"Everything I Hate Now Is Different":
A conversation with the Academy Award-nominated cartoonist Dan Clowes about Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff, and the world of comics.
By Dan Epstein

Gadfly: Why was Ghost World the project that drew you into Hollywood?

Daniel Clowes: It was more that it interested the people I wanted to work with—who were Terry Zwigoff and this person Lianne Halfon [producer of Ghost World and Crumb]. They both thought those characters could work well in a movie. That was the first time that anyone I had real respect for approached me about working on something with me.

What had people approached you to do before?

Mostly it was independent guys who didn’t have any money. They would want to do something where I do all the creative work and they take credit for it. It made me really uncomfortable when they were pitching to me. They would say stuff like, "You have all these great ideas. If you could come up with a bunch of ideas, then I will direct it and put my name on it." A lot of graduate students, guys who are just out of film school and are looking for something they could afford. But luckily, I didn’t get involved with them. I waited this long, and look what happened. I got involved with a few things early on, little film school projects. I did them because I thought they would be a funny thing to show at a party. The minute they made the thing, the filmmakers would want to send it out to festivals. And you’re attached to these people.

What was it like pitching Ghost World? Explain to me one pitch meeting—did you psychically kill one studio executive’s fish with your mind?

That did happen, yeah. It was a meeting that we shouldn’t have gone to. It was one of those things where somebody calls you down to Hollywood for a meeting, and you go because it’s a free trip and you don’t know what they want. Within five minutes, we knew we didn’t want anything to do with him. He wanted to do some TV show, and they didn’t even know what they wanted. And they wanted us because we were edgy or something. We were just in the worst mood and were trying not to look at each other because we knew we would start laughing like in fifth grade when the idiot teacher is looking at you. There was this oppressive bad mood emanating from us. Then, as we left, the guy says, "Hey, my fish just died." It was truly like the psychic energy destroyed this thing.

You and Terry Zwigoff were planning on making Ghost World with Christina Ricci. Did you and Zwigoff see American Beauty and start thinking about Thora Birch instead?

Well, Christina was attached right after The Ice Storm. She was 18-years-old and I was very adamant that the girls in this film be 18-years-old or less. We could never get the right amount of money to make the film the way we wanted to. It kept dragging on, and then Christina was 21, 22 years old. She just didn’t seem right anymore; she seemed like she was an adult actress and not a teenager anymore. Then we saw Thora. We were so happy that we had waited because she was the perfect Enid at the perfect time. I think Christina could have been great as well. Even Christina was somewhat well-known and might have shaded the character somewhat, while Thora is a bit of a blank slate.

Thora Birch had mentioned that she had hung out with you to get a feel of the character of Enid. What did you do?

I was there the whole time in pre-production and on the set. I think she learned how to play Enid from observing me and Terry and how we acted.

That’s interesting because neither one of you is an 18-year-old girl.

I think she adapted our world-weary sensibility into an 18-year-old girl. I think that’s what the character of Enid is, in some ways. I also think the way that Steve Buscemi played the character of Seymour was not at all from what Terry told him to do but instead from watching how Terry walked around the set.

Would the story of Ghost World be much different if it was two teenage boys?

Yeah, very much so. Boys are just very different at that age. They’re not as developed; it wouldn’t have been believable. It would almost only work if it was two men—one 53 [Zwigoff] and the other 40 [Clowes].

With the character of Enid, both in the film and the book, isn’t not wanting to conform a form of conforming?

That’s a reductive or at least the easy sound bite way to characterize Enid. She doesn’t know what she wants. She’d be happy to conform to something that she liked. But she has a sense that there is a better way to live than what she sees. But she doesn’t know where it is.

In the Ghost World comic book, Enid makes a harsh criticism of Sassy magazine. It turns out that they had wronged you—what happened between you and Sassy magazine?

They had always been really nice to me. If they wrote reviews of other comics, they always mentioned stuff and me like that. Then one day, my wife brought home an issue that had a big illustration by me just taken from one of my books without anyone ever asking me. I figured that I would be really cool about this and instead of screaming and yelling I would just send them a bill for a low amount. I wrote them a letter saying, "You forgot to inform me that you were going to use this, so here is my bill for this illustration." Then they completely ignored me. Then I started writing slightly angrier letters, asking them to please pay me for this. They had all these excuses for why it ran, but nobody was paying me or really doing anything about it. Then they became my mortal enemy after that. [laughs]

I never pictured Sassy having such vengeance and anger.

It was just really annoying. It’s a really obnoxious thing to do, and I could sue them for all kinds of money. And instead I was being nice about it. I’m sure it was some intern that I dealt with the whole time, anyway.

How did John Malkovich end up producing Ghost World?

Originally and throughout the entire film, we were working with Terry Zwigoff’s longtime producer, Lianne Halfon. Without ever mentioning it to Terry or me, she was very close friends with John Malkovich and had produced his stage play of Libra, based on the Don DeLillo book, in Chicago. So Malkovich wanted to start a film production company [which eventually became Mr. Mudd]. The first person he thought of to hire was Lianne. This was right in the midst of us packaging Ghost World; his company then became the production company. He was not really present during the making of the film. He was very supportive of the film and was also helpful in making phone calls when we needed him. He’s a genuinely good guy, which you wouldn’t expect from a big celebrity like that.

