takes too much energy. I’ve always had the theory that you can kind of tell how a comic artist grew up by looking through their comics and seeing the way they draw — draw the world and draw characters. My comics are filled with lone characters walking through cities — and I’ve lived in all the big cities in America basically my entire life, and that’s my vision of looking at myself at a distance.

That said, one thing that’s striking about Wilson is that it’s actually about a guy who embraces the world. He cares so much that he’s irritating — he wants to interact with people and celebrate the good things and denigrate the bad things. He believes in human interaction in a way that few of us do. It’s just that most people don’t like talking to folks who do that.
When I first did the book, my wife read the book and said, “You’re the guy who Wilson is sitting at the table with in every strip where he annoys somebody.” I have the kind of face where people feel like they can talk to me and tell me their problems. There will be 20 people at a coffee shop, and the Wilsons of the world will sit next to me and start talking to me about their problems and stuff. But on some level, I totally admire that. And I have a couple of friends who are like that. Where if you go out with them to a restaurant or something and you go to the bathroom and you come back, they’ll be talking to somebody and exchanging cards and they’ll be like, “Oh, this guy works for so and so.” And I’m totally not that person, but I really, really admire it. So in many ways, Wilson is like somebody I look up to.

Other than the Patience screenplay, what are you working on right now?
I’ve been plotting out a new comic for a while. I felt really rattled by the Trump election. I felt, This clearly is gonna be invading my thoughts to such a degree that I have to make sure whatever I’m working on resonates with it in some way. Because I was really starting to write this [new] book with the thought that, Yeah, when Hillary’s president … and I was sort of imagining the pitfalls of that. This bitter division and all that, but still in the realm of normalcy. Now that we have this kind of daily barrage where you can’t look away, it feels like I need to rethink some of the stuff for the story so it resonates more closely with what’s going on.

Your fellow cartoonist Matt Furie recently had the surreal, horrible experience of seeing his chilled-out creation Pepe the Frog become an international hate symbol. What character of yours is most likely to have that happen to it?
It’ll be the one I least expect. Some guy in the background of a panel I don’t even remember. Twenty years after I’m dead, it’ll be like, “Daniel Clowes, the creator of the Toupee Guy.”

It does sorta feel like a lot of your misanthropic loner characters have something in common, spiritually, with those alt-right losers.
No doubt.

I’m glad you agree, because that was a bit of a weird thing for me to say.
Yeah, I completely agree with that. It’s the type of horrifying American that I would use in some way. Not to glamorize, I would hope.

No, no. Is there some part of you that goes, “I completely disagree with absolutely everything you believe, but I do kind of get your personality on some level?”
Oh, for sure. There are levels of evil that I really can’t wrap my head around. Where you try to plug yourself into somebody’s life and imagine, how did you get to this point where you could commit atrocities — I can’t do that. I don’t have that strong of an imagination. But some loser on the internet who’s seething? I can figure that one out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Cartoonist Daniel Clowes Talks Wilson and the Alt-Right