Turning Comic Books Into Art

The world of high art celebrates pioneering comics creator Daniel Clowes.


In early 1990s issues of his comic book Eightball, Daniel Clowes regularly savaged the pretensions and hypocrisies of high art. In his estimation, art school was a scam where washed-up hacks dispensed expensive affirmation to lazy and inept strivers. Art critics were boobs and blowhards. Galleries and museums rewarded hype, novelty, and speculation over craftsmanship and authentic expression. The world of high art, Clowes suggested in multiple stories, was silly, shallow, venal, and blind to actual talent. 

Nearly 20 years later, the world of high art finally got its revenge—by giving Clowes a museum show of his own. Earlier this year, the Oakland Museum premiered Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes. (A companion monograph, The Art of Daniel Clowes, is available too.) The show, which features 100 works that Clowes created between 1989 and 2011, is eventually headed to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and Washington D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery. For the next two weeks, you can still catch it in Clowes' adopted hometown of Oakland. (The show closes August 14.)

Entering the gallery in which the show is staged feels a little bit like walking into an issue of Eightball. The walls are painted a very Clowesian bluish-gray. The major furnishings in the room—the bench and the café tables and two large kiosks—are so stylized they hover between actual furniture and geometric abstraction, just like the background furnishings in a Clowes panel. As deftly executed as the exhibition is, however, a central paradox informs it. It celebrates Clowes' work by presenting it exactly as what it was not intended to be: Hand-made originals tastefully displayed in the rarified space of a museum.

This paradox has an upside. You get to see Clowes' works at the scale they were created. You get to see the faint rules he penciled in to line up his text, and the instances where he used tiny masks of paper to add a new set of eyes to a character's face or make edits to dialogue and narration after an image had already reached a stage of near-completion. (The eponymous town in Ice Haven, for example, apparently went by some other name up until the very last minute.)

In addition, the show makes an effort to address the fact that Clowes' work was originally designed to be read rather than viewed. It features many of Clowes's one-page strips—and even some multi-page ones—in full. When it excerpts from lengthier works, it often excerpts generously. Drafting stools positioned around the room give visitors an opportunity to sit down in front of a particular piece for awhile and give it extended scrutiny. There's also a long bench too, and a number of tiny café tables running alongside it, and on top of the café tables there are copies of Ghost World and other Clowes titles that visitors can peruse at length.

Even with such touches, though, what gets lost in the exhibition is the fundamentally populist nature of Clowes' art, its existence as a rejection of, or at least an alternative to, the high art world Clowes found so contemptible.

Read "Art School Confidential," an autobiographical, four-page strip that Clowes published in 1991 about his time as an undergrad at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute  in the early 1980s, and you might get the impression that the high art world had absolutely no use for cartoonists in that era. In the final panel of the strip, we see an instructor casually extinguishing a crushed-looking student's cartoon dreams: "I was really hoping for something more substantial from you!"

But if the classrooms at Pratt were tough terrain for would-be cartoonists to conquer, that wasn't necessarily true for the rest of the New York art world. In his strip, "The Truth," for example, Clowes tells the story of an artist who wins acclaim for spray-painting portraits of Fred Flintstone and other cartoon characters, just as real-life artist Kenny Scharf did in the early 1980s. In the strip "Blue Italian Shit," which Clowes explicitly sets in 1979, the same year he moved to New York, a 19-year-old newcomer to the city walks through empty, trash-strewn urban landscapes that are liberally ornamented with graffiti. In the story's splash panel, two readily identifiable pieces are included. The first is one of Keith Haring's radiant babies. The second is the word "SAMO," which is the tag that Jean-Michel Basquiat was using (in collaboration with his friend Al Diaz) when he began to attract attention from the New York art world.

By 1983, the pictographic populism that artists like Haring and Scharf had been cultivating through their user-friendly imagery and more accessible modes of presentation  had achieved such cachet that the Whitney Museum produced "The Comic Art Show," which has subsequently been described  as the "first art exhibition produced by a major New York art museum to display comic art, graffiti, pop art and the post-modern art of the East Village art scene together as equal works of art."

It was, in short, a great time for someone with a facility in cartooning to at least try to storm the gates of the high art world. Clowes, however, apparently made no attempt to do that. Instead, he marketed himself to magazines and other potential clients as an illustrator and eventually began producing his own comic books. It was as if he realized that the world of commercial art—and especially the world of comic books, where the end product was a cheap commodity that was far more resistant to the sort of variations in price that made assigning value in the high art so capricious—was the best domain for the serious pursuit of art.

Alas, the high art world failed to completely appreciate the radical nature of Clowes's approach—then and now. But compare his cultural impact to, say, Haring's or Scharf's. The latter ostensibly made art more accessible by bringing it to the streets, the subways, and the Mudd Club. But they still mostly trafficked in one-offs certified by cultural elites and underwritten by well-heeled collectors.

