DATE June 23, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mark Zupan and Dana Adam Shapiro talk about the new
documentary, "Murderball," and its subject, quad rugby
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A new documentary is about a sport so fierce it was originally known as
murderball. It's an extreme sport played by men who can no longer walk,
quadriplegics who get around the court in specially designed wheelchairs.
Murderball, better known now by the more socially acceptable name quad rugby,
is a hybrid of rugby, soccer, basketball and bumper cars. It's a full-contact
sport. Opposing players often intentionally crash into each other and
sometimes overturn in their chairs. The new documentary, "Murderball,"
opening in theaters next month, begins at the 2002 World Championship in
Sweden and follows members of Team America and their chief rival, Team Canada,
as the prepare for the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
Here's some of the men whose stories are followed.
Unidentified Man #1: I've been out in clubs, I've been out all over the
place, and people will come up to me and they'll shake my hand and say, `Oh,
it's good to see you out.' And I like look at them like, `Good to see me
out'? You know, like where am I supposed to be, in a closet, hanging out?
(Soundbite of person getting into a vehicle; engine starting)
Unidentified Man #2: What I can do probably is people don't think I can do is
I can cook and I can drive. I might not be a great cook. I might not be a
great driver, but I can do both.
(Soundbite of crackling noises)
Unidentified Man #3: People say some of the dumbest things. Like I'll be at
the grocery store, loading the groceries into my car, and people like--and I
go to get in my car and and like, `Well, do you need help in your car?' It's
like, well, I wouldn't have come to the grocery store if I couldn't get back
in my car.
(Soundbite if motor humming)
Mr. MARK ZUPAN (Quad Rugby Player): I've gone up to people and start talking
(censored) and they're like `Oh, oh, oh.' And I go, `What? You're not going
to hit a kid in a chair? (Censored) hit me. I'll hit you back.'
(Soundbite of drumming)
GROSS: The last person we heard from, Mark Zupan, one of the top American
players, is pretty intimidating on the court. Zupan is my guest, along with
Dana Adam Shapiro, who co-directed the film "Murderball" with Henry Alex
Rubin. Shapiro first learned about quad rugby when he read about it in a
newspaper article. I asked Shapiro why he wanted to make a film about the
Mr. DANA ADAM SHAPIRO (Co-director, "Murderball"): I think it was the `quad'
and the `rugby' together in one sentence that was pretty jarring. I had
always thought that a quad was like Christopher Reeve. I guess, for better or
for worse he was the poster boy for quadriplegia, and when I read this
article, I guess all my stereotypes started to crumble. They were talking
about this game that they play on a basketball court in these armor-plated
wheelchairs, and it's full contact and guys flip over, and I just didn't think
that that was possible, you know. I thought that most quadriplegics were at
home under a blanket, kind of drinking their food and having a powered
GROSS: Mark, since you play it and play it so well, would you, first of all,
describe the special chairs that you play rugby in?
Mr. ZUPAN: The chairs are nothing like you would see, say, at an airport or
everyday life. It weighs probably about 30, 35 pounds. It's just reinforced
considerably more than an everyday chair. We're strapped into the chair, so
if you get hit and you do end up flipping over, the chair's coming with you.
So it's not like we're being launched, or we're not projectiles. The wheels
are angled out, which is called camber. There's more camber so it turns
quickly. It's pretty much a reinforced chair. It looks like something out of
a "Mad Max" film.
GROSS: It almost looks like a wheelchair as an armored vehicle.
Mr. ZUPAN: That's exactly--I mean, that's a great description of it.
Mr. ZUPAN: It's so hard to put it into words so people can be...
GROSS: And you kind of need that armor because you're crashing into other...
Mr. ZUPAN: Right.
GROSS: ...people on the court, and they're crashing into you, which leads to
one of the most baffling things to me, as I was watching it. You know, you'd
think--I mean, I would think, because this is the way my mind works, I would
think that if you had a neck injury that left you, you know, a quad, that
you'd want to protect the rest of your body and that the last thing you'd want
is to be tipped over on your head or your back in a wheelchair, risking like
breaking an arm, or, you know, breaking a limb that still is functioning for
Mr. ZUPAN: That's a big misconception. Now we are just like anyone else.
We're not fragile, we're not, you know, made up of--we don't have to be
careful. My neck right now is probably stronger than it was beforehand, so
that's what's so great about the film, because it addresses that and it pretty
much expresses that, hey, I'm no different than anyone else. I just sit down.
GROSS: Mark, would you describe like--without getting too technical about the
rules of the game, how the sport is played.
Mr. ZUPAN: Sure. It's played on a basketball court. There's four people
per team on the court. Your total point value cannot be greater than eight
points on the floor. Everyone's given a point value, depending upon their
disability. It starts out at a .5 and it goes to 3.5 in increments of .5, so
you put any combination there. You have to in-bound the ball within 10
seconds. It starts as--it starts pretty much like basketball. You score a
goal, you in-bound the ball. You have 10 seconds to in-bound the ball, you
have 15 seconds to go over half-court, and every 10 seconds you either have to
pass or dribble, and that's pretty much the basics. You have to--you're
scoring with the ball on your lap between two cones at the other end, which
is--it's through a key which would be a little bit wider than a basketball
key, but a lot--it's not as deep. It's about a yard and a half deep.
