The Dark Comic Arts of Daniel Clowes

Chicago Exhibit Raises Questions of Jewish Identity and Parental Oversight

Parental Advisory:Mature Audiences Only? Artwork for the cover of ‘Eightball 18.’
Daniel Clowes
Parental Advisory:Mature Audiences Only? Artwork for the cover of ‘Eightball 18.’

By Menachem Wecker

Published August 28, 2013, issue of September 06, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s exhibit “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” (on view through October 13) ought to come with a parental advisory about its explicit content. Although the cover of one of the comic books that hangs in the show — “Eightball” No. 8 (1992) — is recommended “for mature readers,” on both occasions that I visited the exhibit, children thumbed through X-rated comics scattered throughout the show, apparently unbeknown to their parents.

Clowes, best known for his illustrated tale of teenage angst, “Ghost World,” which starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in the film adaptation, has an eye for the bizarre and the obscene. Many of his strips feature graphic sexual scenes, and Clowes romanticizes the unsightly in his storyline “Ugly Girls,” in which Enid of “Ghost World” makes her debut.

In the pieces at MCA and in Clowes’s larger body of work, Jews and anti-Semitism often hide in plain sight. The name of the “Ghost World” protagonist, Enid Coleslaw, is an anagram for Daniel Clowes, and Enid is Jewish.

She declines a bagel from her friend Rebecca (“Becky”) because the bagel is “too WASPy,” and she shares a joke with Becky: “Whaddya call a Japanese Jew? Sosumi.”

John Ellis, an annoying acquaintance of Enid’s and Becky’s, is anti-Semitic. “Shalom, Enid Cohn!” he greets her at one point, to which she responds, “Sieg Heil!” He later adds: “Listen to the little liberal Jewish girl.… You Jews are such an angry bunch!” Enid assures him: “We Jews are sick of you non-Jews f–king up the world!” Another Clowes work, “Ice Haven,” has quite a few Jewish characters, but as in “Ghost World,” those characters don’t seem to have deep senses of their Jewish identities.

A spokeswoman for MCA said the artist declined to respond to submitted questions about his Jewish identity because of both a lack of time and the demands of other projects. But Clowes, who was born in Chicago in 1961 to a Jewish mother and a lapsed-Episcopalian father, has discussed his religious upbringing in the past. In 1998, he told Jennifer Przybylski of San Francisco’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “One half of my family were Jewish immigrants who were kind of obnoxious, and the other half was this reserved WASPish Pennsylvania clan. The two girls [Enid and Becky] were a characterization of the two and hence myself.” Despite Enid’s name being an anagram of Clowes’s, the artist told Przybylski that he created two female, rather than male, characters so that they “could not be aligned with me whatsoever.”

In his 2004 book “From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture,” Paul Buhle, a professor emeritus at Brown University, compares Clowes’s work to “Seinfeld” in its meditation on states of mind rather than on particular topics, and notes that the “pervasive sense of alienation” in Clowes’s comic books may have become “near-universal themes, but once they belonged strongly or were identified strongly as Jewish themes in the U.S.”

“Here’s where it gets dicey,” Buhle told me in an email. “Would even Clowes think of this as a ‘Jewish Take’? Maybe not. And perhaps I am just guilty of reading too deeply.”

In 2010, Clowes told Gothamist that he deliberately chose the ambiguous name Wilson, which could be a first or last name, for one of his protagonists. “I’m glad I didn’t give him a Jewish name, because I thought about that for a while,” he said. And as Ken Parille, an associate professor of English at East Carolina University, notes in his edited volume, “The Daniel Clowes Reader,” Clowes’s 1996 strip “Gynecology” features “an anti-Semitic caricature of the ‘Worried Jew.’”

“I think the ways in which Clowes’s work is informed by issues of Jewish identity are more a matter of cultural influences than of family history,” Parille said in an interview with the Forward. “While family certainly plays a role, it’s one that’s hard to articulate.”

According to Parille, Clowes is “deeply influenced by a tradition of Jewish cartooning in America,” particularly that of Mad magazine, which had many Jewish cartoonists. “While these cartoonists questioned and satirized all kinds of cultural authority, they never believed that they or their magazine should be exempt from the same kind of intense scrutiny. So Mad repeatedly mocked Mad.” And, Parille notes, those cartoonists worked in the “shadow of the Second World War” and “recognized the looming danger inherent in all authority — even their own.”

Like the Mad artists, Clowes is “intensely satirical” and very self-critical, “in order to avoid establishing himself as an authority, especially on questions of racial, ethnic or religious identity, thus rejecting the kinds of authoritative pronouncements that turn art into a tool of the propagandist,” Parille said.

Although Clowes often writes and draws anti-Semitic dialogue, he is showing its presence in his characters’ lives rather than campaigning about the dangers of anti-Jewish hate speech, says Parille, who views David Goldberg, the victim of the crime at the center of “Ice Haven,” as a larger symbol of alienation.

Goldberg speaks in only the final panel of the cartoon, and his silence “is emblematic of Clowes’s commentary on Jewishness,” Parille said. “It’s never exactly clear what Clowes has to say about questions of Jewish identity and about the relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Like David Goldberg, the cartoonist doesn’t offer much, leaving the answers solely up to readers.”

Menachem Wecker is a Chicago-based writer on art and religion. Find out more about him at http://menachemwecker.com or on Twitter, @mwecker


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.