Comic to Movie: Daniel Clowes Comics On-Screen

Movie still from 'Wilson'
Movie still from 'Wilson' | Wilson Webb © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserve

At the KCET Cinema Series' screening of "Wilson", director Craig Johnson told the crowd inside the Sherman Oaks' ArcLight Theater that he was already a fan of Daniel Clowes, when he heard that Fox Searchlight was developing the famed cartoonist's graphic novel into a movie. In fact, he says, he had a copy of "Wilson" on his bookshelf. His response to the potential film: "How are they going to pull this off? This guy is an asshole."

'Wilson' Trailer

Then Johnson read the script (adapted by Clowes himself) about a very difficult middle-aged man going through a series of personal trials. "I opened it up and I just started laughing," says Johnson. "Then I found myself kind of unexpectedly moved by this story. It was so strange. I felt like it would be a challenge for me. I loved this sort of salty-sweet tone of it."

"Wilson" is the third feature adaptation of Clowes' work, following big screen versions of "Ghost World" (2001), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and "Art School Confidential" (2006). Clowes worked on all three adaptations of the movies. 

A superstar in the comics world, Oakland-based Clowes has had a prolific career that began in the latter half of the 1980s with the comic "Lloyd Llewelyn" before the launch of his career-defining series "Eightball." A collection of assorted, often-serialized stories, "Eightball" ran for fifteen years and was the original home of beloved tales like "Ghost World," "Pussey!" and "David Boring." Clowes' stories have appeared in anthologies and as standalone graphic novels. He's also the subject of a monograph, "The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist," which gives a fantastic and detailed look at his career. 

Below, we've put together five books to get you hooked on Daniel Clowes. 

Wilson - Daniel Clowes


Wilson is a cranky, awkward middle-aged Oakland resident whose life turns topsy-turvy when he returns to his hometown of Chicago to visit his dying father. He gets back in touch with his ex-wife and finds the teenage daughter he never met, setting off a chain of events that are both ridiculous and heartbreaking. In "Wilson," Clowes works with the themes of loneliness and regret that permeate his stories to create what is perhaps the biggest artistic and narrative triumph of his career. 

"Wilson," the film, departs here and there from the comic. For example, there's a change in location. The movie takes place in Minnesota. At the KCET Cinema Series screening, director Craig Johnson pointed out that this shift was made for practical reasons; they were able to get tax credits in Minnesota. "Minneapolis-St. Paul is just the right feel for the story," Johnson adds. "We were looking for sort of a mid-sized, progressive, gentrifying American city and Minneapolis had everything we needed." 

But, as with a previous Clowes adaptation, "Ghost World," the film retains the soul of the original story. "There are vignettes taken directly from the book and then there's a lot that are unique to the movie," says Johnson. "A movie is a different creature than a graphic novel and this graphic novel, in particular, it's designed almost sort of like Sunday funnies comic strips, so it's very specific and unique and Dan did a great job. He did the adaptation of his own book, turning it into a movie, giving this narrative more of a movie feel to it." 

Ice Haven - Daniel Clowes

Ice Haven

“Ice Haven” is a small town where the lives of residents young and old intersect in strange ways. There are essentially three stories told in this book. Random Wilder, a middle-aged man in a seersucker jacket, is jealous of a local poet, whose zine-making granddaughter is fixated on crotchety gentleman. Violet Van der Plate is a lonely teenager who is new to town and just wants her long-distance boyfriend to help her get out of Ice Haven. Meanwhile, a young boy has been kidnapped and the town is on the search to find him. Interspersed within the scenes from Ice Haven is the true crime tale of Leopold and Loeb, college-aged guys who kidnapped and killed a teenage boy in the 1920s. “Ice Haven” is driven by its quirky cast of characters, but never loses sight of the plots. 

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Early on in "Ice Haven," a character named Harry Naybors rants about the use of the word graphic novel, saying that it's a "vulgar marketing sobriquet." That moment seems to not-so-subtly criticize the persistent perception of Clowes' work as graphic novels instead of comics. Sure, his work is made for adults, but they still are clearly comics. His stories are presented as a series of anecdotes, longer than a newspaper strip and shorter than a comic book installment, that link together to form a larger tale. "Ice Haven" is a good example of this. 

Ghost World - Daniel Clowes

Ghost World

Certainly Clowes' best-known story, "Ghost World" was adapted into a successful film in 2001. It's likely that many people are more familiar with the film, which Clowes co-wrote with director Terry Zwigoff, than the comics. "Ghost World,the film, was an indie hit with performances from Thora Birch (then best known for "American Beauty"), who starred as Enid, and Steve Buscemi. The film was also a big break for Scarlett Johansson. 

As for the comic, it originally appeared in Clowes' zine "Eightball," where it ran from 1993 through 1997. The story revolves around the friendship of Enid and Becky as they transition from teens to adults. They are the quintessential '90s girls, dropping pop culture references and curiously fascinated with bizarre (sometimes downright awful) local characters. Their friendship suffers when Enid gets the bug to go to college and as their favorite spot in town gets more popular, they have to accept that change is happening. Clowes beautifully captures the complicated emotions of this time in life while illustrating how insecurities manifest in young people. 

Mister Wonderful - Daniel Clowes

Mister Wonderful

Marshall is divorced and has been single for a long time when friends set him up on a blind date with Natalie. The date is filled with awkward moments and Clowes perfectly depicts this by interrupting speech bubbles with anxious thoughts. There are a lot of complications in the courtship of Marshall and Natalie, but this is ultimately a sweet story about two lonely people who find a common understanding. 

In Ken Parille's essay, "Narration After Y2K: Daniel Clowes and the End of Style," featured in the monograph "The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist," the writer notes that "Mister Wonderful" is inspired by the romance comics of the mid-20th century. Indeed, Clowes' work overall features strong narrative and artistic influences from that era and it's that nod to the past tied to themes relevant to the late 20th and early 21st centuries that help define his work. 

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron - Daniel Clowes

Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron

An early story in Clowes' career, "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" ran in Eightball from 1989 through 1993 and it's quite unusual. The story moves from a seedy movie theater to a road trip filled with all sorts of bizarre situations. The characters here are less rooted in reality than what one might expect from Clowes and it veers towards horror at times. "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" is B-movie-meets-art film in style, but it still relies on the strange characters and a retro-meets-modern look that marks his work. 


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