GROSS: Dana, when you were directing "Murderball," how did you position the
camera to really get a sense of the drama of the game? I mean, you play
around with the camera and even with the speed of the camera in showing the
Mr. SHAPIRO: Right. Well, there's two directors, myself and Henry Alex
Rubin, and Henry shot the film, and we decided on an aesthetic very early on,
which was that we didn't want to shoot this film from the fly on the wall's
perspective. You know, we didn't want to shoot this film in wide. We wanted
to shoot it much more subjectively, from the subjects' point of view. The
film was really supposed to be, and is supposed to be, you know, a movie about
what it's like to break your neck, not what's it like to be in the room with a
guy who breaks their neck. So, you know, the film is shot almost primarily
from the wheelchair point of view.
It's--literally, like, I would push Henry around in a wheelchair and he had
the camera in his lap and, you know, we always were sort of holding it down so
that it was--this is their point of view in the world, and Zupan talks that
he'll--you know, he sees your butt before he sees your face, so that's sort of
the only difference. And there is cameras that are strapped under the
wheelchairs, on top of the wheelchairs. Most portraits were set up and then
sped up in the editing room, when you see sort of like Team USA or Team Canada
and the camera zooms in. But yeah, I mean, for the most part, we just really
wanted to shoot it much more subjectively to try to make it look more like a
feature film as opposed to a documentary.
GROSS: Mark, how were you injured?
Mr. ZUPAN: I was 18 years old and we--I was playing college soccer. We went
out after we won a game and went to the bar, drank too much, so wandered out
of the bar and passed out in my buddy's pickup truck. He came out of the bar,
I don't know, a couple hours later, left to go home and got lost. So he was
driving south on I-95 in Florida. He spun out and threw me out of the back of
the pickup truck, over a fence, over some trees, into a canal, where I spent
14 hours in a canal hanging on to a branch.
GROSS: Did he know that you were in the back of his pickup truck?
Mr. ZUPAN: No, he didn't. He had no idea. So that's why I spent the time
in the canal.
GROSS: How much of that time were you conscious for? Were you...
Mr. ZUPAN: I remember two instances. I remember first hitting the water,
and looking around, going, `Wow, this is an interesting one. Let's just get
up, figure out where we are and go home.' But I looked at my legs and they
were laying on top of each other, kind of, I would say, awkwardly. They
looked--I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. So I ended up--I
grabbed onto the branch, and I knew I was in some trouble. Then the next
instance I remember is rain hitting me in the forehead. It was raining on and
off, I think, throughout the 14 hours, and I just started yelling for help.
And since I had broken my neck, yelling for help was real weak, so it took a
lot to, you know, muster up the strength to get some kind of volume up.
Mr. SHAPIRO: And the trooper was how close to you?
Mr. ZUPAN: Oh, yeah, that's right. I always forget that part. There was an
off-duty policeman following Chris while he was driving, and he pulled in
right after Christ spun out and arrested--brought him over to a--there was a
bowling alley across the way, brought him over and arrested him. But when the
tow truck driver came to tow my buddy's car, the two truck driver's like, `I
think I hear something down there,' and the trooper's like, `No, it's nothing.
It's just like a--some kind of animal or whatever.' So there was--it--the
story got kind of interesting after they pieced together where I was and how
everything--you know, talking to people.
GROSS: So who discovered you? Was it this tow truck driver, or did they just
Mr. ZUPAN: No, it was--everyone left, because, you know, I was on the other
side of the fence and they didn't see me. There was an office building on the
other side of the canal, and a guy came out and ate his lunch in his car
rather than eating in the office, and he cracked his window, and he heard a
noise, but he passed it off as the off-ramp. But it was so repetitive that he
got out, looked across the canal and saw the crown of my head. So he called
911. The firemen came over. The fire chief told my dad the only thing above
water were my eyes, my nose, my mouth and an arm. So they came over, I
grabbed the boat, they half-sunk the boat, got me in. I was out. They
couldn't find anything, couldn't find a pulse, couldn't find any breathing,
got me to land and they found my pulse. My pulse was 30 and my body
temperature was 88, so I was...
Mr. ZUPAN: ...hypothermic. I had pneumonia, I had broken my neck. But I
was able to--when I came to, I was able to tell the firemen and the paramedics
that I couldn't feel my legs, and my mother's phone number at work.
