OAKLAND -- Daniel Clowes may have grown up during the era of Underdog, the 1960s canine super hero who slew villains with his atomic breath while causing TV-watching American kids to slurp vast quantities of breakfast cereal, but he's a top dog now.
With a major retrospective of the comic book artist's work opening at the Oakland Museum of California before moving on to major art institutions in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, Clowes emerges as a superhero.
"Growing up in Chicago in the '70s, you very much felt like an underdog," Clowes admitted in a preshow interview. "During my childhood, the sports teams there? Not a single championship. In fact, if my teams were winning, I felt bad. I got much more used to the pain of losing than other kids."
Feeling the hurt turned into award-winning comic books ("Eightball"), graphic novels ("David Boring," "Wilson" and more), screenplays ("Ghost World," "Art School Confidential") and a tendency to exist in alternate realities.
"Comics are the one language I feel I can say exactly how I feel and have no self-consciousness at all. In real life, I try to make everybody happy and smooth things over."
Guest Curator Susan Miller has gathered 100 original works, displayed with deep-rooted understanding by designer Nicholas de Monchaux, in a gray-hued gallery fronted by an enormous sloping wall on which Clowes' characters morph from one masterful portrait to the next. A comic frieze traveling atop the wall-mounted works shows off iconic strips and sliding panels embedded in enormous cubicles that mimic the one-frame-at-a-time way we view comics.
Should the urge to curl up with a book hit museum visitors, a tufted, upholstered lounge area beckons, or drafting stools poised in front of a collection of books.
"I don't want my comics read on the Internet," Clowes insists, a preference reinforced by the exhibit's lack of high-tech gizmos. "Books are a much better module for imparting what I do."
Embarking on a career in art, Clowes wanted only to draw, but dissatisfaction with existing comic books and a yearning to be in control eventually led him to write.
"I started writing by default," he explains, "to this day, I don't even think of myself as a writer."
Regardless of his self-perception, the literary world pools admiringly at his feet. Film critics herald his truthful dialogue, The New York Times Magazine published 20 installments of his serialized graphic novel "Mister Wonderful," and NPR book reviewer Glen Weldon described "Wilson" by writing, "The net effect is like reading a series of Bazooka Joe comics written by Jean-Paul Sartre."
"I write dialogue purely by how it sounds," he says, claiming not to be schooled, but demonstrating a learned-from-life skill with concise sentences. As a draftsman, Clowes' line work is deft, and the dropped horizons and ant's-eye perspectives mirror the dark, underground humor.
Clowes is unafraid to switch drawing styles to make a story seem disjointed, and one of the great pleasures of the exhibit is seeing his "corrections." Careful examination reveals overlays -- redrawn or rewritten pieces of paper taped or glued over an original leg here, a stray "shush!" there. A common question, about inspiration, elicits a confession.
"If I need an idea, I'm out of luck. It has to come out of the blue. Having dinner with my wife, walking the streets of Oakland -- often that will help me solve a problem."
Since recovering from heart surgery, which stole time but not motivation from his daily comic creating, the 51-year old says he knows what it's like to be an old man on his death bed.
"The heart surgery thing is fading somewhat, but certainly fatherhood is something that's on my mind every day."
It's a typical comment for "Clowes the Diplomat," who shines a direct light on a grim experience then skips to lighter material with a few, swift strokes.
"A good character is like children: you set them up in one direction and they never go that way. They're always surprising and confounding and interesting."
A description of his hometown runs parallel.
"I find Oakland very beautiful, but in a way that would be hard to sell to tourists," he muses. "It has an old-movie, lonely quality that seems filled with some kind of emotion."
The same could be said of his life's work, and with words more apt than those of another, Clowes draws his self-portrait.
WHAT: "Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes"
WHEN: April 14 through Aug. 12
WHERE: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA 94607
TICKETS: Admission is $12 general; $9 seniors and students with valid ID; $6 youth, ages 9-17. Free for children 8 and under and museum members.