I know that you created your book, David Boring, while working on Ghost World. Did the making of Ghost World influence you while creating David Boring?

Yeah, not necessarily making the film but writing the script and trying to get the film made. David Boring is very much about frustration and that’s what was going on in my life trying to get the movie made.

David Boring was very different from what you have done before. To me, it was as depressing as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan.

[laughs] It was a grim summer when those two books came out.

And the book companies promote them like any other book. I wonder if they even read them.

I wonder that sometimes myself.

You said that the book came out of frustrations. So, does that feeling go away once you finish the book?

It’s hard to say. It does to some degree. But the underlying problems that made you write these books never go away. There’s always something new to take their place.

Probably one of the first things I read of yours was PUSSEY! [which collected every story starring the nerdish comic book artist/superstar from the 15 issues of Eightball]. Are you amazed by how much of that book has come true?

I was telling my publisher that I wanted to take that book out of print because it’s so mild compared to the reality of the situation. At the time I did it, it was supposed to be a caricature of the business. Now there are so many more stories that are so much worse that I hear on a daily basis about the comic book business. It just seems pointless to have that book in print.

Well, except for how the older were treated, I thought it was somewhat mild but totally true.

At the time, everybody thought I was the meanest guy in the world for doing that stuff. Industry people were calling me a total asshole. Now I’m sure they would be flattered by it. Pussey! came out of when I first started doing comic books; I really tried to understand the comic book business and go to conventions. I used to feel so alienated because I would be stuck in between two Dan Pussey types. I hated the business I was in. It came out of the anger at that, and then after a while I stopped dealing with that whole part of the comic book world. My anger really dissipated, and now I don’t really care; it’s not something I even think about anymore.

Many creators such as Mike Allred [Madman, X-Force], while selling their books through so-called independent companies, were still much more mainstream than you. Many of them are moving into mainstream comic books for Marvel and DC. For example, there was this book called Bizarro Comics recently released by DC Comics.

I actually did the original cover for that, which they rejected. They hired Chip Kidd; he called me to do the cover. I did it, and I thought it was very funny. The higher-ups at DC did not get the humor of my cover so they cancelled it. Chip and I both quit because of that. Then they got Matt Groening’s assistant to do a cover and sign his name to it, which is about as alternative as DC gets. But then after I saw the book, I was so thrilled that I wasn’t associated with that thing. It had a few stories that were okay; like that Tony Millionaire story was really nice but boy, most of it was such crap. I couldn’t imagine that anyone was buying it. The great news I heard was that they made the price on the book so low they're actually losing money on every copy sold.

They were able to get this banned Superman as a baby story into it. So that was good.

Yeah, supposedly they are going to use my cover in their next book. So they will keep banning something, then reprinting it later.

How did you end up doing the poster for Todd Solondz’s film, Happiness?

Todd Solondz is a friend of Terry Zwigoff. When Todd first wrote that script, he sent a copy to Terry. I read it and loved it. Right after that, Todd called me up and said he wanted to do a comic book adaptation of it to promote it. I told him how much work it would be and how I would never be able to finish it in time. We decided that wasn’t going to work out. Three or four months later when the film was coming out, I got a call from the ad agency and they said they wanted me to do the poster. I said, "Oh, you must have talked to Todd." They said they hadn’t; it was just a coincidence. I think there is something about my work that lends itself to that film. Also, I couldn’t imagine anytime in my life spending my time adapting someone else’s work, whether it’s a film or a novel. I’m really just interested in doing my own stuff when it comes to comic books.

I had heard that you and Zwigoff had some problems with the editing of Ghost World.

Not really, that’s something that’s been exaggerated. After the shooting of the movie, we had three hours of usable footage so we had to cut it down. I think it’s actually too long even as it is, by Hollywood standards. We had to cut an hour's worth of material. Every little thing that’s cut is painful for both of us. We argued, but I think we argued less than anyone else would have in that position. We really got along almost 100 percent.

I think it was New Yorker magazine where I read that.

That guy really tried to blow it out of proportion. That was his thesis—that I was an outsider in this situation—but that it is not true at all.

Dan Clowes

You felt good about the collaboration?

Yes. If I had done it all by myself, it would not have been as strong; and if Terry had done it all by himself, I don’t think it would have been as strong, either. It’s really good that we had each other for support.

All of us geeks were really nervous about the film.

Everybody was, believe me. There is a lot of pressure when you do something like that because 99 percent of the time they come out horrible.

You’re obviously a fan of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar. I first heard of Zwigoff when he was running around Pekar’s house. When did you first hear of Terry Zwigoff?

Well, I had known about him for years because I had all those R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders records when I was a teenager. I was like, "Who’s this funny looking Charlie Chaplin/Albert Einstein-looking guy on the back?" Crumb always draws Terry in his strips as this kvetching little hunched-over homunculus figure with no mouth, always complaining about his back. I felt like I know more about Terry than I should just from reading those comic books. I first met him right after he finished Crumb. He got in contact with me, and we became instant friends.

