Sunday Comics: Wilson

Posted by on August 13th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Daniel Clowes; Drawn & Quarterly; 80 pp., $21.95; Hardcover, Color; ISBN:  978-1770460072

Any new release from Daniel Clowes these days is subject to a level of scrutiny accorded to only a few cartoonists, including Chris Ware and Robert Crumb.  Since completing what might be his career masterwork in Ice Haven, Clowes has mostly done shorter work: the Marvel Treasury-sized The Death Ray, his New York Times strip Mister Wonderful, and his big one-page strip in Kramers Ergot #7.  Like those comics, his new book Wilson focuses in a single character who is desperately seeking human connection while battling his own misanthropy.  It’s not the Next Big Dan Clowes Graphic Novel, but more of a graphic novella — a humble character piece that once again takes its cues from his predecessors in the medium.

Wilson is about a floundering, misanthropic, 40-something man whose only real connection in life is with his dog.  Throughout the course of the book, he is forced to confront his own mortality, his failed relationships and the consequences of his own actions.  The story is told in a series of self-contained, titled one-page strips, each with its own punch line.  In some, Wilson spells out exactly what is happening, while in others, one must read between the lines.  Some of the strips have clear gags as their punch lines, while others mine their humor from sheer discomfort.

Clowes is all about constraining emotion into a particular set of constructs.  In this case, he once again dips into the history of comic strips to provide an aesthetic canvas that serves as a sort of abstract expressionist background.  The use of single color schemes, flat four-color schemes, richer, more naturalistic colors and even the use of different shades of background white on each page creates an atmosphere which influences the content but doesn’t require the reader to actively try to interpret his “code”.   Those color schemes work in tandem with Clowes’ more obvious visual technique of  rotating through a series of different drawing styles, from cartoony to naturalistic.  That provides a template for the reader in terms of processing information, allowing the color to modulate the otherwise dialogue-heavy story.

Clowes recycles this technique from Ice Haven, though here he’s using it to a different end.  There, Clowes crafted a narrative by “stacking” all of the comic strips from a newspaper into one book, one after the other.  This served the interlacing, Robert Altman-esque series of character studies well by giving them an artificial boundary that the reader would instantly understand.  It forced form on the reader, opening up fascinating and seemingly incongruous story connections, often solely on an emotional level.

In Wilson, instead of seeing a newspaper’s worth of comics that tell a fairly linear narrative, we instead get a single Sunday newspaper strip “collected” (clipped out, as the yellowed pages might suggest) over a number of years.  That approach allows Clowes to force the reader to think of the missing events between each strip.  How many days or weeks of continuity were “left out”?  The reader is left to fill in these missing events and emotional beats, including the titular character’s life before we meet him as a middle-aged man.

The modular nature of Clowes’ storytelling makes this feel like the sort of serial one used to read in his old series, Eightball.  It has similar ambitions, and feels at times as though one would turn the page and start reading a different story before returning to see what Wilson was up to.  The main difference, of course, is that Wilson features the sort of character one never saw in Eightball (except in the distance): a man facing a mid-life crisis.

Everything that Clowes has ever done has been both autobiographical and deliberately distanced.  His early comics are about his anger at the world he’s in: the comics industry (Pussey!), fitting into society (Ghost World), etc, down to shorts like “Why I Hate Christians” and “Why I Hate Sports.” If David Boring & Ice Haven were about his work, then Wilson is perhaps his most personal comic.  It’s a book about mortality and facing the inevitable.  It’s a book about dealing with one’s parents at the end of their life.  It’s a book about misanthropes desperately trying to connect and create some kind of family life.  These events don’t have a one-to-one correspondence with Clowes’ actual life, but it’s clear that similar events inspired him to explore the emotional worlds that these events can create, and mine the darkest lodes of humor from them possible.  Eightball usually focused on the dysfunctional ways in which young people interacted with each other and the bad decisions they made.  Wilson is about those errors of judgment coming home to roost.

