Meet the men who made comics worth caring about.
When brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez – affectionately known as "Los Bros" – burst onto the moribund comics scene in 1982 with the first issue of their tag-team anthology series Love and Rockets, they pioneered a new kind of comics storytelling: more thoughtful and character-based than the taboo-shattering undergrounds of the R. Crumb era, more sophisticated and wider in scope than the superhero slugfests that dominated the stands. The "alternative comics" movement they kickstarted was soon joined by Daniel Clowes, whose series Eightball allowed him to craft long-form, novelistic stories about intense and isolated characters, eventually collected in book format as graphic novels like Ghost World and David Boring.
Several years younger than his counterparts, Chris Ware made up for lost time with The ACME Novelty Library, a solo series of staggering ambition whose diagrammatic drawings zero in on devastating emotional moments in graphic novels such as Jimmy Corrigan and Jordan Wellington Lint.
Together, they're the Four Horsemen of Altcomix, the medium's most important figures. Their latest releases – Clowes's career retrospective Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes; Ware's astonishing graphic-novel box set Building Stories, in which an apartment building's story is told in 14 separate books and pamphlets; and volume five of Gilbert and Jaime's Love and Rockets: New Stories, which sees them continue the saga of their sprawling casts of characters whose lives they've chronicled in real time for 30 years – comfortably back up that claim.
With Los Bros touring in support of Love and Rockets' 30th annniversary, and both Clowes and Ware making rare East Coast convention appearances at Bethesda, Maryland's Small Press Expo (SPX) last weekend, Rolling Stone sat down to talk shop with all four – the first time they'd been in a room together since a stopover at Chicago O'Hare in 1990. "It's almost like how Hillary Clinton couldn't go to the convention," Clowes explained. "One of us always has to be elsewhere in case something happens."
What's changed since the last time you were together?
Chris Ware: What hasn't changed?
Daniel Clowes: Chris was still in high school then. He was my ward.
Ware: [Little boy voice] Anything you say, Mr. Clowes.
Clowes: There are more than three girls at the comic conventions now.
Jaime Hernandez: Some of them even draw comics.
Until Love and Rockets started, the people who were out there saying comics could be smart were almost speaking theoretically.
Clowes: I remember when these guys came along, it was like, "OK, we finally have something!"
Ware: I came along right at the time when that sort of stuff was very visible. It was inspiring to me. I didn't have to plow the field and throw the rocks out.
Gilbert: So you didn't have to read Savage Sword of Conan.
Ware: No, but I did read Savage Sword of Conan. [Laughter]
Jaime: I sometimes think, "Well, these younger kids, a lot of them don't even know any of that old stuff!" Then I go, "What am I complaining about?"
Ware: You can look at the generation before our generation, the mainstream cartoonists – Marvel and DC guys who didn't get to keep their artwork or were treated poorly. It was much worse for them, and for the generation before that.
Clowes: Who were basically slaves.
How much do you keep up with what else is out there?
Gilbert: I don't even think of anybody else in this room when I'm drawing a comic. I don't. I don't think of anything but what I'm doing. And the last movie I saw, maybe.
Clowes: If there's somebody really good out there, you'll hear about it so much that you can't miss it.
Ware: Well, there are better cartoonists now than there ever have been. I firmly believe that. There's some amazing work being done.
Do you ever get emperor's-new-clothes'd?
Gilbert: You mean like a negative response to our work – "You guys aren't all that"?
Yeah. I've seen that happen.
Clowes: [feigning outrage] What?!
Gilbert: All four of us have established ourselves pretty well in comics, so there's not much of a threat. Young guys who say [surly voice] "Wuhh, you guys are fake, we're hot" – that never happens, because they suck. [Laughter]
Clowes: There's always gonna be that resentment. I had that when I was 25: "What makes that guy so great?" But then you hit a certain age and go, "Oh, I see."
Jaime: Sometimes, even if you don't particularly like the work yourself, you can't argue with what's on there, or what people who actually know what they're talking about are saying about it. Personally, I keep it to myself.
Gilbert: I have a pretty good eye, and I have yet to see any cartoonists that do what these three guys have done, but better. Nobody's done it, because we've placed our personalities in what we do, and that can't be repeated.
Ware: That's fundamentally the goal. You guys certainly did that amazingly well. I can't think of two other guys who did it better.
Clowes: I can't imagine doing anything like what you guys do. I like to kill the characters, be done with it and start over. "Ugh, I screwed that up, now I have to start something else." It's such a great feeling to start anew.
There's been a revival among alternative-comics circles toward a new pantheon of sci-fi/fantasy stuff, like old Heavy Metal comics.
Ware: I was not aware of this.
Gilbert: I have to toot our horn again: They don't have any personality! You're not really talking about anything but escapism. That's fine, I'm all for escapism, but the reason we do alternative comics is because it's all totally from our personality.
Clowes: I have to say I have a recently rediscovered fondness for Heavy Metal. That was a big deal when it came out: "Wow, you can draw robots with tits!" It has a certain charm to it, especially the really weird, unpleasant stuff in it. All that Richard Corben stuff was so disturbing.
