From the Archives: Surface #27, Fall 2000

Eighteen years ago, Surface recognized the graphic novel by profiling Daniel Clowes, a star of the medium. We were enamored. Now the literary crowd can’t get enough.

A page from our nearly two-decade-old story on Daniel Clowes.

Many were exultant when Sabrina, a graphic novel by 29-year-old cartoonist Nick Drnaso, made the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. Daniel Clowes was not one of them.

“It seems like a strange leap to me,” he says. It’s not because he didn’t love the book—he thought it was great. He just thinks we’re talking apples and oranges. “[A graphic novel] is a whole different thing,” he says. “It feels uncomfortable as a form of recognition.”

One of the category’s earliest heroes—and, perhaps ironically, the man often credited for its rise in literary clout—Clowes came to prominence in the early 1990s with his cult-classic comic series Eightball. Several of these stories were later collected in graphic novels, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (1993), Pussey! (1995), and Ghost World (1997). He was the subject of a Surface feature story in 2000, ahead of the latter’s silver screen adaptation, starring Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson. (It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and maintains a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The cover of "Ghost World," and a page from the graphic novel. (Image: Courtesy Fantagraphics Books)
A spread from "Ghost World." (Image: Courtesy Fantagraphics Books)

Chicago-born Clowes, now 57 years old, has spent the last 16 years living in the Oakland area. Since Ghost World, he has written two screenplays and released more than a dozen comics and graphic novels, earning innumerable awards and nominations along the way. Unsurprisingly, he’s not too hot on those either: “They’re all stupid,” he says. “Very few people know how to actually judge a graphic novel.”

Regardless, the format is certainly having a moment, both in terms of mainstream exposure and commercial success. Today, graphic novels are considered one of the highest-growth categories in publishing, making up eight percent of the total book market with some 11.3 million units sold in 2017. Traditional authors, from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Margaret Atwood to Chuck Palahniuk, have started publishing works in the medium. And Sabrina’s inclusion on the Man Booker longlist isn’t just a first for the prize: It’s the only time a graphic novel has been nominated in the main fiction category of a major literary competition. Clowes still isn’t ready to celebrate.

“I’m not sure that that will indicate any wide acceptance,” he says. “I feel that whatever I say is woefully inadequate, because I’m really not the expert. I don’t want to be saying stuff just ‘cause I did a graphic novel once.”

From Clowes's graphic novel "Patience," published in 2016. (Image: Courtesy Fantagraphics Books)

Clowes’s disillusioned wit and lack of egoism has always been a trademark, both in his work and in interviews. (From his Surface interview in 2000: “My style is just too idiosyncratic. I can’t turn it into anything else. So that just led me to do my own little thing that nobody cared about.”) He does have some good news for his fans, though.

“I’m working on something that’s maybe a little more complicated than my last few books,” he says. “It will come out post-2020 election, I’m guessing, which is actually something I have to think about. What could the world be like then?”

For Clowes, that means questioning what he puts into the work now, and how it will be received later. Will it feel dated? Premonitory? Timeless? Who knows. But we’ll bet that, no matter what, there’s a good chance it will be in the running for an award or two.

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