Comfortable with obscurity, comics artists wary of legitimacy

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Comic-book artist Daniel Clowes and "Crumb" director Terry Zwigoff are screening the film version of Clowes' "Ghost World" for family and friends in a Los Angeles theater.

Clowes turns tentatively in his seat, scanning the place.

"I could see pretty much every person I ever knew watching this thing with wide eyes," he recalls.

At this point in the story, you might expect our hero's voice to swell with tears of humility and pride. Many more people will see the $10 million, big-name studded movie than have read the $10 Fantagraphics book. Those who have already, however, are fervent "GW" fans, attracted to the wistfully sweet story of two normal teenage girls at the awkward end of their friendship, facing the adult world.

Art opening

Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, 6 p.m. tomorrow at Roq La Rue, 2224 Second Ave., Seattle. Exhibit runs through June 2. Information, call 206-374-8977.

"Ghost World's" Enid Coleslaw (an anagram of Daniel Clowes) and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, are the most distinct realizations of the artist's personality on the page, he proclaims.

Black, white and veiled in blue hues, the graphic novel is a lonely story, surreal but so close to life it approximates a waking dream. Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro and "American Beauty's" Thora Birch star in the movie. John Malkovich is a producer.

All those years of fingers stained with ink and frustration were finally paying off, the artist thinks. Right? Not quite.

"It was utterly terrifying," Clowes says of his moment in the celluloid sun. "With comics, I don't have any self-consciousness about it at all. I wonder why that is."

Perhaps we can explain. Many comics artists nurse introverted personalities thanks to the average American, whom Clowes realistically draws with bovine chompers, tuber noses and swollen mouths. The public doesn't consider comics to be literature augmented by art.

"If everyone who ever read 'Ghost World' went to see the movie," Clowes jokes, "we'll make approximately $60,000."

Even so, Clowes' joint show with fellow artist Chris Ware at the Roq La Rue gallery in Belltown, starting tomorrow and continuing through June 2, comes with high expectations.

Last year's show by another Fantagraphics artist, Charles Burns, sold well and drew large crowds, according to gallery owner Kirsten Anderson. With Clowes' graphic novel "David Boring" and Ware's bittersweet "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth" occupying most top comics lists for the year 2000, there's no reason to fret.

"How big is that gallery?" Clowes asks in his soft, unassuming voice. "Do you think anyone will show up?"

Fantagraphics president and co-founder Gary Groth laughs when this quote is retold, particularly because Clowes' "Eightball" series is one of the Seattle-based publisher's top-selling comics.

"It's weirdly not uncommon about cartoonists, that passive-aggressive personality," Groth says. "To some extent it's genuine, especially among alternative comic-book artists, and to some extent I think it's cultivated."

We would have gotten Ware's opinion on the matter, but he doesn't like phone interviews. When asked for a photo, Ware sent a self-portrait - a drawing of a faceless robo-drone.

To better understand the depth of Clowes' personal terror, skim his work. Since 1989, "Eightball" has given us guys with low self-esteem, shoddy lives and a dank world outlook. Most represent aspects of the artist's psyche.

Later collections, "Daniel Boring" being a good example, seethe with uneasiness, breaths of disillusion and disaffection. In 1993, Clowes drew a what-if tale, musing about what would happen if his film-noir-meets-mutants yarn "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" went through the Hollywood mill. It was a horror show, as the artist's buck-toothed persona perspired at the mercy of a mustachioed Hollywood producer. Oh yes. Richard Gere was very interested.

And in the final frame, commentary from a couch surfer watching it on TV: "I saw a thing on some talk show about the cartoonist who wrote it. He got a lot of money and became a coke addict, and then he got into heavy debt with the mob, and now he's a born-again Christian."

Insert frame filled with blood-curdling scream here.

In summer roundups, most critics predict "Ghost World" will be the sudden shock of cool that the dog days of summer will be dying for.

Clowes, for all his professed fear, is having a go at another movie script and another "Eightball" issue that's a lithe 29 stories in 40 pages, the antithesis of the exquisitely slow "David Boring."

He'll be happy to hang out with Ware again at Roq La Rue. The pair met in Chicago in 1991 and have kept in touch since. "We talk on the phone about once a week. You know, about the horrible treatment we receive as artists," the Oakland-based cartoonist says with a soft laugh. "Nothing makes you happy, though, when you're an artist like me and Chris."