GROSS: So were you grateful to be alive, or so angry about what happened
Mr. ZUPAN: The first thing that I said when I--I woke up and I was
intubated. I had a feeding tube and I didn't know what--I knew what happened,
kind of, just because, you know, your body knows, but it--my mind blocked it
out. So they untied my hands because--they tie you down when you're intubated
so you don't pull out the tubes. They untied my hands and there was--they
call it like a speaking board. It's pretty much like a keyboard on a piece of
cardboard, and I spelled out `I am lucky,' question mark, question mark. So I
knew I was lucky. I was happy to be alive because I've always--I mean, as an
18-year-old, you don't want to really die. But yeah, I mean, as time goes on,
I was angry. I wasn't angry at Chris, per se, I was angry at the world, being
18, having your independence and then having it taken away.
GROSS: My guests are Mark Zupan, one of the top American quad rugby players,
and Dana Adam Shapiro, co-director of the new documentary, "Murderball."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about "Murderball," a new documentary about quad rugby,
an extreme sport played on a basketball court by quadriplegics in specially
designed wheelchairs. My guests are Mark Zupan, one of the top American
players, and Dana Adam Shapiro, co-director of the film. When we left off, we
were talking about the accident that left Zupan a quadriplegic.
What was rehab like for you?
Mr. ZUPAN: It was interesting. I mean, I was in rehab for a total of three
months, I believe, and I didn't like going back to the room, so I always would
stay in rehab and lift more, or just do something to stay busy. I mean,
hospitals--I'm not real--I'm not a real fan of hospitals anymore. So, you
know, to stay busy kind of keeps you, I guess, occupied, and you don't have to
sit there and say, `Oh, I am in a hospital.' So--it wasn't that bad, though.
Could have been worse.
GROSS: So how did you discover quad rugby?
Mr. ZUPAN: A rec therapist, probably about a month into being injured, came
GROSS: A recreational therapist?
Mr. ZUPAN: Yeah. A recreational therapist. You know, he'd take us sailing,
he'd take us to the mall and just have outings to figure out, you know,
`Here's your new life. Here's how you're going to figure it out.' He came
in, he's like, `All right, guys. I got a sport for you that you might like.
It's called wheelchair rugby.' It's like, `Ooh, rugby; this sounds kind of
interesting. How's it played?' He's like, `It's full-contact in a chair.'
`Like, really? I mean, you can just hit somebody as hard as you want?' He's
like, `Yeah.' So, like, oh, OK, sounds good.
So they brought--they moved all the physical therapy mats out of the room and
set up a makeshift court and gave us a ball, and we just started beating on
each other, pretty much. And then I started playing competitively when I
moved to Atlanta in 1996.
GROSS: I want to get back to your friend, Chris Igor, who was actually
driving the--his pickup truck, unaware that you were sleeping in the back of
it when he got into an accident and you were thrown into the creek. My
impression from the movie is that you kind of did not stay close after that.
Mr. ZUPAN: We had a real tumultuous relationship, if you will. We'd talk
for two years, we wouldn't talk for two years. I was really hard on him. I
mean, he'd do anything. He was going to do anything for me, but you know,
each of us has to deal with it our own way, so we would talk, we wouldn't
talk, we would talk and we wouldn't talk. But the movie--the good thing about
the movie is it brought us so much closer. I know--I mean, I speak with him
on a regular basis. He's like a brother to me. I have a biological brother
and I have Chris Igor, who is my other brother.
GROSS: Dana, was it part of your intention to bring Chris and Mark together
again, or did it just work out that way?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Not necessarily to bring them together, but to explore that
relationship. That was definitely one of the reasons that, you know, Mark is
such a big part of the film, was because it wasn't just about him as a quad
rugby player, you know. It was a story about friendship and forgiveness and
the idea that, you know, maybe it was harder for the other guy. It really was
a very complex relationship that they had, so we heard, you know, in the
decade that followed the accident.
And I remember going to the 10-year high school reunion with Zupan, and Igor
didn't show up. And, you know, his buddies who are in the film and describe
it, you know, say, `Well, he didn't want to be seen as, you know, "Well,
there's Zupan, and there's the guy that put him in the chair, and what's it
like to live with that?"' you know.
The movie is definitely--you know, it's not a film about quadriplegia. You
know, it's a film about these particular quadriplegics, and what's it like to
be their friend or to be their girlfriend or to be their son or to be their
father. And that relationship was one from the very beginning that we were
very interested in exploring, and it was really difficult to get Chris into
the film. He thought that he was--sort of be portrayed as a villain or the
cautionary tale, the guy who--you know, again, the guy who put Zupan in the
chair. Like, that really isn't the role that he wanted. You know, he had
spent so long trying to deal with this, it was a little--I mean, I can't even
imagine, you know, what he was thinking when, you know, a couple strangers
call him up and say, you know, `Can we put the most horrible thing that ever
happened to you up on film?' And so, you know, he was very resistant at
GROSS: Mark, just as an outsider, having, like, heard and seen your story
portrayed in the movie, it seems like it's almost unfair for you to have been
angry with or hold your friend Chris accountable for abandoning you in the
accident, 'cause he didn't even know you were in the back of his pickup truck.
