Imagine my surprise when I found this in my local library. I’ve written before about my liking for Clowes’ work and how it contributed to my decision to stop working in comix in the early 00’s. I’d given it well over 10 years of my life, and had not made any real headway. Meanwhile, there was Clowes, making huge advances in his own work and finally starting to get significant recognition for it. I realised that if I could not bring the same integrity and dedication to my own comix work then it was time to try something else. I now don’t read many comix, but always make time for anything Clowes is doing. Patience took him 5 years to make and I read it in just over an hour, but its effect lingers long after I turned the final page. It’s clearly influenced by an unconditional love for the EC science fiction comix from the 1950’s – Weird Fantasy, Weird Fantasy, Incredible Science Fiction – the charming naivety of which Clowes has used to inform his vision of ‘time travel’ that is a key element of the story.
He’s also brought his deeply-ingrained Ditko influence to the fore in the art style he deploys throughout, which adds to the sense of disorientation you would expect flipping back and forth between the near-past and future. The story I wont spoil for you here, suffice to say that if a young David Lynch had written an episode of The Twilight Zone it would still not be as strange as what Clowes has come up with. There’s a daftness to some of the sudden bursts of violence (and a constant stream of inspired profanity) that reminded me of Dennis Hopper as Frank in Blue Velvet, but this is juxtaposed with full-on acid trip imagery inspired by Bob Powell’s artwork, which helps to create a unique atmosphere that ultimately defies comparison. Only Clowes could have done something like this, and it can only really work as a comic, but he’s now working on a screenplay based on the book and I will be curious to see how this could ever possibly be translated into a film.
My 2016 portrait of Daniel Clowes:
I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.
This is a new drawing of Richard Yates, that I’ve mocked up as a cover for Blake Bailey’s masterful biography of his life and work. I’m re-reading that book now, having first read it about ten years ago when I first discovered Yates’ writing, and it sets a standard against which all other biographies – literary or otherwise – should be measured. Yates was an undeniably tragic figure, damaged for life by the genetic heritage of his alcoholic mother and subsequent childhood experiences that left him with a bleak vision of the adult world. That vision came to maturity throughout Eisenhower-era America, and Yates was merciless and unsympathetic in his depiction of the “hopeless emptiness” of what he saw around him. “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness,” said Yates, “but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.” Early success (of which Bukowski warned against) with his first novel Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, did him few favours as he struggled for the rest of the decade to write anything. Instead he spent his time smoking like a chimney and self-medicating with vast deep lakes of alcohol what would now be diagnosed as a bi-polar disorder, crawling through the wreckage of one marriage only to embark on another, and all the while railing against beatniks, hippies, and any other writers who seemed to be getting the success he thought he deserved. “I’m the best fucking writer in America” he once drunkenly roared, and he was right. Alas, his work was at odds with the times, and his emphasis on realism was anathema to the then-popular fad of ‘experimental’ fiction, exemplified by Barth, Brautigan, Pynchon, etc. but Yates was having none of it:
I’ve tried and tried but I can’t stomach most of what’s being called ‘The Post-Realistic Fiction’ . . . I know it’s all very fashionable stuff and I know it provides an endless supply of witty little intellectual puzzles and puns and fun and games for graduate students to play with, but it’s emotionally empty. It isn’t felt.
That quote sums up my attitude to my own work. I’m bombarded daily by art that’s far more fashionable than my traditional approach but, to quote Yates, it’s “emotionally empty” and without that emotional content it just does not resonate with me. There’s other aspects of Yates’ life that I recognise in myself – the monomania, the elevation of the work itself above almost any other aspect of my life – but Yates took it all way beyond what anyone else would. He lived in “Dostoyevskian squalor” in a series of horrible apartments that visitors felt physically repelled by – the snowdrifts of fag ash everywhere, the filthy nicotine-stained curtains, the fridge containing nothing but beer and instant coffee, the almost complete lack of human habitation save for photographs of his three daughters on the wall above his writing desk. As Bailey points out, none of this mattered to Yates provided the writing was going well, and by the mid-70’s he was on medication that more-or-less stabilized him (after a series of psychotic breakdowns that are hilariously tragic) and he became quite prolific, knocking out a new novel every couple of years or so, unapologetically mining his own life story to create a body of work that is as substantial as anything by more celebrated late 20th century American writers such as Philip Roth and John Updike. It’s not fiction for everyone, I’ll admit that. Here’s what Joyce Carol Oates had to say about Yates’ aesthetic:
One feels that his people never have a chance: odd things may happen to them, but they are never odd enough, never tragic and awful enough, to lead to a change of vision. . . . A sad, gray, deathly world–dreams without substance–ageing without maturity: this is Yates’s world, and it is a disturbing one.
