If you head down to the basement of Chicago Comics, past the endless rows of back issues and vintage titles waiting to be priced, you’ll find 15 white boxes. They contain a pretty standard collection of 60s and 70s comics—Thor, Conan the Barbarian, X-Men, MAD magazine. But these comics have a special allure. They belonged to comics great Dan Clowes. And after decades languishing in his mother’s Hyde Park house, Clowes’s childhood comics collection is going up for sale.
“There’s so many collections like this,” says Eric Kirsammer, owner of Chicago Comics and Quimby’s Books. “But how many people grow up to be Dan Clowes?”
Now, local comics fans can score a very tangible connection to a legendary artist. Chicago Comics and Quimby’s are selling the collection in batches, issue by issue. Many include Clowes’s handwritten labels chronicling issue numbers, authors, and artists. Some are even sold inside their original bags. And all are affixed with a label that reads “From the Dan Clowes Collection.”
Clowes grew up in Hyde Park. While living in Chicago in 1989, he began publishing Eightball, a comics series that fixates on misfits, outcasts, fanatics, and sardonic weirdos. Eightball became an underground comics sensation, and many of the serialized stories became stand-alone graphic novels. Cult classic Ghost World—the story of two antisocial teen girls bumbling through life after high school graduation—began in Eightball in 1993, and was adapted into a Terry Zwigoff film in 2001. Though Clowes moved to California in 1992, he remains a hometown hero—partly thanks to the overt Chicago references that punctuate Eightball.
Before he became a cartooning titan, Clowes was just a kid blowing all his cash on weekly comics releases. Now, a couple thousand of those issues are in the basement of Chicago Comics. “These are mostly things I bought out of rote obligation/OCD during a period in my teen years when I bought basically every comic coming out,” Clowes says via e-mail. “My best friend worked at a newsstand on Lake Park and was able to get everything at a discount.”
Over the years, Clowes shipped his favorite issues back to California. In October 2021, when he was cleaning out his late mother’s house in Hyde Park, he called up Chicago Comics. Would the store be interested in buying the rest of the collection? Kirsammer drove out in person and left with the 15 boxes, plus an assortment of vintage games, a Ouija board, two paint-your-own-monster kits started (and abandoned) by Clowes, and a ton of pulp novels that belonged to Clowes’s mother (who worked as a motorcycle mechanic).
In Chicago’s rich comics history, Clowes is a giant. His art has been shown widely, including a solo retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2013. Last year, a selection of original Clowes pieces appeared in the MCA’s exhibition “Chicago Comics: 1960 to Now.” Ignatz Award-winning cartoonist Bianca Xunise, who contributes to the newspaper strip Six Chix, was thrilled to see her work hanging alongside the artist who introduced her to indie comics. She remembers driving to Chicago Comics as a teen, back when their impressive smut collection made a visit feel scandalous. Clowes was one of the first non-superhero artists she gravitated towards. “I didn’t know comics could be this,” she says. “That was what hit me at first: I have these same thoughts, I have these same observations of the world. I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder if there are other cartoonists who have this same world view.’”
So far, the response to the collection has been enthusiastic. When Chicago Comics posted a Facebook announcement about the collection, it quickly gained more than 450 likes and a barrage of comments. “I had someone come in 20 minutes after I made the Facebook post, saying, ‘Where are they?’” Kirsammer says. For now, the collection is only available in-store.
On December 9, the Quimby’s Instagram account posted that the Clowes family Ouija board would be on sale when the store opened the next day. “Putting the ghost back in Ghost World,” they commented. The next day, Skye Rust showed up at the door before the store opened. As co-owner of the Andersonville store Woolly Mammoth Chicago Antiques and Oddities, she’s always on the hunt for cryptic memorabilia. Now the Clowes Ouija board will live in Woolly Mammoth’s permanent collection of taxidermy, skeletons, and esoteric memorabilia. “I am thrilled we get to preserve a kick-ass weirdo object from an amazing Chicago artist,” she says. “We know folks will love getting to visit it in person.”
Can any artistic understanding be gleaned from the pages of Clowes’s old superhero comics? Kirsammer isn’t convinced. “People are like, ‘Can you figure out how he formed the ideas for Eightball?’” he says. “The thing is, it’s just a typical kid’s comic book collection from that era.” But Quimby’s employee Caroline Cash found a surprise inside one of the pulp novels destined for the store’s shelves: a small sketch of the Silver Surfer, along with a series of Clowes’s practice signatures, drawn directly onto the pages of the book.
Now the comics that Clowes bagged and labeled himself decades ago will live on as beloved artifacts in Chicago and beyond. “[Eric] and his stores are the best, and I’m happy he was interested in finding a home for these remnants of my stunted adolescence,” Clowes says.