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Part one-crazy-night comedy of errors, part Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedy of discomfort, part heartwarming second-chance romance, part cartooning master class, Daniel Clowes’s new book Mister Wonderful packs a lot of delights in between its long covers. The book began life as a weekly strip in The New York Times Magazine‘s “Funny Pages” section before Clowes reformatted, edited, and expanded it for its new incarnation from his frequent publisher Pantheon. Now the misadventures of Marshall, a middle-aged divorcé with a penchant for second-guessing pretty much every word out of his own mouth, and his fateful blind date can sit comfortably on your bookshelf instead of lying in your recycling bin after the weekend’s over. And the added bonus to any new Clowes comic, of course, is new Clowes interviews.
Over on the CBR mothership, Clowes spoke with Alex Dueben, who elicited from the cartoonist a provocative take on the much-lamented demise of the alternative comic-book series (a la Clowes’s own Eightball):
Do you ever see yourself going back to “Eightball?” If not doing it the same way, then doing something like what Seth did last year when he returned to “Palookaville?”
No. I think the great thing about those early comics, “Eightball” and “Yummy Fur” and all that, was it was the pre-Internet days. We had letters pages and we were a fulcrum for this community. You felt a certain responsibility to mediate that. There’s no necessity for that at all anymore. If I was going to do a comic, I wouldn’t put in a letters page. There’s no point to it. Beyond that kind of thing, I don’t know. If I were going to do a bunch of short little comics, I might consider doing another issue, but it would never be the same as those early comics. It would have to be a whole new thing.
Most people tend to focus on the alternative comic book as a format superseded by book-formatted collections and graphic novels, but the community aspect of those series — the way letters pages and notes from the artists would lead readers to similar books and similar people who read them — was a powerful enticement in its own right, meaning that the Internet probably had as much to do with the format’s obsolescence as did perfectbound hardcovers.
Meanwhile, yours truly interviewed Clowes for The Comics Journal’s website. Here he explains the origin of Mister Wonderful, the idea for which came to him spontaneously in the middle of the phone call during which an editor for The New York Times Magazine offered him the gig the strip would eventually be created for:
We were talking about the “Funny Pages” section—I had wondered how popular it could possibly be, since nobody I knew was really talking about it. It seemed like all the cartoonists who were in it and the friends of the cartoonists who were in it were talking about it, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that was making the rounds, where everybody was talking about the latest serial fiction piece that was running in there. She said, “Yeah, people are a little confused by it.” She was very careful in the way she spoke, and she said something like, “We’d really love it if you could consider the audience.”
I remember thinking, “Oh, she means, ‘Try to make this one mainstream in a way that will appeal to the New York Times reader.’” Off the top of my head, as a joke, I said, “I should just do a romance story.” I was making a joke—like, a Sandra Bullock movie! A totally formulaic Harlequin-romance kind of a story.
And she laughed, like, “Don’t do that.” [Laughter]
But then, as she was talking during the rest of the phone call, we were going over all this other stuff, I was talking without even listening to what I was saying. I was actually thinking, “That’s a great idea! I could do a romance story!” I immediately thought, “I should try to think of who would be the ultimate, quintessential New York Times Magazine reader—a schlubby, middle-aged guy, the kind of guy I would see reading the New York Times on Sunday morning at a café in Oakland—and make him the hero of this romance.”