Terry Zwigoff

It’s amazing that he stuck with the project for so long. Usually filmmakers do their damnedest to a film about every two, three years or so.

As someone who intimately got to see why it took so long, it's like we were working everyday on this film for years. We’d do something—write the script or be thinking of new ideas—then all of sudden five years have gone by.

Was it less frustrating for you because you were writing and drawing comic books over that time and plus your books usually take a long time to do, anyway?

In the time it took to do the movie, I did three comic books and basically did the movie as a hobby. With Terry, he was living and breathing that film everyday—the hell of waiting around for phone calls when you have nothing else to do.

You’ve said your childhood was ""perfect if you want your child to grow up to be a cartoonist."

[laughs] That’s true.

Would you want the same childhood for your kids?

No, it’s mainly because I was very isolated and that’s no fun for a kid.


Did growing up at your grandparents' stir your interest in things retro?

I think to some degree. They were pretty modern; old people aren’t necessarily into old stuff. They want all the latest things. I remember showing my grandmother these neat things I found from 1902. She would say, "Why do you want that old thing?" That’s the way people who grew up in the Depression were. They could have all this new shiny, cool stuff. They don’t want to be old. They want to be young. I think it was just something ingrained in me. Cartoonists tend to be nostalgic types; it's part of the personality makeup. Somebody needs to do a psychological study of the mind of a cartoonist—because there are all these common traits, at least all the good ones.

In 1991, Chris Ware joined you and other artists to create improvisatory comics. What are those exactly?

They are something that will never be seen… no, just kidding. We printed them up actually in the early nineties. It was my best friend in Chicago, Garry Lieb. We used to meet up in this coffeehouse every Thursday night. On the back of those band flyers we would improvise comics, which ended up being basically pornography. After a while people like Chris Ware, Terry LaBan, and Archer Prewitt started joining us. Then it became this really serious thing where we were all trying really hard. It became not fun at all. It became drudgery every week to go do this. But we did several hundred I think. We all have copies. They’re waiting until only one of us is left before they're printed.

Do you actually think Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is stupid?

I’ve tried to read it like two or three times, and it's just annoying to me. I’m not the right audience for it.

Were you ever much into mainstream comic books?

Not since Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC, though I still joylessly bought them until I was fifteen-years-old, just filing them away and not reading them.

And you also really dislike Kevin Smith films.

Yeah, I’m not a fan of his. I just don’t get it. It just seems obnoxious.

I only thought Chasing Amy was really any good.

I would have to say that is the only one I have been able to sit all the way through, and I have never had a more disagreeable film going experience. I guess that is the least obnoxious movie of his. They are not for me.

Why was Ghost World colored in blue hues?

I thought it looked cool. It was just an experiment. Originally, I thought Ghost World was going to be only one story. I didn’t know I would continue it. I didn’t think about it anymore than that.

I thought it was funny that it was the book that got so big. You do so many.

You never know.

Why did it seem to connect?

Well, I think everyone in the world was an alienated teenager, whether they admit it or not. Not everyone was a pimply comic book artist. The other books don’t have that universal appeal.

Ghost World seems to have made a lot of money for what it is. Have you been offered much outside of the work you normally do?

We’re negotiating to write another screenplay, which I would write all by myself. That’s my next thing. I could definitely get paid a lot of money to do something I didn’t really want to do, then never work again. But luckily, I’m old enough to know not to do something like that.

Are you excited about all the Oscar talk with the film?

To me, it seems so outlandish to even think about it. But that would be great. I think it would be great if Thora or Steve got a nomination. He’s been doing it for so long, and now here’s a chance to make up for all of that.

Was the role that Buscemi played going to be either Don Knotts or Steve Buscemi?

(laughs) We were dying to get Knotts in the film. But he’s quite old and almost blind. We kind of felt even bad making him leave the house to do something. Just let a guy like that rest. I didn’t want to put him in the film just to do it. I hate that kind of idea. He’s done enough great stuff on his own. But that painting of him in the film is good enough.

Which is harder, the writing or the drawing? Why?

Well, with the writing you have to hope it comes or not. Sometimes it is easier, and sometimes it's not. The drawing is something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. The hard part is knowing what is good and what isn’t. That’s where the experience comes in.

What’s coming up for you?

The new issue of Eightball just came out. It’s the first color comic book I’ve done and the first self-contained issue of Eightball ever. I’m starting work on my new screenplay, which hopefully will be directed by Terry Zwigoff.


How come you’ve stuck with Fantagraphics for all these years?

Another cartoonist at Fantagraphics said that their motto should be, "Fantagraphics, because who else are you going to go to?" Gary [Groth] and Kim [Thompson] have been able to find a way to keep their business afloat for 25 years now, which is pretty amazing. They’re not great at doing big promotions or anything like that. They’re basically honest, though they are a little slow at paying. I trust them, and I know what to expect. I’ve been with them since 1985. Eightball is their longest-running title.

Do you still hate things as deeply as you used to?

Everything I hate now is different.