Exhibit preview: Daniel Clowes on his influences and first visit to The Billy Ireland

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From the May 15, 2014 edition

While attending art school in the 1980s, cartoonist Daniel Clowes was often berated for his love of comics. One teacher even suggested that if his style were “more sophisticated and not this ‘Betty and Veronica’ kind of thing, [he] might really go places.”

Perhaps, to be fair, what the professor had in mind wasn’t, say, Hollywood, New Yorker covers and art exhibits.

Since starting as an underground comic artist in the 1980s, Clowes has published several works that have been adapted into movies (“Art School Confidential,” “Ghost World,” and, inauspiciously, the Shia LaBeouf-plagiarized “Justin M. Damiano”).

Art exhibits, however, were not always of interest to Clowes. When independent curator Susan Miller first approached him years ago about doing an exhibit of his work, he turned her down.

“I thought, ‘You are totally out of your mind that you think that will ever happen,’” Clowes recalled during a late April phone interview. “I wasn’t really interested in doing it in venues that only did comics. I thought, ‘If you can get it in an actual art museum that would be a really interesting experience to go through.’”

When Clowes finally relented to Miller’s requests, it was also partly out of a desire to catalog and archive his growing body of work. When “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” debuted at the Oakland Museum of California in 2012, it did so with some 90 different pieces on display (“If you’re familiar with my work it’s sort of all the greatest hits,” he said).

The next year the “Modern Cartoonist” moved on to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago before making its final stop at The Wexner Center for the Arts this weekend, where it will remain on display through Aug. 3.

Accompanying Clowes’ career retrospective will be an exhibit curated by the Chicago native that pulls from the OSU’s Billy Ireland Library and Museum archives. Since that exhibit features many of Clowes’ direct influences, we thought it’d be enlightening to hear from the artist about some of those selections and his first thoughts upon entering the Billy Ireland.

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

I had no idea really what to expect. I had seen comics archives before and they’re generally very small — a small part of a much bigger archive of something else. I’d been to the Smithsonian and to several university archives, and it’s always really interesting stuff, but it’s also only a couple boxes. To walk in [the Billy Ireland] and see this, it seemed like one of those underground bunkers where the Mormons were trying to keep all their papers so it’ll survive the nuclear holocaust. It really had a feel that I wasn’t expecting. It seemed like it was out of a spy movie from the ’60s where they show IBM’s headquarters or something.

I was sort of glad that in advance they had asked me who were some daily comic cartooning artists I’d be interested in looking at because honestly I would have been so overwhelmed I would have just picked the first drawer and picked them all out of that first drawer.

Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy” and Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy”

[Bushmiller] had such an odd imagination. You don’t even need to read the jokes, you can just sort of see, visually, the crazy ideas he was coming up with. To flip through originals is kind of the perfect way to get a sense of the overall imagination of Bushmiller. It was the same way looking through stacks of Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” comics.

When [Gould] was in his prime almost every single Sunday comic had at least one panel that’d make your head explode, it was so weird. It’s the kind of thing where if a cartoonist came up with two or three of these panels in their lifetime they’d be worth studying in a university, and it’s the kind of thing that’s pure inspiration. You can’t possibly manufacture that, and he was doing it twice a week, often with stuff that’s just mindboggling that the American public read [it] and just thought it was a normal comic strip and not the work of a lunatic.

Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland”

I asked if [The Billy Ireland] had any “Little Nemo” pages and curator Jenny Robb just took me to a drawer and said, “Oh I think there’s a few in here.” I opened this drawer and saw a couple pages that I had spent my entire adolescence and adulthood staring at thousands of times. There are a few that I must have looked at for hundreds of hours, and to see them at full size was an entirely different experience. The printed pages always look very tight, controlled and machine-like, and then when you see the originals you can see the shaky human hand at work, and that’s always kind of amazing to me.

Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts”

Editor’s note: Clowes was then asked about seeing latter-day “Peanut” strips where creator Charles Schulz’s shaky linework is clearly visible.

All those guys of [Schulz’s] generation, the minute they got successful [they] were hiring guys to draw their backgrounds and ink their panels and do all the work that is not fun for people who don’t really like to do comics. [Schulz] obviously just loved every bit of it. The thought of him farming out work to somebody else was just inconceivable. I can very much relate to that.

Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates”

[Comic strips used to be] a much bigger part of the culture. People knew that other people were reading it, and you could talk about what was going on in “Terry and the Pirates” and sort of assume that neighbors were also following that. Nowadays if you were to ask somebody if they read today’s “Pearls Before Swine,” they’d have to be over 70 and get the daily paper to know what you were talking about. It seems unrealistic to ever hope comics are going to be at the front of the culture discourse in this day and age. The fact that we have our old little niche and that they haven’t been completely wiped out by all the alternatives is much more encouraging than I would have imagined.

Photos by Terry Lorant, courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California

Photo by Jenny WrayTerry and the Pirates

CREDIT: From the Milton Caniff Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Peanuts

CAPTION: A “Peanuts” strip from Dec. 16, 1953.

CREDIT: International Museum of Cartoon Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Dick Tracy

CAPTION: A “Dick Tracy” strip from May 29, 1960.

CREDIT: Chester Gould Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Nancy

CAPTION: A “Nancy” strip from June 10, 1975.

CREDIT: Robert Roy Metz Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

The Death-Ray

CAPTION: The Death-Ray black and white cover from the collection of Daniel Clowes.

CREDIT: Image courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California

Ghost World

CAPTION: A gouache “Ghost World” on white board from the collection of Daniel Clowes.

CREDIT: Image courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California

The New Yorker (cover), 2009

CAPTION: A 2009 New Yorker cover by Daniel Clowes

CREDIT: Image courtesy of the artist and Oakland Museum of California