The eagerly anticipated “Patience,” the first original graphic novel from Daniel Clowes since 2010’s “Wilson” (a film adaptation, penned by Clowes, will be released this year), is his most narratively and formally ambitious work to date, a deeply felt and winding story of love and the limits of time nestled within an operatic science-fiction structure that is bursting with wild colors page design. Five years in the making, the book was completed while Clowes was finishing other projects, including 2011’s “Mister Wonderful” and “The Death-Ray” (both collections of formerly serialized stories) and last year’s massive “The Complete Eightball,” which collected the first 18 issues of his adored comic book series that ran from 1989 through 1997. In addition to the story of “Patience,” it seems that Clowes was doing a fair amount of time traveling of his own.
On the phone from his home in California, Clowes recently spoke to ARTINFO about the process of putting together “Patience,” the thing he needs to have figured out before he begins drawing pages, and why he started having psychedelic, Photoshop dreams.
When did you begin working on “Patience”?
I really started focusing on it and actually compiling notes around the summer of 2010. I did a few projects during the process of working on it, but, really, it was the main thing I worked on for way too long of a period of my life [laughs].
What does that compiling process look like? Is it just taking notes? Or are you sketching from the very beginning?
All of the above. I sort of liken it to making a documentary film, in a way. You’re collecting information about the characters and the world, and writing down things that seem like they would be part of the story, whether you depict them or not. Then I’m going through that stuff and looking for patterns, finding what’s interesting and what’s just good to know as an artist. It’s really just a process of living in the world [of the story] and understanding the characters. I find the one thing I have to have completed before I ever start drawing a page is to hear the characters voices clearly in my head. When I’ve gotten to that point I can start doing some real drawing and doing actual pages.
Are you literally speaking in their voices?
Like a schizophrenic? It’s almost like that [laughs]. It’s like the way you can hear your friends’ voices in your head — you can imagine what the characters would say, and then you can give them situations. When you can apply a situation to the characters and they give you a response you didn’t expect, based on how you now know them, then you know they’re ready for the story.
Have you always needed that before beginning to draw a story?
It actually took me a while [to discover] that was the important thing. I’ve done stories in the past where I didn’t quite have that yet when I started drawing. When I look back at those stories, I can see the point where I found the characters voices. It feels flat up until then. I haven’t quite figured out who this person is yet.
Once you have the voices, how much are you planning out visually — the composition, the color, the organization of panels — before anything is on the page?
I’ve worked in all different ways. I’ve plotted every little element and had everything figured out in advance, had three stages of layouts, all that kind of stuff. But I’ve found that the energy doing that often has an adverse effect on the final page. When you’re doing it for the forth time it doesn’t have the same spontaneity. With this book, I wanted to maintain that — the joy of creating the image. I tried to have the plot pretty well figured out and paced so I felt comfortable in the story. But I didn’t do any preliminary drawing, really. I didn’t ever draw the characters before they first appear on the page, and I didn’t do much in the way of layout of the pages. I did a very quick layout when I was drawing the page itself, just to make sure it would work out. It’s a controlled spontaneity.
Was time-travel the main narrative idea you were interested in at the beginning of working on “Patience”?
I was interested first in the main character, the idea of becoming a different person from the time your 25 years old to the time your 50, which was something I was wondering how the hell it happened in my own life. Then, taking the idea of a story like this and seeing it through the eyes of the Patience character, who doesn’t know what’s going on, and how somebody would react to that. Those two things got me going. It was one of the few stories I’ve done where I knew I had to get the plot to work out. It’s very complicated [laughs]. Especially to do it in a way that makes it like you didn’t work it all out. I don’t want people to read it and see the machinery behind it. It actually really helped taking five years to work on it. That allowed me to refine things. I kind of came to the end almost in the way the characters do — I wasn’t sure how it was going to finally play out in the last 10 pages or so before it became inevitable as I was working on it.
In “Patience,” you return to the idea of an investigation, which appears in a lot of your older work. What brings you back to this kind of narrative device?
I think I have that personality. You know, I also relate to it in my dog [laughs]. She’ll see another dog and act really indifferent, as if it’s not even there. She’ll let the dog sniff her and then it will go away. Then she’ll sniff where the dog was, and you can see her canine brain working to piece together all this information. It’s almost like she’s waiting for an event to be over so she can analyze it for clues. I always feel like I’m somehow connected to that, in a way. I like to process things. It’s too overwhelming in the moment, so I’m more interested in figuring it out in detail after the fact.
Are you thinking about your own past work in that way?
Whenever my mind starts drifting to thinking about my work in those terms I try to use whatever devices I can to stop that from happening [laughs]. It tends to be deliberating. You don’t want to be the analyst of your own work. That’s a deep rabbit hole that’s hard to get out of.
I was curious because you released the “Collected Eight Ball” last year, which required a certain amount of looking back at some of your earliest work.
I had to become a different person in a way. Even more so when I had the exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, I really started to think of myself as a collector of Daniel Clowes’ artwork. I started to feel this weird pride, like: I have the foremost collection of this guy’s art! I felt pride when I would see the little card next to the art work, ‘Property of Daniel Clowes.’ I found I was getting so divorced from the actual creation of the work. Deep down I’m probably more comfortable being a collector than an artist.
To move back to “Patience,” it seemed to me that you were using color in a different way here, almost expressionistic at times. How early are you thinking about color?
Prior to this, I think I had always thought of color as something you add on in the way you would add music to a film, to enhance it after the fact. This was the first time I decided from the get-go that it was going to be a color book, and the artwork was going to be in service to how it would look in color. So I thought a lot about it as I was drawing and wrote a lot of notes along the way about color. Really, the reason it took me as long as it did is that I spent almost a year just coloring it, which was not a fun year for me [laughs]. But it’s also satisfying. Once it was done I felt like I had accomplished something, much more than I ever do with the parts of the process that are actually fun for me. To do something grueling like that and to get through it, it felt like I pushed myself in a way I don’t normally do.
Does that satisfaction make you want to spend more time again on the next project, to labor over some of those grueling parts of the process?
It literally made me decide that the next project will be purely in black-and-white [laughs]. There were days working on this where I just stared at a computer screen all day. I started actually having dreams in Photoshop. I would close my eyes and all the tress would turn weird fluorescent colors. It’s also that you’re magnifying the art; it’s huge so you can color accurately. So it felt like I was in the world. The trees were, in relation to me, the same size as real trees. I felt like I spent a year occupying the story, which was kind of a great way to end the project, but also disconcerting.
Is this your longest book?
By quite a bit.
When did you realize this was going to be a bigger project than anything else you had done?
Definitely not when I began. I thought it would be one of the long ones, maybe around 100 pages. But I’m so slow and methodical that if I were to start out telling myself I’m going to draw a 180 page book I wouldn’t have been able to get started. That’s too much from my brain to handle. I had to keep lying to myself. Then the years add up and I kept adding pages and expanding things. Normally my process is to condense everything, trying to cut everything out except for the bare essentials. For this one, I was very comfortable to give myself space if I wanted to draw one of those big two-page spreads and it didn’t throw off the rest of the rhythm of the story.
—Craig Hubert (@craighubert)
(Images: courtesy of Fantagraphics)