Daniel Clowes / Modern Cartoonist

by John Dugan

I interviewed Daniel Clowes for Nothing Major, where I am editor. 


If there’s an artist one doesn’t associate with triumphant returns, it is Daniel Clowes. The comic book artist and graphic novelist’s career has been characterized by wry humor, a darkly underground viewpoint, and dramas that are far from life-affirming in groundbreaking comics such as EightballGhost World, and Mister Wonderful. The Chicago-raised Clowes broke into the mainstream with 2001’s Terry Zwigoff-directed film adaptation of Ghost World. But he’s not known for writing Hollywood endings. This week, however, he returns to Chicago a much bigger deal than he ever thought with a new exhibit, "Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" at the MCA, looking back on his career in more than 150 works dating from 1989. 

Organized by the OMCA in Oakland, "Modernist Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" opens at Chicago’s MCA this Saturday and features two commissioned works resembling windows on a Chicago frozen in the 1970s of Clowes's youth.

Clowes and curator Susan Miller give an artist talk Saturday, June 29 at 1pm; tickets are $10.

We called up the cartoonist, now residing in Oakland, to talk about his early days, keeping the inspiration flame burning, and underground culture pre-Internet.

Nothing Major: This show has been touring for a little while. It started in Oakland, right?
Daniel Clowes: Yeah, I don’t know if it counts as a tour when it’s only in two places. It’s like two points make a line rather than a pattern or something.

I guess if you have to go sleep somewhere else that’s not your house it’s a tour.
I had to get on a plane to attend it, so I guess that’s a tour. 

Your work has been very much about sending up pretension, and now you’re the guy having the retrospective; you’re the one with your name on the marquee. Are you able to have a healthy appreciation for that success or does it make you uncomfortable at all?
I mean, I guess sort of the thesis of my early work was: Why aren’t these comics in the museum instead of this other stuff?—never actually imagining that would happen. Now that it’s happened, you get that weird feeling of like ‘Uh oh, can I make anything happen? Did I sign a pact with the devil and then have him erase my memory or something?’ It just seems so unlikely. I have no real response. I can’t accept it as anything other than just some weird quirk.

 Eightball No. 8. 1992.

Right, it’s like your worldview was shaped at a certain point, and even if the world’s completely changed you still have the same worldview.
Yeah, I just can’t even grasp the reality that something I would have imagined, this ludicrous possibility, could ever take place. 

Photo: Abigail Huller 

You went to Pratt, right?

You were probably around some people that were more ambitious to make it in the art world.
Yeah, everybody. I never thought of ever being in a museum or gallery, none of that. It never appealed to me in the slightest, I never ... the idea of being seen by only a few people in a gallery rather than dozens in print somehow didn’t appeal to me at all.

Was it a kind of a populism in that you wanted your work to be wildly available, or was it more like your image of yourself? They wouldn’t be interested in you, therefore you have to find a different audience that would be?
I mean, that wasn’t even a self-image. It was a world I never thought of as an outlet for what I was doing. I like the idea of ‘Here’s my comic; have one.’ It’s just something that anybody can read. You know, it would be out there in the world. This was certainly before we had the ability to send photographs of our genitals to strangers in other countries. You know, it seemed like having a pen pal or something. I just thought of having a comic that some kid in Omaha, Nebraska could read really felt like you were reaching out to the world

New Yorker cover. 2010.

In the ‘90s, whether one was a fan of indie comics or underground music, you really had to hustle to find it especially if you weren’t in a major city, and you'd form these connections, these bonds with these people because you’d actually have to write letters to get something.
Yeah yeah. I mean, I always think of the ‘90s as the golden age of that because there were certain worlds and places to aggregate that sort of stuff. When I was growing up in the ‘70s, we were all just alone. There would be you and one of your friends trying to find something about Sam Fuller movies or something and it was just so difficult and you’d never be able to see them. You’d just wait until they were on TV or you’d find some film book that listed them or something. You just had no idea. Then years later, you’d meet the other five guys who were like you, who were living in their cities and it just felt like ‘Oh my god, how did we ever figure anything out?’ It’s all stuff you can find in 30 seconds now.

Yeah, or you could watch the complete movie. 
Right, get bored with it.

Eightball 17 (cover), 1996. 

