Those comics aren’t for children,” I overheard a staff member say of the new Daniel Clowes exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. With drawings that range from silly, nude strippers to grotesque and sinister monsters, her statement wasn’t exactly false. As the prolific author and illustrator of more than 15 comic books and graphic novels, Clowes has made a name for himself as an artist rooted in the contrast between outrageous fantasy and the mundane reality of adulthood. He is, as the name of this showcase calls it, the epitome of the “Modern Cartoonist” — erudite, misanthropic, complex and whimsical. Though children may not be the target viewers, the exhibit does instill a type of youthful wonderment.
Once you make your way past the 19th-century oils of Yosemite in the art gallery, there is a back room of stark black-and-white characters. They begin in the late 1980s with Lloyd Llewellyn — a shallow bleach-blonde detective of Daniel Clowes’s first comic. Next comes the cavalcade of his many bizarre characters. There’s Dan Pussey — the acne-ridden comic book celebrity. There’s Enid and Rebecca — the sarcastic female duo famous for their witty repartee in the popular comic (and film) “Ghost World.” Then there’s one of Clowes’ more recent creations, Wilson — a middle-aged curmudgeon with a penchant for self-deprecation.
These are only a few of the several harebrained, humorous and heartfelt characters that Clowes has created over the years. In a layout that is both comprehensive and chronological, “Modern Cartoonist” highlights not only the variety of Clowes’ characters, but also the versatility of his artistic style. While Lloyd Llewellyn boasts a film noir-esque look, the characters of “Ice Haven” have a distinctly simpler, Charles Schultz feel. The original sketches provided by the artist allow the audience a glimpse inside his imaginative process of character development.
In particular, an early drawing of the bespectacled Enid reveals the delicate line between caricature and realism Clowes balances with ease. Enid is a fairly typical girl. She has a bobbed haircut, black-framed glasses and a retro sense of style. You could probably find a gal like her flipping through blues records (as she does in “Ghost World”) at Amoeba. But in Clowes’ transformative hands, what seems pedestrian emerges as something offbeat and out of this world. Alongside her trademark skirt and stockings, Enid also carries a “cavewoman club,” a “futuristic ray gun” — and the look wouldn’t be complete without a black leather “teen bondage mask.” Voila! Enid’s now her own superhero.
This is what makes Daniel Clowes’ work so remarkable. In his seamless synthesis of inventive images and relatable text, he lifts the doldrums of the contemporary adult experience to a level of child-like fancy — the kind of comic book life where astronauts fly past office windows or bookworms save cities in skin-tight costumes. The design of “Modern Cartoonist” matches this exaggerative tendency. His exquisitely detailed drawings are blown up in size to adorn lofty walls. Viewers too, are lifted from mere passive observers to participants with interactive, sliding frames and seats that allow the audience to read and experience the stories up close. In a way, designer Nicholas de Monchaux and guest curator Susan Miller have done for Clowes’ canon of cartoons what Clowes has done for the medium of comics — elevate these seemingly absurd, possibly juvenile imaginings to something deserving of the term “art.”