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Graphic novelist Daniel Clowes makes his otherworldly return in 'Monica'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Daniel Clowes is a giant in the world of comics and graphic novels. From his "Lloyd Llewellyn" cartoon to his graphic novel and eventual movie "Ghost World," Clowes' work is both beloved and revered. But fans of the graphic artist and cartoonist have had to wait some seven years for a new installment of his work. It arrived this week, and even though it's being greeted as another triumph, Clowes isn't feeling that great about it.

DANIEL CLOWES: It's kind of like raising a child. And then releasing it to the world is like putting that child when they're not fully grown, like, alone on the subway or something. It feels very - it's like, what am I doing?

SUMMERS: That not quite-grown-child riding the subway alone is "Monica." Clowes weaves together nine interconnected stories to show the full picture of Monica's life cradle to grave, from being abandoned by her mother as a child to her mysterious connection to the afterlife. Clowes, whose own mother left him with his grandparents when he was 5, says he was trying to capture the emotional chaos of growing up in that time. His therapist had a slightly different take.

CLOWES: He said, I think you've created a friend. And I thought, oh, yes, I've just - I've tried to create somebody who sort of shared the same emotional experience I had growing up.

SUMMERS: When I spoke to Clowes earlier this week, I asked him about that connection between him and his protagonist.

Monica is someone who faces so much of her life alone in that search for her mother. And I know that you yourself were left with your grandparents when you were 5. So how much of "Monica" is autobiographical?

CLOWES: There's not a single fact, I think, you know, that lines up with my life. But the beats of her life, sort of the rhythm of her childhood and adulthood line up, you know, sort of algebraically exact with those of my life. In this story, Monica's mother runs a candle shop, and that's sort of her dream. And my mother ran a auto repair shop. That was her dream.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that your therapist suggested that, in Monica, you created a friend. What do you take away from that relationship with Monica, who is, of course, of your creation?

CLOWES: You know, I've created a lot of characters over the years, and some of them seem like they only exist in the pages of the book. But Monica feels - despite the ending of the book, which I won't reveal, she feels like she still exists out there somewhere, you know, and I might one day actually meet her. That happens sometimes, where characters just feel like they're out there living their own lives. And you'll meet readers who act that way. They act as though the characters are independent of my creation. They're just talking about them like they're people, and that's always very gratifying.

SUMMERS: I do want to ask, if I can, about one particular page in the book. And it's bright blue, and there's a hummingbird in the cover, and there are only a little more than a dozen words. And you write, in memoriam - Allison, Jimmy, Richard and Gary - all lost during the making of this book. First of all, I'm very sorry for those losses. But I'd like you to tell us a bit about them, if you can, who those people were and what they meant to you.

CLOWES: Well, Allison and Jimmy were my mother and my brother, who died just a few months apart right before the pandemic in 2019. And I had a very strange relationship with both of them. I was not very close to them. But, of course, they were immense, indelible parts of my growing up and my life. And so it was - you know, I'm sort of grappling as I was working on the book with, what did they mean to me? What - I was even just trying to figure out the events of my childhood, what actually happened. Nobody ever talked about that kind of thing. But Richard and Gary were two of my dearest friends who were both cartoonists. And those two are really huge presences in my life, and their influence is felt in the book itself. I feel like Richard especially was somebody I knew - his name was Richard Sala, a wonderful artist. He really haunts the book. He's really almost an unseen character in the book. It's almost like I did the book for him.

SUMMERS: Where do you see and feel him the most in the book?

CLOWES: He was - his art style was very much - he did horror comics, you know, very about conspiracies. And everybody was out to get the main character, and they were all haunted little towns and things like that. So in that story, "The Glow Infernal," I'm almost paying homage to him. I'm almost covering his territory that he was very protective of. Any time in the past that I would try to do a story in that vein, he would say, that's mine. You know, you're not allowed to do that. So it was almost like I was both free to finally do these kinds of stories and also continuing his legacy to some degree.

SUMMERS: I mean, there is a lot about the occult and the afterlife throughout this book, but there are also these cults that really kind of come across as sort of scams, not genuinely supernatural. So how do you approach questioning life's unknowns and straddling the line between belief and skepticism?

CLOWES: Well, that's what - the book is kind of an investigation of that - the things that we imbue onto life to give it some kind of meaning. And the structures we imagine - you know, the idea of creating religions or cults or things like that - it's very similar to writing fiction, in a way, or creating characters or creating worlds like in comics. You know, I often - I had a very unhealthy fascination with cults when I was a teenager growing up in the '70s, you know?

And I was - you know, I was very interested in, like, the SLA and reading all about that stuff because it was - in a certain way, all cults feel very - it's got its appeal, you know, the idea of, like, we're a little group that - we have our own beliefs. And we don't - you know, often they're, you know, anti-technology and things that I kind of believe in. And, you know, they're communities of people that all care for each other and all have respect for each other. And there's something to be said for that. But then they all turn horrible at a certain point. And it's always interesting to me to try to imagine what, like, the ideal cult would be like. You know, how could you ever make it work where there's a positive cult? You know, it's - never quite come up with the answer for that.

SUMMERS: I mean, having read this book, I know that there are probably countless different ways in which a reader could interpret the various parts of it. But after more than seven years of creating it, is there something that you hope that readers take away once they have it in their hands?

CLOWES: You know, I'm always just hoping for that feeling of, you know, hearing from people who respond to it emotionally who don't really understand what they got out of it necessarily. But it just has some kind of - it gives them emotions, you know, that - it might make them sad, or they might laugh, or they might just feel something that's not quantifiable, not something you can put into words. I feel like the point of art is to express things that we don't understand and we don't know how to express in words. And I just hope to - you know, somebody gets something on that level out of it, you know, the same way I've gotten out of countless other works of art.

SUMMERS: That is Daniel Clowes. His new graphic novel, "Monica," is out now. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

CLOWES: Thank you, Juana. It was wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARISA ANDERSON'S "CLOUD CORNER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.