Eightball, if it came out now, people would find out about it on blogs. I’m wondering, does the way the discovery process has changed, does that pose challenges for you as someone who’s in publishing, just in terms of how you think about the final product of what people are going to get?
You know, to me, when I was growing up, the way I learned about everything was I would go to a used bookstore and I’d just look at all the spines and you’d have no idea what any of them were. You’d go to the humor section, which is where they put all the cartooning stuff, and you’d see this one kind of weird spine and something made you take it down and every once in a while, couple times a year, you’d find something that was ‘Oh my God what is this, I know nothing about this, this is something I’ve got to figure out what this is.’ That was always such a profound moment for me and I’ve realized that that’s not gonna happen anymore. That’s what I was always kind of hoping for was that my stuff would just wind up in used bookstores and some 16-year-old in 2018 would find it, and I realized that’s not going to happen. It’s hard to connect with some version of myself out there in the world. I don’t imagine myself actually going to used bookstores in 2013 if I was 16 years old. I can’t really envision the final aspect of the process of the reader picking up the book and reading it. 

Does the idea of presenting your work on the iPad or anything like that have any appeal? I know it sounds terrible but also, you’re also probably a realistic person on some level. This person that’s discovering stuff might be looking at it on an iPad.
I guess I don’t like the idea of it being too easy somehow. I don’t feel like I need everybody to read this stuff, I need people that are actually going to connect with it and really pay attention to it to read this stuff; that’s all I’m really interested in. I don’t like the idea of it being just like ‘Oh I’m going to try this. Oh I’ll read a couple pages and now I’m going to check my email and now I’m going to read this other thing.’ I’d rather, I don’t know, if there’s a way to make it so people who read stuff on an iPad really sit down and read the whole book at once... I don’t know. I’ve never read anything on an iPad. 

I haven’t read more than a page or two.            
Yeah, I'll read like my email or something.

The Death Ray (cover), 2011.  

Right. When I got into Eightball, one of the things, now that I'm a little more socialized is...
Good for you.

...there’s kind of an element of loneliness and alienation being kind of the raw materials in those stories that I related to. Now that you’re in a different part of your life, do you find that you’re writing different things and what are the sort of themes that have replaced those for you?
I’m not sure anything has replaced them. I’m still spending eight hours a day in a room by myself looking at a piece of paper trying to make sense of something. As you get older your anxieties expand to all different areas of your life, but I think the same kind of core emotions are there in some ways. I have a family, so that’s somewhat different than being an isolated guy in his little one-bedroom apartment in Wicker Park, twenty-some odd years ago.

Eightball 18, 1997. 

I was looking at some of the Mister Wonderful stuff and it’s a more grown up version of being very isolated.
Oh yeah, which is far worse too. When you’re young and isolated there’s always that hope, but when you’re middle-aged it’s not going to get much better 

Basically ‘This is what it’s all going to be like?’
Yeah, that Mister Wonderful story. I think young people read that as like ‘Oh what’s the big deal? If that date doesn’t work out he’ll try somebody else,’ and I think people, my age or older, who read that, it’s really almost like a horror comic where it’s like ‘Oh man, if this one doesn’t work out he’ll never be able to summon the energy to ever try that again.' You know what it’s like. 

A lot of what you’ve done is completely invert what DC comics or old Marvel comics were about, which was an all-powerful, gifted superhuman, dealing with things of major consequence to the world like the existence of the world.

Wilson, 2010. 

If you flip that around, it’s like barely acceptable guy on the fringe who’s just trying to get one lucky break in his life, right? That’s the complete inverse of it.
I certainly see that as occasionally a criticism of my work. ‘His work is just about the most downbeat losers and who wants to read about that?’ I often think that my charactersI think of them as just average normal people. And I’ve got to assume that more than half the people who make that accusation are probably far worse off than the character they’re talking about.

Right, right.
It’s like they’d love to be that guy. 

I was thinking more like they’re kind of unexceptional.
They’re self-aware or sort of intentionally not self-aware in some way, or they have something that makes them controlling in some way.

Do you think that’s still what interests you as far as subject matter, that’s not going to ever change? 
No, no, it changes all the time. I mean, I’m interested in finding characters that sort of keep me attached to them for a long time. There’s certain characters, that youthat seem like they’ll yield something and after a couple pages you think ‘ah I’m not really connected to this person.’ I try to kind of start with a character that’s really kind of like a bull in a china shop, like someone who’s really either self-destructive or has some quality that’s compelling, like you want to see what’s this guy going to do. Not necessarily to like the guy starting out, but just to feel like he’s going to be interesting and that, sort of through the process of the story, try to figure out what his, a way to like this guy, a way to sort of connect with his humanity in some way. That’s why often the stories start off really kind of reckless and funny and wind up a little more, I wouldn’t want to say sad, but with a slightly different tone than the way they began.