There’s no question that Wilson is Clowes’ most acidly funny book in some time.  The Charles Schulz influence is felt heavily here, even if it’s not immediately obvious.  Wilson feels like not so much like Charlie Brown grown up, but rather Lucy Van Pelt,  grown bitter, hateful and pathetic after a lifetime of loneliness and alienating others.  The way Clowes sets up his punch lines is very much like classic Schulz.  There are shades of  Peanuts in the book, where Wilson tries to talk the audience into thinking he’s a “people person” winds up with him telling someone “For the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?”  Compare that to Peanuts’ first strip, which ends with Shermy saying of Charlie Brown (after he walks by), “Oh, how I hate him!”  Another strip, where a series of people walk by Wilson and compliment his dog, sets up a rhythm that’s broken by someone not commenting on the dog.  Wilson yells after him “Fucking asshole!”  It’s Schulzian in the way that Clowes moves the reader from panel to panel and then emphasizes the punchline by breaking the rhythm, with Wilson turning from right to left.

Wilson, as the reader sees it, is almost a comic strip writing itself.  We see the lead character depicted in various rendering styles, from realistic to primitive and cartoony.  One way to read this is as the way Wilson is seeing the world at that very moment, or perhaps how Clowes wants the reader to interpret his world at that moment.  Something that’s been true of Clowes’ comics since David Boring is the way he pushes and pulls at the reader’s tendency to identify with a story’s main character.  Clowes is skilled at making a reader identify with characters in the way one is absorbed into their personal narratives and points of view, yet they inevitably do and say things that alienate the reader.  Clowes wants readers to feel uneasy, if only to make them pay attention to the story’s emotional beats.

As a character, Wilson is a series of contradictions, but the back-cover description of “a delusional blowhard” probably suits him best.  He’s self-deceptive and one learns that the louder he proclaims something, the less likely we should believe it.  Moreover, he’s completely incapable of directly confronting his emotions, especially when he deals with the death of his father.  Despite his ambivalence toward his father, he nonetheless breaks down out of the blue when taking a walk around his old neighborhood, melodramatically screaming “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”  Incapable of mourning in a healthy way, his emotions simply bubble over, in an inappropriate (and hilarious) manner.

Wilson is a relentlessly twitchy character.  It’s telling that in a comic filled with Wilson’s monologues, not a single one of them is told with a thought balloon: he has to declaim his every thought aloud, regardless of whether or not he has a willing audience.  That twitchiness boils over into his sociopathic behavior, like sending a box of dog shit to his old sister-in-law or kidnapping his biological daughter.  It’s as though as long as he keeps talking, he can’t think about whether these acts are good ideas or not.  Once again, Clowes puts the reader in an uncomfortable spot by making Wilson a social and emotional cripple but also positioning him as someone who thinks he really knows better than everyone else.  That’s especially true at the times when Wilson seems to be acting as a mouthpiece for Clowes, like when he talks about Oakland or The Dark Knight.  We may laugh with Wilson as he delivers a devastating bon mot or outrageous insult, but he’s also a figure worthy of derision.  In the end, when he finally is able to achieve a long-sought moment of satori, it’s not an accident that he shuts up for the first time in the book.

At this point, Clowes feels firmly ensconced once again in the world of comics.  After dealing with a health crisis and dabbling in Hollywood for a number of years, it seems as though Clowes is ready to tackle a new phase in his life as a cartoonist.  David Boring was a way of exploring his take on working in film.  Ice Haven was a rejection of film and embracing comics qua comics.  The Death Ray further embraced that pulp sensibility while dashing it to pieces.  Wilson lacks that anger at other media that Ice Haven had, and feels more like a man comfortable in his own skin as a cartoonist drawing comics.  It feels like a recapitulation of his recent work, a mid-life crisis comic about a mid-life crisis.  Wilson seems like a highly accomplished palate cleanser, paving the way for more substantial work to come.

All images ©2010 Daniel Clowes, with the exception of the Peanuts image, which is  ©1950 United Features Syndicate

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