In Daniel Clowes’ ‘Monica,’ Grief, Nefarious Hippies and a Personal Apocalypse

Clowes is famously reticent to unpack the symbolism in his work, and for the most part, you might as well throw in the towel when it comes to inferring creator intent in Monica. The artist’s personal Rosetta Stone of references and obscure cultural touchstones remains, as always, locked away in his head. But for Clowes, a reader’s visceral, unsullied interpretation is always the correct one.

“I’m in that phase now where everybody who’s reading [Monica] is in the same boat and approaching it with fresh eyes,” he says. “I know when it comes out, some blowhard is going to have theories about it…”

I’m in my forties now, a long way from that teenage comic shop counter jockey, but I still want Dan Clowes to think I’m cool. I take a silent oath not to be the blowhard.

“It should be a Rorschach test,” he explains. “Everybody’s got a different analysis. One of my friends was like, ‘It’s such a hopeful book for you’. And then others are like, ‘It’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever read. It feels like I’m actually witnessing the end of the world,’ and any range in between. I love that. I’m trying very hard not to interfere with any response.”

a colorful page of a comic book
A page from Daniel Clowes’ ‘Monica.’ (Fantagraphics)

Telling his truth

Though others have characterized Monica as a book about loneliness, Clowes clarifies it as “aloneness,” which is how I experienced it. It’s the kind of existential turbulence that is both universal and deeply personal — like the death of a parent.

Indeed, while he refuses to deliver a cheat sheet to any of the symbolism, Clowes is forthcoming that this book is about confronting his own past and relationship with his mother. His mom was less cookies and milk, he says, and more hippie/auto mechanic/gun nut/karate expert. When he was a young child, she left his dad for a race car driver who was later killed in an accident. Like Monica’s mom Penny, Dan’s mom dumped her parental duties onto his grandparents soon afterwards.

Though Clowes pshaws my suggestion that this book is about grief, he did lose several central figures in his life, including his mother, during the seven years it took to finish Monica. When a person passes away, decorum usually dictates that obituaries are nothing but rave reviews; the unflattering and flawed pieces that also make up a life get swept under the rug. Here, Clowes tells his unvarnished truth.

“I realized my parents are dead, my grandparents, my only siblings. I have zero living relatives that even knew me as a kid or know anything about my family. It’s just me. [So] now I get to say what really happened, and it’s so liberating,” he says.

“In a way, it’s the opposite of lonely,” he adds. Previously, when he would discuss the past, “my mother would be like, ‘What? You’re out of your mind. That’s insane.’ But I’m right. I know how it was. It’s very freeing.”

a comic book panel that reads 'Foxhole'
A page from ‘Monica’ by Daniel Clowes. (Fantagraphics)

While I disagree that Monica is a hopeful book, it’s true that Clowes himself seems to have shed some of his old-school cynicism. Dare I say, he comes across as exuberant, especially as we chop it up about his love of movies and the Bay Area: “I feel very gung-ho about California, the way you would about a sports team you’ve loved your whole life for no good reason,” he says. “You’re just, ‘I’m with them.’”

He lights up as he talks about bringing a friend on a Hitchcock tour early in the pandemic, when you could just drive right up to any beautiful landmark in San Francisco with no traffic whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, he’s also a big fan of the Noir City film festival, now programmed annually at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. As most of our old Bay Area theater gems have shuttered in the past couple of years, seeing all of the packed screenings for classic noir movies is especially heartwarming.

“It fills me with civic pride to see all of the young people dressed up,” Clowes gushes. “I just want to hug everybody.”

It’s a delightful bout of positivity coming from an artist whose new book’s end pages depict a twisted and fiery apocalypse full of melting faces and mutants strangling one another. I wonder, does this positivity extend to his feelings about his book, now that it’s finally making its way into the world?

“It is one of the few times I’m sort of just happy with it. Normally I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s something about this I wish I could change,’ or ‘I should have gone on a different course.’”

But with Monica, he says, “I feel like I did my best. It’s the one time I feel like, ‘OK, I did it.’”

Monica is out Oct. 3 on Fantagraphics. More info here

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