Your background could be described as Mad Magazine and punk rock, which of those do you think is more important to you?
They’re almost the same thing but I mean, Mad Magazine is in my DNA. That was literally how I grew up. Probably the third image I saw after my parents was Alfred E. Neuman’s face everywhere in my home. I feel like I know those, you know like the same way you would know what it’s like to walk around your old neighborhood where you grew up or something. They’re just all in the pathways of my brain. And punk rock, the way I sort of experienced it, which was not as a sort of political thing the way it was in England. To me it just seemed like this ridiculous sort of expression of ‘We hate all this idiot crap we’re stuck with here in late '70s culture.’ A certain number of us just did not respond to all that, what was popular at the time, and it seems like this great rejection of it. It really sort of started and ended with The Ramones for me. I was always just trying to capture that feeling I had when I first saw them. All the other bands I was interested in, they never would approximate that in some way. Nobody ever captured that same feeling for me. In the long run, that was sort of all I took away from it.

The Christian Astronauts, 2009.

That’s as pure as you can get then. Start with the best and finish it out. When I was reading Eightball I remember trying to picture what life was like where the author was living that he would create these characters.

Were you really influenced by where you were living at the time? Were the characters in Eightball drawn from people you would see on the sidewalk?
I’ve always tried to drawI don’t like to say draw from life or I don’t want to use sketches and photographs, although I used to back in those days sometimes. I want the world to look the way it looks when I’m just recalling something or thinking about something. I want it to have that slightly filtered quality where it’s as much of my own vision as possible because that’s what I like to see in other artists. So I’d spend all day walking around Chicago over in Hyde Park growing up or Wicker Park where I lived when I was in my 20s. That was absolutely the way I saw the world. When I look at those old comics, it’s just pure Chicago; it just hits me. They almost smell like Chicago.

Right, right.
It’s clearly what it’s all about. 

Photo: Terry Lorant

I've read about you being hyper-tense and almost hyper-anxious about the drawing you’re working on, and how that translates into the feeling that would come from the image at the end of the day. That would be hard to do all the time over the long run. Do you have to summon that feeling of anxietyor does it just kind of depend on the project?
It’s sort of the part of the process the anxiety gets placed on. It smooths down a line. It started out where just figuring out how to tell the story in panels produced the anxiety. How in the world do you do that? And then once I got comfortable with that it was how do I get these characters to look perfect and these lines to look perfect, and I was really struggling to achieve something that was in my head that was beyond my capabilities. And so there’s this tension between what I wanted it to be and what I was able to achieve, and then at a certain point I was able to hit that more times than not and then the tension becomes on all of these, like you’re trying to make it not look sort of comfortable. You want the images to always be exciting so you feel some kind of electricity when you’re looking on the pages, and that became sort of the focus. So there’s always some level of anxiety; it just sort of shits places. The thing I’ll say that makes me less anxious now is when I screw something up I know I can fix it. I don’t freak out about it because I’d be like 90 percent done with a page and I’d screw something up and I just couldn’t look at it and I would throw it away and start it all over. That’s a terrible use of your creative energy because you just dissipate all of your energy and you can’t get it back.

The unpredictable life of Flosstradamus

by John Dugan

Spend a night with the young DJ duo whose name will soon be on everyone's lips-and everyone's playlists. By John Dugan

Photos by Marzena Abrahamik

Photos by Marzena Abrahamik

Chicago DJ duo Flosstradamus (Josh Young/J2K and Curt Cameruci/Autobot) has only been around since Fall of 2005, but the stars (or perhaps the beats) have aligned to make 2007 the group’s national breakout year. With three turntables and the skills to blend a club tempo playlist that treats everything from indie to crunk as fair game, Floss has gone from creating chaos at a non-descript Boystown bar to banging the hippest parties nationwide. Flosstradamus is at the center of the city’s emergent underground dance-party scene, where the covers are low; the beats are fast; and the rappers, DJs and partiers are particularly chummy. We tagged along for a night out with Floss and entourage when the boys made their triumphant return to a monthly residency in Wicker Park. We were not, at any point, disappointed.