Mr. ZUPAN: Right, and I didn't hold him accountable. The first time he came
into the hospital room, I'm, like--he had this look on his face. I was, like,
`What's the matter with you? Everything's cool.' He was, like, `Whoa.' He
thought I was going to be pissed. I wasn't pissed. I mean, it's not his
fault, but it--I mean, he has to deal with it in his own way.
GROSS: You said you were hard on him.
Mr. ZUPAN: I was hard on him. That means I'd call, I'd ask him--I'm, like,
`Chris, you know, come get me,' just I wasn't a nice guy to the people that
cared about me. I wasn't angry--I was angry, but I wasn't angry at them. So,
I mean, hard on him is just--it doesn't mean, `Yeah, you did this to me, come
do this, come do that.' I've never said that to him. It's just this...
GROSS: But it was more like, `You can walk, and I can't, so do this for me.'
Mr. ZUPAN: No.
GROSS: `You survived it...'
Mr. ZUPAN: No.
GROSS: `...and I didn't.'
Mr. ZUPAN: Not at all.
Mr. ZUPAN: It's--I mean, walking and not walking doesn't--I don't have
people do anything for me. Being stuck in your house, not being able to
leave, it's just, like, `Hey, just do me a favor. Come get me out of this
Mr. ZUPAN: That's it. It's not, `Here, come pick this up' or `Come move
this' or `Do this' or `Do that.' No, that's one thing that I hate, and I've
always hated since being in rehab. People start to try to push you. It's,
like, `No, leave me alone. Don't push me. I'll ask you if I need help. If I
don't need help, I'm not going to ask, so don't give it.'
GROSS: Mark, your girlfriend is featured in the documentary "Murderball," and
one of the things she says is that she thinks the mothering instinct attracts
girls to quads. How do you feel about being on the receiving end of the
Mr. ZUPAN: It's hard at times. I mean, but she's so cool. She'd do anything
for me. I just don't let her. She's, like, `You don't ever need help. I
want to help.' I'm, like, `I know. You're not going to. You're not going to
help me. I'll ask.' 'Cause she'd give me the world, and I kind of shy away,
and I think that's frustrating for her.
GROSS: You've demonstrated--you've been part of a group of people
demonstrating quad rugby for veterans from Iraq who--you know, veterans who
fought in Iraq, who are now in chairs. What kind of reaction did you get?
Mr. ZUPAN: A great reaction. I mean, if we can show people that there's
stuff out there rather than them--you know, the guys from Iraq, they saw the
sports. We did rugby and basketball. And they saw it, and their eyes lit up.
It gives you--I mean, don't let the wheelchair keep you from doing what you
want to do. It shows that there's other avenues out there to pursue, to go
down, to have fun with, not just to sit there and say, `Well, I'm in this
chair, and it sucks.' Well, yeah, you might be in the chair, and you may be
in the chair for the rest of your life, but have fun in it, and if there's,
you know, things to do, then find them and do them.
GROSS: Mark Zupan is one of the athletes profiled in the documentary
"Murderball." Dana Adam Shapiro co-directed and co-produced the film.
They'll be back in the second half of the show. You can see clips from
"Murderball" at our Web site, freshair.com.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with comic book artist and screenwriter Daniel
Clowes, the creator of "Ghost World." He has a new comic strip novel called
"Ice Haven." Also, more on "Murderball."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're talking about "Murderball," a new documentary opening next month about
quad rugby, an extreme sport played by quadriplegics in wheelchairs that look
like they're from a "Mad Max" movie. The sport is a mix of rugby, soccer,
basketball and bumper cars. My guests are Dana Adam Shapiro, co-director and
co-producer of "Murderball," and Mark Zupan, one of America's top players who
is profiled in the film.
One of the issues "Murderball" deals with is what it's like for people who end
up quads after an accident to, you know, rediscover a sense of sexuality and
to find out who they are as sexual beings once their body has been transformed
by the accident. Was that difficult for you, Mark, to figure out who you were
sexually after the accident?
Mr. ZUPAN: No. Being 18 years old, you're like, `Oh, OK, let's see here.'
You have a girlfriend at the time, so it's like, `Oh, let's try this. Oh,
that didn't work. Well, let's try this. Oh, that works. Oh, OK. Let's take
that and expand upon that.' So, I mean, just being 18, I think, helps.
You're curious at how your new body works. And, I mean, being a male, I guess
that kind of helps, too, that you--I don't know. You just find things that
work and you pretty much re-educate yourself on sexuality.
GROSS: And you still experience sexual pleasure.
Mr. ZUPAN: Oh, of course.
Mr. SHAPIRO: In the original article that I had read about these guys, Scott
Hagsett talked about, you know, this rivalry between quadriplegics and
paraplegics because quadriplegics--many of them can get erections, and many
paraplegics can't. And there was this argument, I guess, that they were
having because paraplegics have full use of their hands, and quadriplegics
tend to have impairment, sometimes very severe impairment, of their hands, so
they--you know, we're talking about this rivalry in an argument about, you
know, what would you rather have: erections or full use of their hands? And
the quads definitely thought that they won that argument.
