Graphic novel of the month: ‘Monica’

Daniel Clowes is back—and he’s bringing hippies, aliens and familial drama along with him
October 12, 2023

I recall years ago watching an interview with Daniel Clowes in which he said that, back when he was at art school some four decades ago, nobody treated comics seriously. It was an impoverished form, cheap and tacky—it was as simple as that. Fast forward to now, and I’m sure Clowes will be more baffled than most to hear that the publication of his latest comic work should be heralded as a “literary event”. But a literary event it most certainly is.

Monica, the eponymous hero, has had an unfortunate start to life. She has no idea who her father is; her wayward and impoverished mother, Penny, a young woman in the age of drug-addled flower power, is incapable of holding down a stable relationship. From one partner and household to another she and her daughter go, their life upended with every break-up, until one day it looks as though things might finally settle down with Penny’s old sweetheart Johnny. Then, the night before the wedding, Monica is quietly whisked off in the back of the car and deposited at her grandparents’ house. Her mother drives off, never to be seen or heard from again. Years later, having survived a coma and now a young woman who against all odds has forged a wildly successful business, Monica yearns to know what happened to her mother and finally get the truth about her father.

This summation might make Monica sound like your conventional familial detective story—with all the platitudinal revelations of self-discovery and identity that that entails—until you remember this is Daniel Clowes we’re dealing with here. Punctuating this main narrative are interconnected asides of a kitschy supernatural kind, featuring centuries-old aliens and the talking dead. As Monica follows her hunch that her mother might have run away to join the wackier splinter group of an already wacky cult, Clowes has cleverly given himself even greater licence to get down and weird, to tremendous effect. 

I’ve always found Clowes’s work as an artist to be oddly familiar yet unidentifiable. The force of his major influences—primarily underground comix and Americana of the 1950s and 1960s—has suppressed any hint of a personally identifiable style. Made up of bold primary colours and black hatched shading, it’s a particular genre of comic art synonymous with a time when comic artists themselves went frequently uncredited, or at the very least were unrecognised. Part of the strangeness of it in Clowes’s hands is that it predates him. As a Gen Xer, you’d expect him to have more in common with the wildly idiosyncratic Chris Ware than with an anonymous illustrator from the 1960s Marvel stable.

Yet I can think of few other artists in the medium who marry their style so perfectly to their subject matter, which is particularly apparent in Monica: the occult, the supernatural, hippies, the terrible haircuts of the 1960s; everything appears as it should be here, giving it a natural wholeness, that strange sort of timelessness you get when a work is so related to a particular time. 

In one of many beautifully crafted sentences, Clowes writes: “Success has a strange effect on people. You think you’ll just stay the same as before, ‘keep it real’ and all that, but no, you’ll change in ways that are both hard to imagine and entirely predictable.” After his youthful obscurity, I can only hope that’s not a gloomy self-reflection on Clowes’s own success. Seen from this viewpoint, he’s still going from strength to strength—and has plenty to give.