Clowes, in contrast, wasn't interested in making art more accessible. He was interested in making that which was already highly accessible—the comic book—more artful. Not out of any utopian sentiments—Clowes has always come off as a cultural snob of the highest order—but rather just because he really, really believed in the artistic possibilities of the comic book.

In many ways, of course, the traditional comic book stands as the antithesis of art—or at least the heroicized, romanticized definition of art, in which artworks exist as totems of creative expression unsullied by the corrupting influences of commerce, produced by sole practitioners inspired by some fundamental human impulse to create truth and beauty. Comics are typically collective efforts. A writer writes the story, a penciller draws it, an inker inks it, etc., in an assembly-line process that was devised to manufacture the end product as efficiently and predictably as toasters or chocolate bars.

In 1969, however, Robert Crumb published the first issue of Zap and showed that an individual could create a comic on a solo basis. By the mid-1980s, Harvey Pekar, the Hernandez brothers, and Peter Bagge had all helped establish the notion that comic books were just as suited to idiosyncratic personal expression as they were to corporate content factories churning out superhero fare. Following their leads, Clowes adopted an auteur's approach as well, introducing his comic book series, the short-lived Lloyd Llewellyn , in 1986.

Comic books, Clowes would later declare in Modern Cartoonist, a 16-page manifesto he published in 1997, "were the ultimate domain for the artist who seeks to wield absolute control over his imagery." Novels, he explained, depend on "visual collaboration" from their readers. Movies are group projects limited by all sorts of practical considerations regarding what can or cannot be filmed.

Comic books were also a relatively new medium whose artistic possibilities had barely been tapped. They were relatively cheap to create and distribute. They didn't cost much. They held little cultural cachet, and all of these factors helped make them a medium conducive to innovation, experimentation, and artistic ambition.

As it turned out, Clowes' early years as a comic book auteur coincided with the advent of desktop publishing. All over America, individuals and small groups of people started using personal computers and photocopy shops to produce publications that mirrored those that had once been the province of professional organizations. In their pursuit of authenticity, the personal over the corporate, these new publishers often favored the kind of spontaneous, slapdash, deliberately rough-hewn aesthetics that informed punk and indie rock.

Clowes, however, brought a different sensibility to his comics: An obsessive compulsive commitment to craftsmanship. An issue of Eightball was emphatically personal—Clowes literally produced every element of every page by hand, with no assistance from Illustrator, Pagemaker, or any other tool more high-tech than a ruler -- and yet there was nothing slapdash about it.  

Instead, Clowes strove to make the comic book as artful as possible, a complex but organic object that was perfect in all its parts. "Think in terms of the entire package, the structural cohesion of every component (from page numbers to indicia, etc.)" he would eventually advise in his Modern Cartoonist manifesto, and Eightball was the medium where he put such ideas into action. Issue by issue, his storylines grew more complex, his emotional palette more expansive, his draftsmanship more meticulous. Over time, he upgraded the paper Eightball was printed on from newsprint to coated stock. He added more interior color. He even improved the aesthetics of the staples that bound each issue -- early efforts featured flimsy ones that tended to bend in unbecoming ways, but later issues use more substantial ones that stayed flat against the page. 

By the mid-1990s, artists like Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, and Charles Burns, to name just a few, had joined Clowes in regularly producing comic books characterized by their virtuoso craftsmanship. Like craft brewers and artisanal bakers, they helped pioneer the idea of the exquisitely over-crafted commodity—the everyday object which, in the hands of mass-market manufacturers, had devolved into "good enough status," transformed by aesthetic prowess and hyper-meticulous labor into an object of stunning utilitarian beauty. Those $198 plain but inexplicably gorgeous blue jeans constructed from narrow selvage denim made on vintage shuttle looms? Those $8 single-estate chocolate bars hand-wrapped in packaging that could moonlight as wallpaper in Zoe Deschanel's bathroom? Eightball is their spiritual father.

One important factor distinguished Eightball from much of today's super-deluxe commodities, however. While the cost of an issue nearly tripled over time, with #1 originally going for $2 in 1989 and Issue #22 going for $5.95 in 2001, the price was so low to begin with that it never became an elite version of a mass market product that only the elite could afford. At $5.95 for a 36-page, full-color issue, it was still an eminently affordable consumer commodity, an elite version of a mass market product that the mass market could actually afford.

Unfortunately, the mass market didn't respond with quite enough enthusiasm. Clowes began to spend some of his time pursuing better-paying (if less controllable) Hollywood writing projects. And when he did create cartoon stories, he published them as graphic novels rather than comic books, a decision that allowed for higher price points and better distribution.

This evolution made artistic sense too, as Clowes' increasingly complex tales grew to dimensions that could no longer fit in the pages of a single 36-page comic book. And yet seeing every issue of Eightball arranged in a long glass display case at his Oakland exhibition, as stunning as a row of perfect dead butterflies, as unfathomable as a collection of Egyptian funerary jewelry, it was hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for that era when you could walk into a comic book shop and, for the price of a burrito, get a piece of museum-caliber art. It was one of life's great bargains and great pleasures.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.