Mr. ZUPAN: Ding, ding.
GROSS: (Laughs) Mark, what's your day job like?
Mr. ZUPAN: My day job is I'm a civil engineer, so right now I am doing land
development and telecommunications. So you'll take a piece of property, just
a--you know, 1,500 acres, clear it. You have the development. You pretty
much lay out the houses, and then you pretty much develop the infrastructure
of that development. So you do water, wastewater, drainage, the lot grading,
so everything drains properly, and you build a subdivision.
GROSS: What's your training and weightlifting regimen like now?
Mr. ZUPAN: I'll work probably 10 hours a day, and then after that I will go
to the gym and lift for an hour and a half to two hours. I then--in season,
I'll hop in my rugby chair. It's kind of funny. I was talking to Dana I
think it was maybe two months ago, three months ago, and he was like, `So what
are you doing?' I'm like, `Ahh, I just got home from lifting.' He was like,
`Dude, it's like 9:30, 10:00.' I was like, `Yeah.' `What are you going to do
now?' `I'm going to go hop in my chair.' He's like, `What?' `Don't call me
at'--he's like, `Don't call me when you get in because it'll be, like,
midnight.' And, I mean, that's pretty much the regimen. You have to--I got
to pay the mortgage, so I got to work. I got to train because--to be on the
top of your game, you have to be in shape and what have you. But, you know,
personal relationships will suffer just from the fact that not--there's not a
lot of time to do other things but to train and to work and to eat and maybe
get a couple hours of sleep, if you will.
GROSS: Now how much power do you have in your arms?
Mr. ZUPAN: How much power?
Mr. ZUPAN: Quite a bit. I mean, my arms work real well. They're just--my
hands are the things that are impaired.
GROSS: Is that unusual for someone who's a quadriplegic to have arms that are
powerful but hands that aren't? It just seems to me...
Mr. ZUPAN: No.
GROSS: ...you're exceptionally strong, that you have...
Mr. ZUPAN: Well, yeah, I'm as strong as I am because I work at being strong.
But the thing is--the thing with quadriplegics is Christopher Reeve broke his
neck at C1, C2. The lower you break your neck, the more function you have.
So I broke my neck C6, C7. So I have pretty much full use of my arms. All my
muscles in my arms work--bicep, tricep, forearms. It's just my hands aren't
as strong. And if you go up more--if you break C5, C6, then you'll probably
lose maybe the use of a tricep. And it all depends upon if you sever your
spine or if it's a complete or an incomplete injury. Sever your spine, it'll
be a complete injury and you're not going to have any return below your injury
level. But incomplete's kind of like a frayed electrical cord; certain
impulses get through, certain impulses don't get through. So that's pretty
much how it works.
GROSS: But officially you would be described as a quadriplegic?
Mr. ZUPAN: Yeah. You break your neck anywhere from C1 to C7, you're a
GROSS: I see.
Mr. ZUPAN: Anything below T1 and down, you're classified as a paraplegic. As
a quad--the biggest misconception is quadriplegic does not mean total--no use
of all four limbs. It means impairment in all four limbs.
GROSS: So, Dana, having made this movie, "Murderball," do you work out more
than you did before making it?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Do I work out physically?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Oh. No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I mean, you certainly have people set a good example for you.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Yeah. No, I don't work out any more than I did. I play
racketball now, but I don't lift weights. And Zupan--actually, I always feel
very unhealthy around Zupan, you know. We go to the restaurant, and I get the
fried chicken, and he gets the grilled, and I feel bad.
GROSS: OK. Thanks to both of you for talking with us.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Oh, thank you.
Mr. ZUPAN: Thanks for having us.
GROSS: Mark Zupan is one of the athletes profiled in the documentary
Murderball." Dana Adam Shapiro co-directed and co-produced the film. Shapiro
also has a new novel, his first, that was just published called "The Every
Boy." "Murderball" opens next month. You can see clips from "Murderball" at
our Web site, freshair.com.
Coming up, comic book artist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes, the creator of
Ghost World, talks about his new comic strip novel "Ice Haven."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Daniel Clowes discusses his new comic strip novel
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest is comic book artist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes. His comic book
series, Ghost World, was adapted into a 2001 film of the same name, which
starred Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch as best friends just out of high
school trying to figure out what to do next. Clowes co-wrote the screenplay
with Terry Zwigoff, who also directed the film. They've collaborated on a new
movie scheduled to open in the fall called "Art School Confidential" based on
Clowes' memories of art school. His comic book series Eightball was described
in Salon.com as `mercilessly taking on middle-class conformity, artistic
pretension, teen angst, cartoonists, hipsters, the horrors of adulthood,
proselytizing Christians, sports fans, sexual banality and, perhaps most
consistently, Clowes himself.'
The graphic novelist Chris Ware called Clowes `easily the best cartoonist in
America,' and said, `somehow he's able to blend satire and sympathy, two
sensibilities which are generally mutually exclusive.' Daniel Clowes has a
new book, a comic strip novel called "Ice Haven."