It is a disturbing one, because it’s at odds with the monoculture’s over-reliance on reassuring the audience that everything will work out fine (so just keep shopping). Yates saw through all of that from a very early age and spent the rest of his life honing that understanding, using it to expose what he saw as the delusions people allowed themselves to succumb to. He could also be brazenly honest, about his own darkest impulses and those he saw in others. In his most critically-underrated book Disturbing The Peace, the protagonist John Wilder – a mentally-ill alcoholic – ponders the assassination of John F. Kennedy:
He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too rich, too young, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder knew those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself, and he was grateful to be here, trembling and safe in his own kitchen, two thousand miles away.
It’s an insight very few other writers would allow themselves to have, and it’s a measure of how committed Yates was to his art that he was prepared to reveal it, challenging the reader to have sympathy for an unsympathetic character like Wilder. Yates’ novels were all autobiographical in some way, and once you’ve read his biography you see just how much of his own life informed the novels, and how his constant returning to the same themes and concerns was really his own way of psychoanalysing himself through the lens of art. Bailey clearly had affection for his subject, but never shies away from describing his worst behaviour (and there’ a lot of it) and it’s a testament to his skills as a biographer that despite his worst excesses (and there’s a lot of them) Yates comes across as someone you cannot help but feel some kind of sympathy and empathy towards. He’s really not a good advert for the ‘literary life’, but his is an example that any young budding writer or artist should be aware of before they think they’re ready to dedicate any portion of their finite time on earth towards whatever it was they think is their calling. If you can imagine yourself sitting for years in a room lit by a single light bulb, on a chair ringed by the crushed remains of cockroaches, and that image does not scare you then perhaps, perhaps, you are up to the task.
Here’s my original drawing of Richard Yates:
The family has just returned from its annual pilgrimage to Pembrokeshire. It’s one of our favourite places, very much removed from the rest of Britain, washed in a light that seems to demand a painterly response. Graham Sutherland found his most enduring inspiration there, as do I. The beaches are wide and empty, the lanes meander through lush woods and wide open fields, and I always have the sense that just around the next corner is the one thing I have to paint, the one thing that will encompass everything I have to say, and I sincerely hope that I never find it, because after that what else is there?
In 2009 Faber & Faber published a series of hardback editions of selected poems by six of their most popular and significant authors: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, W.B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The covers were designed by Face Out Books, using six different artists who produced distinct and yet complementary images. By far the most striking to me was the cover art produced by Mark Hearld for the Ted Hughes edition. The starkness of the drawing has a raw power that perfectly suits Ted’s imagery, and I wish I’d bought a copy when they were washing up in remainder shops a few years back.
My 2012 drawing of Ted Hughes:
While in Pembrokeshire recently, we stopped off at Carew Castle. Like many old buildings in Britain, it purports to be haunted, but the ghost of Care Castle is unique: a Barbary Macaque who allegedly slaughtered its cursed owner on a dark and stormy night. We saw no sign of it but I took these photos in the hope of capturing some of the atmosphere of the place.
A new drawing, inspired by reading Cynan Jones‘ novel The Dig. The prose owes something to Cormac McCarthy, as does the premise of setting two disparate characters on a doomed trajectory, but there’s a specific emphasis on location – an unspecified part of remote Wales – that roots it in a British tradition encompassing everyone from Dylan Thomas to Ian McEwan to Ted Hughes. Not for the faint-hearted, and perhaps too bleak for some, but it provides a necessary alternative to much of what’s been called ‘the new nature writing’. Jones’ describes the kind of human interactions with the countryside that I recall from growing up on the southern edge of Leeds, where wild woods and farmland butted up against the edge of council estates. On Sunday mornings we didn’t get church bells, we got the sound of shotguns blasting bird fowl out of the sky, and it was a common sight to see dead crows and magpies hung by their feet from hawthorn trees.