7pm, St. Ben’s 
We knock on the door at Flosstradamus HQ, a compact single-family home in St. Ben’s. Inside, J2K sits around with New York–based Fader editor and DJ Nick (Catchdubs) Barat trading music files from laptops while MTV Jams screens a Swizz Beatz video. The conversation revolves around music and fashion. “Whoa, he’s still got ski goggles; he’s still keeping it alive,” says J2K about Swizz’s “uncle” style.

7:30pm, Floss studios (upstairs)
A narrow wood-paneled stairway leads upstairs to Autobot’s bedroom, which is filled with piles of clothes and a neatly arranged ball-cap collection. A remix session is in progress, and Autobot shows us how he puts the Floss touch on a familiar tune, the Who’s anthem “Baba O’Riley”: He throws a steady bass drum, hand claps and some tambourine underneath, then winds it up to a bumpin’ tempo. He wants to use the mutated track as an intro to tonight’s set, the duo’s monthly residency at Subterranean. He spends the next ten minutes tinkering while J2K hunts for his laptop’s power cord. We chat about Floss and where the duo is headed. Indisputably, the star-making moment for the local DJ outfit is right now. The group built its name at loft parties, a monthly session at the Town Hall Pub in Boystown called Get Outta the Hood and eventually regular slots at forward-thinking clubs like Sonotheque.

In March, Floss turned up the volume at numerous gigs at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. “We seriously made a noise,” Autobot says. An URB cover story and a DJ mix they crafted for Vice Records further amped up the Floss buzz well beyond Chicago.

The duo has largely set aside remixing and producing to hit the road. “We’re striking while the iron is hot and getting our tour on,” Autobot says. The boys recently went to Europe, supporting Craze and A-Trak, though taking an opening slot was “weird” for a duo accustomed to bringing down the house with its three-turntable sets. “We had to learn a bit. It was kind of humbling,” Autobot says. A few minutes later, with turntables packed in the trunk, the group heads for Wicker Park.

9pm, Subterranean, upstairs
J2K’s sister Melissa arrives. Together, they make up the rap duo Kid Sister: quick rhymes with a South Side drawl from the lady, who J2K eggs on. Melissa, radiating star quality, tells us she’s recording one-offs to build hype for her debut album, due this summer. She recently sang on a U.K. house track “about beepers” and joined Floss at the Coachella festival in late April.

9:30pm, backstage
Clubbers start to show up as Autobot spins a warm-up detour into soul and reggae before he turns over the tables to Catchdubs. Kid Sister talks about Tarantino’s flick Grindhouseand graphic designer Dust La Rock. It’s decided that J2K’s tee “is just too crazy” so he turns it inside out, while Melissa’s put-together ensemble (neutrals, jewelry) is a winner. “I’m tired of this hipster stuff, I wanna look like a woman,” she says.

J2K also explains why Floss aren’t the mash-up artists they’re often made out to be: He says  they simply create traditional hip-hop “blends” that “involve putting two tracks on top of each other,” and they usually work live.  Some of those blends include Floss-created samples they dial up with additional beats and rhythms before dropping them into their sets. Some of the tunes they’ve reworked like this include the Beatles’ “Twist & Shout” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

The band area is filling. Chicago rappers the Cool Kids take the stage—or a slice of it, as there’s a growing entourage around the decks.

12:15am, onstage
Just as Autobot is about to step up to the mixer, he’s accosted by a lady who sounds like a feisty ex. He evades her, hits the turntables and works in OutKast’s “B.O.B.” and Green Velvet’s “Shake and Pop” as spazzy local MC Hollywood Holt commands the crowd to “juke,” then get their “hands up.” Melissa tells the crowd it’s her “first sober show” as she takes the microphone and bangs out a set of her animated odes to fabulous living (including “Pro Nails” and “Telephone”) with J2K chiming in.

12:45am, upstairs
After dramatic dead air, Floss comes on, with Autobot’s “Baba” intro working. The stage is crazy, the joint is sticky and a few tracks into the set, folks are asked to make some space just before the duo launches into an updated version of hip-hop staple “Apache,” complete with a blistering synth bass line. A kid in a fedora and white tie boogies a few feet from a girl at the edge of the stage in a classy charcoal frock. Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” comes on at 1am, as bits of Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch” weave in and out.