Daniel Clowes, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Where do you imagine Ice Haven as
being? And describe the town to us.
Mr. DANIEL CLOWES ("Ice Haven"): Ice Haven is a--it's a fictional Midwestern
town. I think of it in--as existing somewhere in that region of states around
Illinois, somewhere in either Wisconsin, Michigan or possibly Minnesota. It's
the kind of place that has little resort towns that nobody quite ever goes to
or that might have been popular at one point but are no longer big
attractions. And I thought of Ice Haven as this kind of sad resort town that
possibly they moved the freeway or something and nobody ever goes there
anymore, and that's where it came from.
GROSS: Now one of the children in the city, David Goldberg, goes missing.
And a couple of the kids who were reading a comic book about the Leopold and
Loeb murder, in which two young men commit a murder to prove their superior
intelligence because they think that they can commit the murder and never be
caught--so these kids...
Mr. CLOWES: Right.
GROSS: ...figure that there's some kind of Leopold and Loeb thing going on.
Did you read a Leopold and Loeb comic like these kids did?
Mr. CLOWES: No, I actually--I grew up in--on the South Side of Chicago, very,
very near the actual scene of the Leopold and Loeb murders. And it was an
event that sort of haunted my childhood. It was something--it changed its
meaning over the years. At--the first time I heard this story, I really
related to the poor kid Bobby Franks, who was killed by these two guys. And
then something--there's something about the story where, at a certain point,
once they've committed this murderand--then they sort of realize that they've
blown it and they're going to be caught, there's this period where they're
kind of waiting for the net to close around them that's so--there's something
so emotional and so specifically horrible that I found it--it resonated with
me for years and years. And it's sort of this primal story in my life that I
think about a lot.
GROSS: Now there's actually a character in your comic who points out that you
have that connection to the story, and he's a very pretentious comic book
critic named Harry Naybors.
Mr. CLOWES: Yes.
GROSS: Are there actually comic book critics?
Mr. CLOWES: Well, there are, yes, and every one of them thinks that they are
Harry Naybors. I, you know, do interviews and things with people who are
comic book critics, and they are all convinced that I'm making fun of them.
And I wanted to have this guy who was a comic book critic, but you see that he
lives in this really fancy, huge apartment, and he's very wealthy from being a
comic book critic, which I think is quite unlikely. And then at another point
I realize that I had created this critic who was obsessed with me. It's like
I--there are no critics out there who are actually, you know, devoted to me,
so I thought I had to create my own. And in some ways he's very much a figure
of comfort in my life. It's like I feel like, `Well, nobody else reads it,
but at least Harry Naybors enjoys my work.'
GROSS: So Harry Naybors, the comic book critic, thinks that the expression
`graphic novel' is a vulgar marketing sobriquet and...
Mr. CLOWES: Yes.
GROSS: ...but you actually have a very perfect description. I mean, on the
cover of your book "Ice Haven" it says, `a comic strip novel.' And I thought
`Yeah, that's what we should all use,' because graphic novel--if I tell
somebody I'm interviewing--or I'm reading a graphic novel, unless they know
what I'm talking about, they have no idea what I'm talking about.
Mr. CLOWES: Well, they think you're talking about Henry Miller or something
GROSS: That's right. That's right (laughs)
Mr. CLOWES: That sounds--I mean, I thought of--comic strip novel is a very
specific term to this book because I originally got the idea from--I bought a
collection of old Sunday newspaper strips from 1950 through 1965. And I was
reading through them, and I was just struck by--there's something so wonderful
about this mixture of styles and intents and sort of tonal shifts, you know,
where you have Mary Worth and--that's very serious, and then it's followed by
Henry, where it's sort of a light little kids' strip, and then that's followed
by Dick Tracy, and then you have Prince Valiant. And you have all these
different things all mixed together on the same page, and yet there's some
kind of cohesant unity about the whole thing. There's a--you know, they're
using the same color palettes and they're using the same, you know, implements
to draw the strips, and there's a certain cohesion to it, this kind of
And I--one day I was reading one and I thought--you know, there's a strip
where I think Henry loses a glove in his comic, and I thought `How cool would
it be if that glove turned up in Prince Valiant like four pages later?' And
so--and from there that's where the idea of "Ice Haven" came, and so it really
very much is a comic strip novel. It's really a--it's a--I mean, I don't know
if it qualifies as a novel at 88 pages, but it's a larger narrative made up of
GROSS: I want to talk to you just about the drawing style in "Ice Haven," and
let's start with the cover. I look at the cover, and it has this effect on
me. I feel like I'm being transported back to, I think, my childhood. I
think I grew up with so many images that come from a kind of similar place in
terms of the colors, the forms, even the lettering. I mean, the lettering for
the title "Ice Haven," it's that kind of 3-D lettering with, like, black
shadows, but each letter is a different color. And the colors are, you know,
like, a blue and an amber and a red and a yellow, but they're all slightly
faded. And I see that and I think I think the 1950s.
