Readers may not associate alternative comics legend Daniel Clowes with autobiography, but he’s always been present in his work.
“It’s funny. I always think every book is not really that personal,” the cartoonist, who’s responsible for the seminal Ghost World, recently told Vanity Fair over Zoom. “Then, I’ll go back years later and read it and every page has something that happened to me or that’s based on some true emotion that I think about every day. So they’re all really personal.”
His latest graphic novel, the pulpy and piercing Monica, which will be released by Fantagraphics on Tuesday, takes this to a new level. The book is made up of nine interconnected narratives that fit together to tell the life story of its titular heroine. After selling her eponymous candle company for a hefty sum, Monica decides to spend the first part of her retirement tracking down the bohemian mother who abandoned her with her grandparents during the height of the Swinging Sixties. She interviews all the freaks and weirdos who knew her mom, Penny, during the era and ends up “deep in the bowels of a dangerous cult, alone, and terrified for [her] life.”
Clowes has long been considered one of the finest cartoonists of his generation, grouped with the likes of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, but in Monica, he reaches a new artistic peak. Each chapter has its own distinct feel and calls back to genres that were popular when Clowes started reading comics but have all but disappeared today, like war, romance, and horror. The shifts suit the story but also allow the cartoonist to show off his love for the art form. Each section has a beautifully rendered drawing—whether it be a soldier lighting a cigarette or Monica wiping the steam from a bathroom mirror—that can be held up among the best of his career.
It’s heartening to learn that Clowes is still enthusiastic about comics, especially since he’s the rare cartoonist celebrated outside the medium. He and director Terry Zwigoff received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay for the 2001 adaptation of Ghost World, which starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. Clowes teamed up with the filmmaker again for 2006’s Art School Confidential and wrote the script for Craig Johnson’s 2017 movie, Wilson, both based on his comics. The cartoonist says working on movies was a lifelong dream, but that comics will be his focus going forward because of the creative freedom and potential they provide. “It just has so much as both an artist and a reader,” he said. “There’s so much that hasn’t been done that I want to explore. And this book, I just wanted to put everything I had into this one book in a way that I never have.”
In his latest work, central character Monica is around the same age as the 62-year-old Clowes, but that’s not all the two have in common. The cartoonist was also born into a chaotic situation that only grew more chaotic and was left to live with his grandparents when he was just five years old. Sure, some of the more surreal events in the comic are made up, like using an old portable radio to communicate with the dead or maybe triggering the end-times, but he relates deeply to Monica and how she feels.
“I was talking to my therapist—who’s not read the book, but he has heard me talk about the creation of it for years—and he was like, ‘Seems to me you just tried to create a friend, somebody that you could communicate your very complicated childhood to who would understand,’” Clowes said. “And I thought, that’s exactly what it is.”
Monica is more than just a stand-in for her creator, though. She’s a complicated woman whose guard is always up, but who goes to increasingly absurd lengths to chase down even the most tenuous tip about her mother. She also feels like a fully fleshed-out person by the end of her surreal journey. Clowes mentions readers talking about some of his characters, like Ghost World’s Enid Coleslaw, as if they really exist, and admits they’re not alone in doing this. He may have drawn and written everything they do and say, but a lot of his characters feel real to him and he says that it is “almost inconceivable that they didn’t have some agency” in what ends up on the page.
By the time he finished Monica, Clowes’s own life had begun to resemble that of his main character in ways he had not foreseen. His mother died during the middle of the book’s creation, and his brother shortly after. Suddenly, Clowes, who has a wife and son, was the only remaining member of the family he was born into. That spared him some of the awkwardness that comes with creating art so clearly about yourself but also changed his relationship to the story he was telling.