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IFOA 2011: Daniel Clowes and the Merits of Quietude

The International Festival of Authors is in full swing, and Friday night, Daniel Clowes was crowned King of the Comic Nerds.

Daniel Clowes (left), in conversation with Seth, admits that much of his insight into the minds of teen girls came from being the quiet kid at parties. Photo by Laura Godfrey/Torontoist.

Daniel Clowes may be the popular guy at the alternative comics table now, with the success of comics such as Ghost World, Wilson, and the recently republished The Death-Ray, but he’s still unsure of how to react to a crowded room full of eager fans. “It’s basically like lifting up a log and expecting the worms to entertain you. This is the most light I’ve ever seen in my life,” he joked Friday night at the International Festival of Authors, where he was interviewed by renowned Canadian cartoonist Seth (Palookaville).

Still, the audience wasn’t complaining. As a seminal artist during the growth of alternative comics in the 1980s, Clowes has some stories to tell. When he was 18 years old, for instance, he tracked down the reclusive cartoonist Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, who happened to be living above a hardcore pornography theatre in New York. “This was before 42nd Street was like a Disney store,” said Clowes. “This was a really sleazy area; it was right out of Taxi Driver.” When he finally made it up to Ditko’s front door, though, all he got was a fleeting glimpse of the apartment and a door slammed in his face. “That was probably the greatest moment of my life.”

Anything for our idols, right?

Luckily, despite his supposed proclivity for dark basements, Clowes himself seems happy to cater to his readers. During the Q&A session, one female audience member referenced a scene in his cynical cult classic Ghost World that captures an uncanny understanding of the minds of certain teen girls. In the comic, recent high-school grad Enid, upon seeing an old man walking along the sidewalk, turns to her best friend Becky: “Oh my God, look! That little old man bought those pathetic flowers at the grocery store to take home to his wife! Oh God, it’s so cute I’m dying!”

The exploits of Enid and Becky may not describe everyone’s teenage experiences, but it certainly struck a nerve when it was published as its own comic book (or “graphic novel,” depending on who you ask) in 1997. And according to Clowes, a lot of that perspective came from being the quiet guy at school. “I was the kind of guy people would invite to parties but then forget was there,” Clowes explained. “So I would just be hanging out in the background, and then all of a sudden it would be like seven girls and me, and they would completely forget I was there. I felt like, ‘I’m hearing the real stuff they say when no one is around!’”

When artists like Daniel Clowes and Seth were growing up, comics were only just starting to be sold in mainstream bookstores, and being a fan of Iron Man was something to hide from a so-called “normal girl” if you wanted to keep her interest. Even within the comic world, there was a division between superhero creators and those who aimed for realism. “I always felt like I was in actual battle with those mainstream guys,” said Seth, “[… but] that has really mellowed out over the years—especially because those superhero guys won.”

He may have a point, inasmuch as we’ve lost track of the number of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man lunchboxes and movie adaptations we’ve seen. But there’s more than one way to measure success—the lineup to meet Clowes and Seth after the event was proof of that.

Opening Weekend at the International Festival of Authors:


  CLAY
SHIRKY
  DANIEL
CLOWES
  GARY
SHTEYNGART

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