Mr. CLOWES: I mean, I'm trying to draw in a style that just seems sort of
comfortable and pleasing; that on the surface you just think like `Oh, look at
these friendly cartoon characters.' I want it to really seem, you know, like
a Sunday newspaper kind of feel. You know? And I'm using colors that are
slightly muted. I mix a certain mixture of sort of a brownish yellow into all
the colors, so that it looks somewhat like it's on faded newsprint. I want it
to feel sort of lived in. You know, there's no actual white in the whole
book. It's all sort of off-white, like it's been sitting around for a little
And I always say that I want--my ideal place for my books is not--I'm not so
interested in seeing them in the bookstore brand new, but I like the idea of
seeing the spine in a used bookstore and the thought of some, you know,
17-year-old version of me in 20 years finding that and just--you know, saying,
`What in the world is this, "Ice Haven"?,' and pulling it out, because that's
how I found so many of the books that I was influenced by as a teen-ager, as a
young artist. And that's--I wanted it to look like something that already fit
on a used bookstore shelf.
GROSS: I have this theory, which I suppose isn't my theory but just something
everybody already knows, which is that the first images that you see, the
first music that you hear when you're young just becomes wired into your
brain,, and you can't help yourself against responding to that.
Mr. CLOWES: I absolutely agree with that. Yeah.
GROSS: I mean, you just absolutely respond to that.
Mr. CLOWES: Yeah.
GROSS: Can you describe some of the images that you grew up with that you
think are wired in you?
Mr. CLOWES: Well, I, luckily, had an older brother who was kind of a media
junkie in the--kind of the pre-television days. And so he had stacks of old
comic books especially, which that was my only sort of source of entertainment
as a kid. We didn't have a TV until I was much older. And so I would just
sit in my room and read through these comic books that I actually could not
even read. I was just sort of trying to figure out the narratives from
looking at the pictures. And there were--along with that, there were old
detective novels and science-fiction digests that always had weird, enigmatic
lurid covers and things--all these things that had such strong imagery, that
promised such interesting world and interesting stories. And then, you know,
later, I would grow up and actually read these things, and they never quite
delivered. And it--I've always felt that in my work, I was trying to kind of
deliver on the promise of those images.
GROSS: So did you use a lot of crayons when you were young, and did that,
like, permanently affect your sense of what the colors in the world are?
Mr. CLOWES: Yeah, and I remember being very, very frustrated by crayons. They
never had the colors I wanted. And it was never right. I really wanted these
specific colors. And I learned at a very young age how to sort of crudely mix
colors, and I would make my own shades of green, and they'd always wind up
looking really muddy and brown and gray. And I look back at all my old
coloring books, and they're really unbelievably hideous. They're really all
kind of overworked and muddy and awful. So...
GROSS: Now you're working on a new movie called "Art School Confidential"...
Mr. CLOWES: Yes.
GROSS: ...and--which is based on a comic that you did--on a story in a comic
that you did. You went to art school. Did you not hit it off in art school?
Mr. CLOWES: No, I--well, I have very mixed feelings about it. I went to art
school in the late '70s in New York. And, you know, I went to art school
wanting to draw the kind of comics that I draw now, although there really was
no market in the world for such a thing, and none of my professors really
understood what I was going for at all. These were all guys who had come of
age in the '40s and '50s and who were still very into the world of abstract
expressionism, or the ones who are slightly younger were in the throes of the
'70s and conceptual art and all the many, many different little variants of
the artistic styles that sort of, you know, fractured out into a million
permutations in that--during that decade.
And they had no idea why I would do something as literal as a narrative comic
strip, and it was very frustrating. So I--but I learned to meet other people
who kind of understood what I was doing, other students. And from them I
learned the things I needed to learn and sort of learned what was working and
what wasn't working and what was funny and wasn't funny. And from that I
learned a lot. So it's--in retrospect, it was actually a very good
experience. But I didn't really need to pay the tuition. I should have just,
you know, sort of hung around the dorm and met other kids.
GROSS: My guest is comic book artist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes. His new
comic strip novel is called "Ice Haven." More after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Clowes. His new comic strip novel is called "Ice
Haven." He collaborated with Terry Zwigoff on the movie "Ghost World," which
was based on a Clowes comic book series. Zwigoff and Clowes have a new movie
coming out in the fall called "Art School Confidential," based on Clowes'
memories of art school.
Did drawing the human body and all the anatomy that you learn in art school
help you with comics?
Mr. CLOWES: It did to some degree, although drawing the naked body is--I'm
sure that's very useful for drawing superheroes, who are essentially naked.
But I like to draw, you know, schlubby guys in ill-fitting clothes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLOWES: And so I remember one time we didn't have a nude model, like they
didn't show up, and the teacher tried to get a volunteer from class to pose
sort of semi-nude, and nobody would do it. So we had to draw clothed models,
and that was the best week I ever had in art school. I really--and I kept
praying that would happen again, and it never quite did. So I had to sort of
get in my drawing, you know, on the side, and I did a lot of drawing on the
subway. There were a lot of sort of early models for my characters on the New
York subway in the late '70s.
