By Mary Abowd
Image courtesy of Daniel Clowes Archive, University of Chicago Library. Copyright Daniel Clowes

I think I learned that language before I learned English. It was just a part of my DNA.”
—Daniel Clowes

Years ago, legendary cartoonist Daniel Clowes, LAB’79, used to make a sketch, crumple it up, and throw it in the garbage. One day a friend watching him threw a fit. “He said, ‘What are you doing? Why wouldn’t you save that?’” Clowes recalls. “He told me, ‘That’s even better than the actual artwork; it’s your process.’”

So Clowes began dutifully filing away those drawings. “At first, I did it just so he wouldn’t yell at me,” he says. “But once I had accumulated enough of it, I saw what he was saying—it’s actually interesting to see it all build from the sediment, from the very beginning of the idea.”

That artistic trajectory is now on display at the Special Collections Research Center in the Regenstein Library exhibition “Integrity of the Page: The Creative Process of Daniel Clowes,” which runs through June 17.

The exhibition features notes, outlines, narrative drafts, character sketches, and draft layouts for three of Clowes’ award-winning graphic novels: The Death-Ray (2011), Ice Haven (2005), and Mister Wonderful (2011). “This is all the behind-the-scenes stuff that I never wanted to show anybody,” Clowes says of the work, all of it done by hand using paper, pencil and ink. “It represents a lot of trial and error and days spent working on stuff that doesn’t work out at all.”

Clowes’ work has appeared in Esquire, Time, Newsweek, and GQ, and he has contributed numerous covers to The New Yorker, including the February’s “Privileged Characters,” about the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony.

Mapping the creative process

The material featured in the exhibition is drawn from the Daniel Clowes Archive, which the University acquired in 2015 as part of the library’s interest in collecting contemporary comics and zines, particularly those with a Chicago theme. “Visitors will get a great bird’s-eye view of the work and of Clowes’ creative process while simultaneously being able to zoom in up close on the details of that work,” says archivist Ashley Gosselar, who curated “Integrity of the Page.”

The exhibition demonstrates the extensive research Clowes undertakes to reach his final product. “I need to know the characters and the world intimately,” he says. “I need to know all these facts about them that would never actually make it into the story for me to feel like I’m comfortably writing their dialogue and speaking in their voice.”

The progression that led to the creation of Mr. Wonderful—Clowes’ “middle-aged romance” that began as a serialized comic for The New York Times Magazine—for example, runs the length of the Special Collections gallery’s south wall. It begins with notebooks of black-and-white sketches and ends with the finished, full-color product.

The Clowes Archive supports the interdisciplinary interest in comics for research and teaching, Gosselar says. It also pays tribute to Clowes’ strong ties to the University of Chicago. Born in Chicago, Clowes grew up in Hyde Park and attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools before moving to New York to study at the Pratt Institute. His grandfather, James Lea Cate, was a history professor at the University from 1930 to 1969, and his stepmother, Harriet Clowes, worked in development at the University of Chicago Library from 1976 to 1980.

From conception to publication

Clowes’ comics, graphic novels, and anthologies have been translated into more than 20 languages, and his work has been the subject of numerous international exhibitions. His first professional work appeared in Cracked magazine in 1985. Four years later, he created the comic book series Eightball, which ran for 23 issues through 2004 and earned him a large following and multiple industry awards. Eightball generated several graphic novels, including two of the three featured in the exhibit—Ice Haven, an intricate tale of kidnapping and alienation in a small Midwestern town; and The Death-Ray, the unlikely story of a teenage superhero in the 1970s.

Clowes is also a scriptwriter. The 2001 film adaptation of his graphic novel, Ghost World (1998), based on a script by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff, was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. The two also collaborated on the 2006 film Art School Confidential. Currently, Clowes has several film projects in development.

Now based in Oakland, Calif., Clowes says he visits Chicago fairly frequently. In 2012, he participated in the University’s “Comics: Philosophy and Practice” conference sponsored by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for the Arts and Inquiry, an event that brought together 17 world-renowned cartoonists for three days of public conversation. The following year, a major retrospective of his work, Modern Cartoonist, was featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Back in Hyde Park in late March for the opening of “Integrity of the Page,” a conversation with Daniel Raeburn, UChicago lecturer in creative nonfiction, and a book signing of his newly released and longest work yet, Patience, Clowes reflected on his early years growing up just blocks from the library. He says he began drawing comics before he knew how to read, using cardboard his father brought home from a dry cleaners on 57th Street as his canvas.

“I would draw the word balloons and little scratches because I didn’t know what letters were,” Clowes says. “I think I learned that language before I learned English. It was just a part of my DNA.”

Originally published on May 2, 2016.