Cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ Art Shows at OMCA

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Friday April 27, 2012
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Underground commix bad boy R. Crumb, the big daddy of 1960s San Francisco counterculture, is having his very first comprehensive museum show - in Paris, no less. So perhaps it's not surprising to learn that Oakland-based Daniel Clowes, a 50ish, successful, award-winning cartoonist, screenwriter and graphic novelist of a somewhat younger vintage, is being celebrated in Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, a career retrospective on view through the summer at the Oakland Museum.

A single large exhibition gallery at OMCA is lined with 100 original artworks, several color gouaches, a few New Yorker magazine covers, and pages from some of Clowes' 50 published "alternative" comics and books, dating from 1989 to 2011. They include Eightball, an eclectic anthology series; The Death-Ray, featuring a teenage Spiderman/Peter Parker wannabe; David Boring, a weird kid suffering from arrested development who, in a made-up biography, is named after an artist who drew Superman in the 1950s; Lloyd Llewellyn, an early comic starring a retro hipster private detective; and examples from a number of other collections from the artist's private stash. Clowes admits that parting with his personal artwork, even temporarily, induced separation anxiety. "It was like sending all of my children to college at once."

Although the show isn't only for aficionados, those familiar with Clowes' oeuvre will get a lot more out of it. When I saw the exhibition two days before it opened, there wasn't nearly enough background information on the books and stories for a relative newbie, though brochures with excerpts from the artist's discussions of various characters and their genesis complement each section. Still, if I hadn't been there with a friend steeped in Clowes knowledge, I would've been lost.

But many visitors are better acquainted with Clowes' work than they may realize. His Mister Wonderful was serialized in The New York Times Magazine, and two of his graphic novels, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, both of which he adapted for the screen, were turned into movies directed by Terry Zwigoff. Now Wilson, the dyspeptic middle-aged Oaklander who offers up pithy, often profane commentary on the marvels and horrors of his adopted urban environment ("How did I ever wind up here? " he wonders. "Oakland. For God's sake!"), is the cranky protagonist of a new movie that will be directed by Alexander Payne and shot in Oakland. The misanthropic character, whom Clowes describes as "the darkest vision" of himself, was born when his ailing father was in the hospital for an extended period and later died. Rather than inhabiting the stereotypical, squalid, airless apartment crammed with yellowed newspapers and strewn with half-opened tuna fish cans, the type of abode usually associated with permanently adolescent anti-social cartoonists, Clowes lives in a comfortable home in the Piedmont neighborhood with a woman he has been married to for 17 years, his son and a beagle. How normal can you get? Comics and their creators, it appears, have crossed over to mainstream respectability. Well, maybe, maybe not.

Clowes' artistic ambitions nearly bit the dust when, right after high school, he attended Pratt Institute, intent on becoming an illustrator. The sour fruits of that disillusioning experience are wittily lampooned in several hilarious pages from the lacerating satire Art School Confidential, which purports to be "the story that blows the lid off a million dollar racket."

"They all thought I was at art school to learn self-expression pursuant to a career - and that's exactly what I wanted them to think," it reads. "Actually, I was there as a freelance, undercover agent in order to learn first-hand the shocking truth about the biggest scam of the century." Art school, he writes, harbors "has-been famous art professors who couldn't teach a dog to bark" and "rich boys who draw worse than your seven-year old sister. There are two reasons to go to art school: no work and loose women."

Razor-sharp and witty, Clowes, who calls Crumb "the father of everything I do," is more palatable than that patently offensive and notoriously misogynistic albeit influential cartoonist. A slender, balding, seemingly gentle, mild-mannered man, he reserves the pent-up aggrievement of a misfit, maladaptive loner and a dark, sardonic streak for his characters, like Enid Coleslaw, the cynical, hypercritical teenage anti-heroine of Ghost World. Coleslaw, a disdainful outsider with big black eyeglasses, bitches and hatches diabolical plans designed to humiliate others in her war against the world with her disaffected BFF, Rebecca. The latter character was played in the movie by a youthful Scarlett Johansson before the actress became the va-va-voom girl and action hero soon to be seen in form-fitting leather in the summer blockbuster The Avengers.

The tales of Ice Haven, a sinister take on Our Town, are related by a self-involved, frustrated poet/narrator named Random Wilder, and unfold in a small, outwardly pristine hamlet whose menacing inhabitants include an obsessed private investigator, a taciturn kidnapped boy and a psychotic blue bunny. Ice Haven's very first resident, Rocky, is a caveman from 100,000 BC with a serious case of the blahs; think Fred Flintstone with clinical depression and no Barney, Wilma or Prozac. "I'm almost 20, at the end of my life with nothing to show for it," he laments. "All I think about is survival, survival and procreation. Surely, there has to be something more. Tomorrow I'll walk to the edge of the world. What do I have to lose? There goes Ogg," he grouses, "'Mr. Sunshine' - what's his secret? I'll kill him."

Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, through August 12 at OMCA. Info:

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