Indie, Marvel or DC?
Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, 1997
Clowes was born in Chicago in 1961, the younger of two sons. His parents divorced when he was 2, and his mother married a business partner of his dad’s. “It was this very ugly situation,” Clowes recalls. When Clowes was 5, his stepfather was killed in an auto-racing accident, and the boy ended up being shuttled between the homes of his mother, father, and grandmother. “None of them ever talked to each other, so I had these three very separate existences,” he says. “At 7, I could have gone away for a week by myself and nobody would have noticed.”
When his older brother moved out, he left behind a stash of old comic books. Clowes became an avid reader, and while still in grade school began creating his own superhero comics starring such heroes as The Recluse, X-12, and The Grenade. In 1979, he moved to Brooklyn to attend the Pratt Institute, with a dream of becoming a cartoonist. The idea didn’t seem nuts at the time. During his stay at Pratt, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly created Raw, a high-minded anthology that championed comics as a legitimate art form (its second issue featured the debut of Spiegelman’s Maus, the Holocaust-based comic series that would become the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize). The following year, Robert Crumb (Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural) began publishing Weirdo, a lowbrow collection in the vein of earlier San Francisco–based underground works like Zap Comix.
When he arrived at Pratt, however, Clowes discovered professors who were more interested in abstract expressionism and early color-field painters — the stuff they were into when they themselves went to school — than in comics or cartooning. “It was my own fault for going to a normal art school,” Clowes says. Instructors tried to steer him toward more lucrative pursuits — graphic design, say — and away from comics, which were considered the domain of losers and hacks when they were considered at all. Clowes later lampooned his experiences at Pratt in “Art School Confidential,” a four-page comic about a place where “rich guys who draw worse than your seven-year-old sister” take classes from “has-been famous-artist professors who couldn’t teach a dog to bark.” One of the few upsides for Clowes was that school was basically free, thanks to a generous scholarship and the Social Security benefits from the death of his stepfather. “Had I gone to school now and paid $60,000 a year or whatever, I can’t even imagine how infuriated I’d be,” he says.
After graduation, Clowes was faced with two career paths. He could draw his own comics for an indie publisher (artistic freedom, but peanuts for pay) or he could draw established superhero titles for a mainstream house like Marvel or DC (considerably less artistic freedom, but more, and more consistent, peanuts). Clowes pitched an idea about a chain-smoking private dick to Fantagraphics, a Seattle-based publisher of indie comics. To his surprise, they bit.