Cults, romance, war and mom: Daniel Clowes’ new book ‘Monica’ explores the ’60s

For years, cartoonist Daniel Clowes knew he wanted to start a book with two Army grunts, Johnny and Butch, smoking cigarettes in their foxhole in Vietnam as bullets flew and mortar rounds boomed nearby.

“These characters are kind of living in another era,” he says recently on a call from his home in Oakland. “Unaware of what’s going on back home.

“I thought that was such a strong idea because it was a real separation of two very distinct worlds,” says Clowes, whose books include such graphic novels as “Eight Ball,” “Ghost World,” “Wilson” and “Patience.” “You have these two naive guys, thinking they’re fighting World War II. They think they’re still in this bygone 20th-century era.

“But back home, everything is changing. Everything they’re counting on is completely different.”

His new book, “Monica,” begins with that chapter. Clowes, 62, wanted to explore the ’60s in this book, and the Vietnam War fits solidly into that plan.

But what he realized he really wanted to write and illustrate was a book about his mother, and the eight chapters that follow focus on the life of Monica, whose mother Penny was inspired by Clowes’ mom.

“I didn’t want to do just straight autobiography or biography,” Clowes says. “I wanted to have the room to kind of not feel like I was beholden to the facts, which is why I think I always do fiction.

“I needed a narrator for the story and realized early on it was the baby,” he says of Monica, who was born to the unmarried Penny, Johnny’s high school sweetheart and fiancée, while Johnny was still in that foxhole. “She was the one sort of telling what it was like to grow up in this world.

“Once I had that in place, I saw that all the other stories that I’d been thinking of in the book were all about this character,” Clowes says. “It felt like I’d almost raised a child that I understood. You know, you often have characters, you see them as adults, as middle-aged characters, and you kind of imagine their upbringing, but we don’t really know.

“In this case, I felt like I knew every minute of her life as a child, so I had a real sense of her as a living character.”

In an interview edited for clarity and length, Clowes talked about his mother, how her absence of interest in parenting influenced the book, and the concept to do each of the nine chapters as entirely different genres of comic books.

Q: What was it about your mother that drew you to tell part of her story here?

A: My mother was just a very distinctive character and very unlike anybody else’s mother. People would talk about their mother and I’d think that couldn’t be more opposite of my mother. I don’t think my mother made me a meal after I was a baby. After that, we would just go out to dinner if we ate dinner together at all.

She decided when I was six that birthday presents were frivolous, like something a consumer was compelled to do, so she never bought me another present. She was very disengaged from my life. So that was all I knew.

Out in the world, she was a very remarkable woman who ran her own auto repair shop on the South Side of Chicago. She was a martial artist. At 70 she went to law school and got a law degree. She did all these kinds of amazing things but she was absolutely not a mother in any sense. It was a very disconcerting way to grow up.

As a father, I couldn’t imagine making the same decisions she did. And I wanted to figure out why she did that.

Q: I can imagine it might have certain challenges writing something that’s related to your own family. What was it like to be using your own life more directly in ‘Monica’?

A: When I began the story, my mother was very much alive and I worried about her response to it. You know, she was very defensive about her choices and never accepted that it might not have been great for me. That was very painful for her, so she always kind of argued against it.

I wanted to do it anyway. I always imagined I could somehow keep it from her. You know, she doesn’t follow media of any kind. But I knew she had friends who would probably tell her, ‘I heard about your son’s book on NPR.’ And so I was kind of dreading that, and I think that’s why I started so slowly at the beginning.

But in the middle of the book she died, and then my brother, who was the only other person who was kind of party to this childhood, he also died. So I had nobody left to either argue against me or to corroborate anything or even have any firsthand knowledge of it. That became a whole ‘nother story unto itself, trying to piece together the mystery without any firsthand witnesses.

Q: Penny abandons Monica as a toddler and disappears. We later find out she joined a cult. That and other kinds of faith show up throughout the book.

