Just over three years ago, my friend Matt and I caught Shia LaBeouf plagiarizing the work of Eisner award-winning comics author Daniel Clowes. LaBeouf had turned the comic story “Justin M. Damiano” into a short film and passed it off as his own original idea, a baffling decision that triggered a long sequence of confusion and public intrigue. At the time, I received a statement from Clowes’s publisher, so an interview this weekend pegged to his new movie Wilson was my first chance to speak with the author/artist about the incident.
“That was a day where I had all this stuff to do, and I woke up and early in the morning I had this email from a friend of mine who said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you did that LaBeouf thing,’” Clowes recalled, laughing. “And I was like, What the fuck? I wrote back and was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He sent me the link and I watched it and was like, ‘Did I write this? Did I have an agreement with him that I don’t remember?’”
He hadn’t gone crazy. LaBeouf had just straight up stolen his work. And when he was caught, the actor launched into a long series of public meta stunts meant to convey his regret, including an art installation in Los Angeles, and releasing other plagiarized statements. It didn’t exactly show traditional contrition, but more privately, Clowes said, LaBeouf did reach out to him.
“He tried to, but I was like, ‘I don’t want to have some dude sweet talk me,’” Clowes, who has been drawing comics for 30 years now, explained. “He’d be like, ‘Hey dude, I love you!’ I don’t want to be his psychiatrist, it wasn’t my problem.”
LaBeouf seemed to undergo some kind of breakdown in the months that followed, which Clowes followed, or at least learned about, from afar.
“I felt weird about that,” Clowes admitted. “Because I couldn’t look my own name up on Google without seeing ‘Shia LaBeouf, Shia Labeouf!’”
It’s the sort of unexpected, blunt, and devious answer you might expect from Wilson, the 40-something accidental misanthrope at the center of Clowes’s 2010 book and director Craig Johnson’s movie adaptation. Perpetually unemployed and prone to wild swings between sunny optimism and bitter dismay, he is what Clowes describes as a California left-wing (and occasionally libertarian) version of the angry white man that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. He’s been divorced for a decade, has no children and few friends, but considers himself a “people person” even if most people who speak to him in the street are really only interested in his adorable dog Pepper.
Wilson always speaks his mind, whether people want to hear it or not. Clowes, who is far more mild-mannered and friendly than any of the characters in his books, has called Wilson his id, the kind of person he wishes he could be sometimes when social conventions preclude him from telling someone that they’re wasting their life working for corporate oligarchs or that they should simply go fuck themselves.
But the character (played by Woody Harrelson in the movie) is not simply a caustic middle-aged man; as with protagonists in Clowes’s many other comics, there is a deep angst and sadness inside him, as well as a desperation to connect with the people they alienate. In his book David Boring, the titular main character — who is also incredibly lonely — wonders if he’s just perpetually unhappy. That theme works its way into Clowes’s work over and over again because he finds himself surrounded by people in that kind of silent crisis.
“I don’t know if it’s relatable, but it’s relatable to me. I find that, especially at my age, most people my age are some form of Wilson,” he said. “They’re in that genus where — men and women alike — they tend to be sort of loners who get more and more eccentric as they get older and have all these strange habits and are still trying to desperately relate to people. They have good friends who are basically shut-ins at this point and just can’t interact with anyone in the world — except for me — and yet they’re on Facebook all day. They’re still trying to connect. I find it endlessly fascinating.”
The casting of the eminently likable Harrelson allowed for the movie — which Clowes wrote as well — to lean into the irascibility of the Wilson character. “Originally I was thinking of a less likable actor playing him, but I think it would have been just unbearable,” he explained. But the movie had no real interest in making characters easier to root for; the casting of Laura Dern, Clowes’s favorite actress of all-time, as Wilson’s long-lost wife Pippi enabled the author to flesh out a character that was a cypher in the book, with few obvious emotions or motivations; in the movie, she is a tornado of rage and frustration, often overwhelming Wilson once they reconnect. “I realized that, ‘Oh, she can actually play a really damaged character that you sort of get why he likes her and why she would like him,’” Clowes said.
Clowes has plenty of experience writing complicated, difficult female characters, having broken into the greater public consciousness with his book and subsequent film adaptation of Ghost World. The 2001 movie starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as 18-year-old girls with biting wit and sardonic senses of humor, quick with quips and unafraid to call out anything they considered lame. Both the book and movie — for which Clowes was nominated for an Oscar — are beloved by many, especially young Gen-Xers and older millennials, but Clowes is finding more and more resistance to the characters.
“More and more, people hate those characters. When that book came out, nothing but love except for comic fanboy guys who felt like, ‘They make fun of me,’” he says. “And now a lot of women are like, ‘God, they’re so mean, so horrible.’ People don’t have that kind of unfiltered personality anymore. I knew so many women who were just like those two. Just really mean and funny and vulnerable, and I feel like that’s not a type anymore that people aspire to be.”
In a way, though, Wilson is the sort of character that is becoming more prominent in real life. As Clowes suggested, he is a white man in his mid-40s who is angry and anti-authority, which is the mold for stereotypical Trump voter. Clowes is working on a new book that he will now have to reconsider after November’s election, and he will look more closely at some of the characters he’s written in the past.
“If I had done a comic about some alt-right guy ten years ago, it would have just been a weirdo conspiracy theory guy out of my Velvet Glove comic, some freak that nobody even thought of as anything but an isolated lunatic,” he said. “And now, it has a whole new vibe. Those characters have risen up, so I would have to really rethink anything if I was dealing with that. I try not to have characters like that, because once you’re so far in the weeds to believe all that stuff, it’s not really interesting. It’s so close to mental illness, and that’s not interesting. You want people who are actually able to make real decisions.”
Considering that he’s spent three decades writing about difficult people in strange and sometimes dire situations — often of their own making — Clowes’s easy nature and generous laugh are somewhat surprising. That he’s so chill may have something to do with the fact that he’s promoting a movie, a medium he’s learned to embrace precisely because it’s beyond his grasp.
“When I first worked on Ghost World, I tried to be more in control of it, and it was so maddening,” he said. “It just flitters away, and then somebody comes in and says, ‘This is going to be in the background,’ and you’re like, No! And then you’re filming in two minutes. Now I put all my ego and focus into my comics, because that’s where I have control. A movie makes me go back to the comics and then micro-manage them.”
That much is evident when I ask why he doesn’t sell his comics for e-readers, when he gives an answer that, frankly, sounds like it could have come from Wilson.
“I like to be in control. My control freak-ness extends to the printing. If you get an e-book, you get it on the screen, so it looks however your screen is adjusted. It’s not going to look the way I want it to,” he said. But, what of the potential audience bump he could get by making his books available for download? “I don’t care about my fucking audience. I just want a pared-down audience of people who buy books. That’s all I care about. It’s for me, and I hope a few of my shut-in friends will be amused.”