Daniel Clowes is not quite ready to send his newest characters out into the world. His first original book in more than seven years hasn’t yet hit the printers, and there’s still some exterior art to finish, so like a doting parent, he can cling to his creations for just a bit longer.
But “Monica,” the forthcoming graphic novel in question, will be out in October. And the acclaimed cartoonist is well-aware that healthy separation awaits after his half-decade of creative immersion in the project.
“I still want to be in this book — the characters are still alive until I draw that final line,” Clowes says with wry warmth, speaking by phone from his home in Oakland, Calif. “It’s a strange process, like sending them off to college.”
Clowes, 61, began to become a rising force in literary comics not long after college himself, when in the mid-’80s his character Lloyd Llewelyn was introduced in works issued by his longtime publisher, Fantagraphics. He would later delve into his college experience, too, in his short comic “Art School Confidential,” which was ultimately turned into a film of the same name. That cinematic collaboration with director Terry Zwigoff followed their hit 2001 comic adaptation “Ghost World,” which earned them an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay.
Ever since the days of “Eightball,” his widely praised comic series published across 15 years till ending in 2004, each new Clowes release has been eagerly anticipated. Yet the artist is guarded about revealing too many specifics about his latest title. He says most of his books can be summarized in a sentence: “‘Ghost World’ is about two girls the summer after graduating high school. Or ‘Wilson’ is about the life of a man told in one-page jokes.” For now, he prefers not to let “Monica” — centered on a young female character’s journey from life innocence to trying experience — be reduced to an elevator pitch.
Clowes, however, acknowledges that the book’s nine stories dwell on themes of aloneness and abandonment and “permutations of those ideas.” He initially envisioned nine disparate stories, but gradually the book became “like a game of Telephone,” he says. “Each story leads to the next story in a way that you don’t necessarily see coming till you get to the end.”
The book is certainly fiction, yet people and memories from the author’s life inform so many of his artistic choices, right down to supporting characters inspired by his half-century-old family photos. As for Monica — well, after all this time together, Clowes thinks of her more like a well-rounded person than “just a cartoon character.”
However, it is surely the real people he lost while working on the book who loom largest for him. In that regard, one of the most striking twists in the presentation of “Monica” comes early. The book’s dedication arrives nearly 10 pages into the story, inviting the reader to pause and consider the four names as if they were characters in the linked stories that flank them. In a way, they are.
In MemoriamAllison, JimmyRichard and GaryAll Lost During theMaking of This Book
Allison was Clowes’s mother, who died in 2019 and who inspired aspects of Monica’s peripatetic mother, Penny, in the book. A month before her death, Clowes also lost his brother Jimmy, who was a decade older than Daniel.
“I’m the only living member of my family [line], except for my son,” Clowes says. He never showed his work-in-progress book to his mother. Clowes preferred she not know about it; he would have worried about her reaction. He jokes that were she alive, he might have to “gaslight my mom” about the book even being released.
The second pair of names, by contrast, are lost friends. “Gary” refers to musician/artist and “Idiotland” co-creator Gary Leib, who died in 2021. And “Richard” is Richard Sala, a gifted cartoonist and illustrator who died in 2020. When Clowes moved to the Bay Area three decades ago, he ended up living a block from Sala and set out to forge a friendship. Sala would become a recluse, and often one of his few weekly outings was his regular lunch date with Clowes, his best friend.
Sala’s memory, as well as his expressionistic art style, infuses aspects of “Monica.” “I was thinking about him reading it, and then when he passed away, it was a crushing loss knowing that he couldn’t read it,” says Clowes. “But I was still [creating] it for him.”
The shifting aesthetic styles of “Monica” also find Clowes turning to his past and to the history of his medium: Each of the nine stories is illustrated in different styles of comics that he grew up reading — inspirations that are, he says, “less glancing” and more direct than in some of his previous work. At different points, the book variously evokes, for instance, the graphical look of vintage war stories, romance tales and ghostly scenes of supernatural horror.
“When I first started out, I thought of it as sort of a telling a life through multiple genres” that were formative to me, says Clowes, whose tastes growing up included EC horror comics and Archie Comics. For “Monica,” “I immersed myself in the comics I really first loved and still love.” he says. “When you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s kind of amazing when you can still look at a comic that inspired you when you were 14 years old and still feel the same, only on a deeper level. It’s not like when I was 14; I didn’t understand why [cartoonist Harvey] Kurtzman looked so great — I just knew it on some level, and now I kind of get it.”
“Monica” also draws on Clowes’ own creative past, nodding at times to “Ghost World,” as well as some of his other works, including “David Boring.” In such ways, Clowes thinks “Monica” works at “a different level” emotionally for him — a work born of a meditative creative approach that steered toward more “extreme” narrative choices than he might have in the past.
Clowes says that sitting with one work for such a long period of gestation and execution — he spent a full year simply choosing and applying the colors to his art — was both draining and invigorating. “It was sort of a very mystical process — not something I would recommend a young artist,” he says. “It’s like tending a plant that blooms after eight years.” But it also wasn’t, he adds, “a book I could’ve ever done in less time.”
Clowes errs on the side of not revealing too much more. He’s the type of film fan who doggedly avoids all trailers and reviews before watching a new movie. Similarly, he doesn’t want to diminish the reading of “Monica.”
“I would say that the great thing about seeing the response of the first five people” to read the book (I was told I was the sixth), Clowes says, was that “they had no idea what it was going to be.”
“My thought is to say as little as possible and just hope that my readers will trust me enough to get into this,” he said. “Just follow where it’s going without expectations.”