A: I’m not someone who’s gone through all that experience. I’ve never been drawn to religious ways of thinking or to joining cults and things like that. But I’ve always had a somewhat unhealthy obsession with reading about them, especially all those California cults, which felt like something my mother would do even though she was much more individualistic and it would have been very difficult for her to listen to anybody else.

When you read (about cults), the beginning chapters always seem great. You think, ‘Oh, it would be great to be in the Manson Family! Caring for each other, taking in all these wounded souls, it’s us against the world.’ And then of course you hit the midpoint and all of a sudden you’re killing people or drinking the Kool-Aid or whatever it takes.

(Monica’s) mother just disappeared, a total mystery. So she is looking for some kind of community, but also something to explain how she feels so separate and different. It’s really about examining that loneliness. Like there must be, you must be a creature of faith somehow.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your process. Do you have the script fully written before you start to illustrate?

A: Most of the thinking goes before it. I did those first two stories, I knew somewhat the rest of the book from there. By doing those, it clarified the rest of the book. So I was able to think through exactly what happens. And, of course, a lot of the thinking is stuff that never appears on the page.

I thought about her life from beginning to end. And there are 20 years where none of that makes the comic. It informs it, though. Things like the way she talks and her attitude towards things that you can tell are formed by experiences that you didn’t necessarily see.

So it’s a process of thinking about nothing but the story for years and literally years. Then when it comes time to actually sit down and compose the panel-to-panel sequences, the dialogue and stuff like that, it becomes almost like transcribing. It’s like, OK, I know what happened.

Q: Do you ever find yourself going back to earlier parts of it and rewriting, redrawing?

A: Always. It’s sometimes like doing a gigantic oil painting. Maybe I’ll paint all of the horses over to the side in the beginning, because they’re in the deep background. And then you paint the figures and you go, Oh, those horses don’t quite match for me. And you go back and go over them.

I do all my artwork still on paper and if you look at the paper there are often taped-on panels, like three or four on top of each other. It’s almost a relief map.

Q: So you could flip back and go, ‘Oh, this is where I started?’

A: I often wonder if somebody’s going to wind up with this artwork someday, and they’re going to go, ‘Oh my God, what the hell was he doing?’ I’ll often do four or five things and then go back to the first one.

Q: In terms of the visual style, ‘The Foxhole’ kind of reminds me of ‘Sgt. Rock’

A: – or the TV show ‘Combat’ –

Q: – and the ‘Penny’ chapter feels like one of those old romance comics. Tell me about mixing and matching visual styles.

A: One of the very first thoughts about the book was that I was imagining telling a life story using a different genre for each story. I thought that would be a sort of interesting way to do that. And so I started out, you know, I have a war story, and that goes into a sort of young girl romance story, but then that story sort of turns into something else halfway through. And then there’s a kind of supernatural EC Comics story.

But then I found the genres started to merge and, like, pile up on each other so it’s a cacophony of genres. And that felt like much more depth and interest to me than just kind of sticking to the conceit. Then, as it builds up at the end, it builds up to where there’s almost no genre, or the genre is naturalism, real life. Which, of course, gives way to a completely different genre.

And so it sort of became reflective to the way human life is where your babyhood is a genre. You’re a baby and you’re seeing the world, and everything is simple until it’s not. And then everything is combining and getting muddy and chaotic.

Q: When you were finished how did it feel? What were you thinking in terms of looking back at your life with your mother?

A: It’s hard to say. Certainly, I spent so much time thinking about her during the making of the book. I have very mixed feelings. Towards the end of working on the book, I found, under all her junk, a bunch of letters she had written to a friend. It kind of underlined and listed all the answers to all the questions I’ve had growing up. It ended up being a revelation, so I tried to give that to ‘Monica’ too, a little bit.

Daniel Clowes book event

What: Clowes signs his new graphic novel ‘Monica’

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20

Where: Skylight Books, 1818 N, Vermont Ave., Los Angeles

Also: This is a ticket event. To enter the signing line you must by a copy of ‘Monica’ from Skylight Books

For more: Go to www.skylightbooks.com/event/skylight-daniel-clowes-signs-monica

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