Gilbert: You can tell the difference between artists: Who's the madman, and who's the guy just doin' it? That's why guys like [Joe] Kubert and [John] Buscema and John Romita, who were really amazingly skilled artists, there's just nothing there other than they're just really skilled artists. Then you see Crumb, who was just a complete nut.
Clowes: Or [Jack] Kirby, who was the opposite.
Gilbert: Or [Steve] Ditko. They're crazy men. "Who let them do this?" [Laughter]
Ware: When you talk about a pantheon . . . When I went to art school and I went to the art history classes, we were taught this very specific progression of where art came from and where it supposedly was going. It was almost like these pills you had to swallow that had been established by art critics and art writers. One of the things that appealed to me most about comics was that you can pick the ones you like and build your own personal pantheon. I've never met these younger kids who are more interested in – I just said "younger kids." I can't believe that. [Laughter] Younger artists are interested in Heavy Metal – that's great. That's something else completely to start from.
Gilbert: That's what was missing from alternative comics after us: The art got less and less good.
Jaime: Less and less important.
Gilbert: It was more about the writing. Eventually people are gonna rebel and say, "Where's the good drawings?" It's in Heavy Metal! I think that's what's happened – a backlash against blandness.
Clowes: Yeah, we spawned a lot of guys who just wanted to tell their funny little stories.
Gilbert: You read a lot of good comics like that, but you can see why Joe Public is going to see The Avengers. There's a reason.
Ware: Well, that's complicated. There's a lot of reasons for that. [Laughter]
Gilbert: It's funny: When Ghost World came out and Dan was nominated for the Oscar, I could just picture someone like Gwyneth Paltrow saying, "Dan Clowes' comic book . . . "
Clowes: And she did!
Gilbert: It was the most bizarre prediction ever. I just picked her out of a hat – I bet you somebody like that's gonna say it.
Clowes: I was sure she was gonna pronounce my name wrong, but they must have coached her. I thought that would be the perfect thing, to have the cute girl in class pronounce your name wrong when you're in the Science Fair.
Ware: A defining moment.
Gilbert: And this is probably the first time she ever mentioned a comic book in her life, and a few years later she's in Iron Man.
Ware: And Scarlett Johansson went on from Ghost World to do another comic book movie.
Clowes: I have to say she had such disdain for comics. [Laughter] They were the lowest.
Ware: I find it amazing that the stuff that I got made fun of and jumped in the hallway for reading, and spat upon – literally, some guy spit in the coat pocket of my jacket – is now mainstream culture.
Clowes: I saw an attractive teenage couple on the subway saying "Should we see Thor?" When I was a teenager, if I'd said, "Hey, wanna come over to my mom's house and read my original Kirby issues of Thor?" I'd have been peppersprayed. [Laughter]
Do you have to define yourself against that stuff anymore?
Ware: I don't think we ever did.
Clowes: Well, I would say half the interviews I do, they still ask, "With all the great comic-book movies coming out, which are your favorites?"
Jaime: It's hard to shake that old way of thinking. When I get really good responses from the mainstream, I wonder, "What are they looking at?" I can't picture them looking at our comic like an alternative fan. I picture them going "Hmm, let's study this! What is the concept with this character? Where is he going?"
Gilbert: They're waiting for the punchline. They're waiting for the kick. They don't understand how life flows – it's like, "Where's the revenge angle?"
Comics are taught in colleges now – that's a big change from even 2000 or so, when art professors would insult you to your face for that stuff.
Ware: That's what I went through. Maybe it's better. I don't know if it's better, but I found it was something to work against.
Clowes: It gave me so much energy, to be rejected like that. If everything I wanted to do in art school had been indulged, I don't think the art would have necessarily been good. I'd have just been guided along a path.
Ware: Most people who are teaching art are painters or sculptors, and they're not used to reading anything. They're not used to reading an image, they're used to looking at it. Which is fair.
Clowes: They're completely separate disciplines.
Gilbert: They're also bitter and jealous because they don't have a name and we do. [Laughter]
Ware: I've fought the idea of comics being illustration many times. To even mention them in the same breath is not helpful. If you're illustrating stories, then you're not writing comics. The real power of comics is writing as you draw.
Jaime: When I do illustration work on the side, it's totally different. I'm less than 100 percent satisfied when I finish the illustration, no matter how much work I put into it, because there's just something missing for me.
When you come to a place like this, is it a "hail the conquering heroes" moment for you?
Jaime: "These are our people?" No, though yesterday Dan dubbed us the Grand Old Men of Comics.
Ware: Absolutely not, no. I find it very painful and emotionally challenging.
Jaime: Everything is so –
Jaime:. Yeah. I know coming in here that there are people who've never heard of us.
Ware: I just feel so incredibly lucky. I never, ever thought I'd be able to make a living doing this. When I was 11 years old, I thought, "All I really wanna be able to do is my own comic book," and I'm doing it. I don't have any other real ambitions. I have nothing to conquer at all.
Gilbert: Wait – you make a living doing comics? [Laughter]
Jaime: People have asked, "When did you feel like you'd arrived?" My first issue.
Clowes: Nothing ever felt better than that.