GROSS: But there is some nudity in your comics. And, for instance, in your
book, David Boring, the character, says that in some ways he longs for the,
quote, "old days when fetishes were applied to handkerchiefs and petticoats
rather than directly to the frail physical form that can never live up to the
embellished perfection of our ideals." And I'm wondering if that observation
applies to you as an artist, if you ever kind of wished as an artist that
there were still as many fetishes surrounding--like, you know, petticoats and
handkerchiefs and so on because they give you more to draw? And I'm thinking,
you know, that there's a whole press actually that's dedicated now to, like,
fetish graphics from the '50s...
Mr. CLOWES: Oh, many of them.
GROSS: ...and '40s. Yeah.
Mr. CLOWES: Yeah. You know, there's--well, there's a great--I think that
came from reading this great book called "Psychopathia Sexualis" by
Krafft-Ebing, which was just a compendium of, you know, sexual neuroses, and
some of them were incredibly mild for today, you know, just sort of like `mild
homosexuality.' And those were lumped in with some of the most gruesome and
odd, you know, forms of cannibalism and things like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLOWES: But mixed in there are all these really interesting sort of lost
fetishes, and I found that so interesting. You know, there were people--you
know, this is in sort of the pre--you know, there was no form of sort of
public nudity of any kind. So people would apparently go to museums and, you
know, kind of get--like rave over these, you know, nude statues. And I guess
that was quite a common thing; that there were people who were obsessed with
statuary. And I just think that's so quant; that there were so many--you
know, things like petticoats and handkerchiefs, things that people don't have
anymore, of course, those were fetish items. And, I mean, that's--I don't
know. That's such a charming thought to have a fetish about something that no
longer even exists.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Clowes. He's a
cartoonist and screenwriter. He does the series Eightball, David Boring and
he does Ghost World. And the movie "Ghost World" was based on his comics. In
fact, he co-wrote the screenplay with Terry Zwigoff, and they've collaborated
on a new movie called "Art School Confidential" that will open in the fall.
This is the second screenplay that you've done. First was, of course, "Ghost
Mr. CLOWES: Yeah. This was my first solo screenplay. The other one was a
GROSS: Oh, I see. So what are some of the things that you learned from the
experience of doing "Ghost World" that you were able to apply to writing "Art
Mr. CLOWES: Well, you know, I learned that--the main thing I learned was that
editing is a good thing. That's--I learned that. That was very helpful in my
comics as well, and that editing was sort of a global thing; that it was good
to get rid of absolutely everything that went--that you didn't love. And in
writing this script I had so many things I could put in. I could--you know, I
could talk about art school endlessly. I've said before that art school to me
was like Vietnam to Oliver Stone, you know, sort of an endless subject that I
could go on and on about. And so I had to really limit myself and focus on
the essential things, and I think that was such a good experience. So I feel
like the finished film is really all stuff I'm very proud of. There's nothing
in it that I feel is just filler or something that wasn't as good as I
intended it to be. It was--it's all very kind of worked out.
GROSS: How has doing "Ghost World" changed your life?
Mr. CLOWES: I thought it would change my life a lot more. I thought once I
had a movie out there, especially a movie that--you know, it was not a huge
hit, but it did very well, and it was nominated for an Oscar and all kinds of
other awards. I thought that I would at least have something to talk to
strangers about. I thought it--you know, if I was sitting next to somebody on
a plane, I wouldn't--I would no longer have to go through the whole dull
rigmarole of explaining the kind of comics that I do, which is truly a
fruitless endeavor. So I thought I could say, `Oh, I wrote this movie, "Ghost
World."' `Oh, yes, I heard of that.' And to this date I have never met a
single person who has ever heard of "Ghost World" in a public scenario--you
know, if I met somebody who's a friend of a friend, you know, they'll have
heard of it. But I've never been sitting on a plane and talking to somebody
who has heard of "Ghost World," so it's--it hasn't changed my life as much as
GROSS: Well, Daniel Clowes, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so
much for being with us.
Mr. CLOWES: Oh, well, thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Daniel Clowes' new comic strip novel is called "Ice Haven."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close today with music by Winnie Winston, a guy with a lot of talent.
He was an important figure in the folk music scene of the '60s and '70s. He
played banjo and pedal steel guitar, built his own pedal steel guitar and
wrote an instructional manual about the instrument. He recorded with Steve
Goodman, David Bromberg, Rosalie Sorrels and David Grisman and made records
under his own name. He also taught design at the Philadelphia College of Art
and served as dean of the National Center for Homeopathy. He moved to New
Zealand in 1995. Winnie died over the weekend. He had prostate cancer and
was 64. I was lucky to know him a bit when he lived in Philadelphia. Bye,
(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.