Floss crams in more crowd-pleasers, including versions of “This Is Why I’m Hot” and the group’s ravey “Act a Fool” remix. Peter Björn and John’s “Young Folks” closes out the set as the room lights turn on and security kicks everyone out. The guys have gigs in Orlando the next night, Chicago on Friday, Atlanta on Sunday and New York on Wednesday. They’re running ragged and seem eager for June to come around, so they can hunker down, do remixes and start working on something to call their own, something that lasts longer than a damn good party.

Os Mutantes | Interview

by John Dugan

For the many fans who fell in love with Brazil’s influential psychedelic group Os Mutantes during the three decades since they stopped playing together, it’s a dream come true that this cult favorite is having a reunion tour. And it’s a bit of a freak-out because they’re coming to Chicago for the first time to play at next week’s Pitchfork Festival. 

But what seals the deal is the fact that Os Mutantes (pronounced “ohs moo-TAN-chees”; it means “The Mutants” in Portuguese) founder Sérgio Dias will rock the giant, gold-plated, custom-made guitar—with distortion and delay effects built in—that his elder brother Cláudio handcrafted in the late ’60s. (Cláudio, though never in the band as a musician, engineered many of Os Mutantes’ custom instruments and effects.) “We’re gonna blow your head off! Get ready, man,” Dias laughs.

Once universally praised for its Technicolor pop-art albums—which combined literary references like Don Quixote with samba and psych-rock—the group had a May show at London’s Barbican that brought brothers Sérgio Dias and Arnaldo Baptista together onstage for the first time in 33 years.

Like the young Beatles tuning into Radio Luxembourg, the teenage brothers first heard rock via shortwave radio in1960s Brazil and formed a band with Arnaldo’s girlfriend, singer Rita Lee. The trio went on to become the backbone of the kooky, intellectual and artistic movement Tropicália, which rebelled against Brazil’s cultural and political stagnation. Mutantes made its way to Paris, where the band cut an English-language album. But tension between the brothers, heavy acid use, and Arnaldo and Rita’s breakup led to reshuffling in 1972, a move toward prog-rock in 1974 and the band’s eventual demise in 1978. Lee went on to Brazilian mainstream stardom and Mutantes faded into obscurity—Dias played jazz and new age, and Arnaldo spent some time in a mental-health facility.

But the band’s inimitable sound developed a cult following: Kurt Cobain invited the group to tour with Nirvana (even though it hadn’t existed for 15 years), members of Fugazi collected paintings by former Mutantes members, and Beck named his 1998 Mutationsalbum in their honor. Mutantes’ earlier albums became available on CD in the late ’90s—David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label issued a compilation of early material, and this year the group’s catalog is being reissued worldwide by Universal.

In one sense, the Mutantes comeback is right on time. “God, can you imagine if we surfaced in the ’80s?” asks Dias, who’s stayed hip producing underground acts in his São Paulo studio. “This would be a total disaster. It didn’t have anything to do with us. Now, I think the musical scene is more toward what we did and what we do. I think it was a very healthy way to come back and come alive again.”

It’s unclear who sowed the seeds of the reunion, but Dias’s account points to an ambitious festival curator in England. “I started to receive mail saying that we were going to play in London, and then suddenly we started to talk about it because we didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “It was really amazing. Suddenly I was talking to Dinho, the drummer, and he said, ‘If you want to, we can try. I can try to play.’ I never heard him say anything like that before.” Lee won’t be joining the band, citing family commitments. “She will always be a Mutante—she is more than welcome to come over,” Dias says. Brazilian pop singer Zélia Duncan will sing Lee’s parts on the U.S. tour.

The brothers and drummer Dinho (who joined the group in 1970) will play as part of a ten-piece band to reproduce the multiple layers of Mutantes’ recordings. “There’s a lot of things to be covered,” Dias says. “We don’t want to use a damn computer and play with a click. Everything is played. There’s flutes, there’s recorders.”

Mutantes will also mix in some English-language versions of songs to court the American audience. In addition to Pitchfork, they’ll play venues such as the Fillmore in San Francisco, where Dias saw psych blues band Ten Years After at age 17. “It’s outrageous—we’ve never been in the States and suddenly I’m going to be playing at the Fillmore,” he says. “It’s something that can make someone very humble and humbly proud of the right decisions that we took when we were at such an early age.”

Os Mutantes headlines the Pitchfork Music Festival Sunday 30.

Brazil's Os Mutantes, the psychedelic pop group that inspired Nirvana, Fugazi and Beck, plays its first Chicago gig at Pitchfork. By John Dugan Photograph by Nino Andrés