Monday, May 17, 2010

The Many Misanthropic Moods of Wilson

I'm going to take a break from the usual music coverage offered in this space (not that the music coverage is so prolific that it needs a break) to discuss one of the few other subjects about which I know something, comics. In particular, the recently released graphic novel, Wilson.

Wilson is the first stand alone comics work from Daniel Clowes in six years. To non-comics fans, Clowes is probably best known as the creator of Ghost World, both as the author and artist of the original graphic novel and the screenwriter of its successful film adaptation. However, to those who follow his medium, Clowes is one of the most renowned comics-auteurs, his work among the most influential in independent comics. As his first major work after his extended furlough (aside from a series of single page comics that appeared in the New York Times magazine) anticipation for Wilson was perhaps impossibly high. While it may initially feel like a bit of disappointment in that context, Wilson is throughly rewarding on its own merits.

In Wilson, Clowes reuses the single page format from his Times work, Every page is a "gag strip." That is, each page is set up as its own little story, building to a punchline in the final panel. Taken together, the strips form a years-spanning narrative for its title character, a miserable middle-aged misanthrope who incorrectly identifies himself on the book's opening page as a "people person." One might assume that Clowes is deconstructing (or re-constructing?) the Sunday newspaper cartoon strip, suggesting that individual strips are fragments of a greater character arc.

However, unlike the affable characters one usually finds the in the Sunday funnies, Wilson has to be one of the more aggressively unlikeable protagonists in fiction. Within a few pages, he reveals that he left his wife while she was pregnant, torments his former in-laws and starts conversations with strangers only to berate them. Wilson is a smug, deluded blowhard and the book wrings a lot of laughs from his interactions with the world. In one of the book's funniest sequences, Wilson pontificates away typically until another character finally divulges her feelings of deep ambivalence toward a family member. After this gut-wrenching revelation, Wilson's response is a flippant "Hey! It talks!" It's refreshing to see Clowes employ his trademark twisted sense of humor again. While his recent work like Ice Haven, David Boring and The Death-Ray were widely (and justly) acclaimed, there was little trace of the man who gave the world hilariously warped comedy pieces like "Sensual Santa" and "Needledick, the Bug Fucker." While Wilson is not a pure "humor" book by any stretch, it's good to see Clowes hasn't lost his touch when comes to bringing the funny.

One could easily spend hours contemplating the implications of Wilson's empathy-discouraging eponymous character, just as one could with protagonists from similar cringe-comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office. But its format is what's most awe-inspiring about Wilson. Clowes has used a somewhat similar formula before. Ice Haven was built on a series of strips which, at first, only seemed to be tangentially related but eventually added up to a whole narrative. However, he has not attempted a format quite as rigid as this before. Yet he mines a surprising amount of depth out of what would seem to be a very limiting structure. Details that are seemingly minor have major effect later on. Key information is held back and when revealed makes the reader view the prior pages in a whole different light. The fact that each page works individually while the whole works collectively is nothing short of stunning.

Clowes further showcases his skill by shifting his drawing style throughout the book. Some pages are in a simple, cartoony Peanuts-style. Others are more detailed, inching closer to photorealism. And there's all manner of degrees in between. Yet every panel is distinctively Clowes. A minor gripe is that while the breadth of styles is impressive, in no way does it inform or enhance the story. Unlike a book like David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, where the way certain characters were drawn were as essential to their nature as the text, here the different visual styles seem to serve no purpose other than for Clowes to dazzle the reader with his ability. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, and the variety probably makes Wilson a more exciting read than if it had been drawn in a uniform style. But it seems like a bit of missed opportunity. Some have commented that there is a rationale for the style of each page, saying that more cutesy the rendering, the more the characters are suffering. Perhaps it's my ignorance, but I see no evidence of any correlation.

For those unfamiliar with Clowes' work, Wilson is probably not the best place to start. (Get yourself a copy of Ice Haven and proceed from there.) However, it's highly recommended to both fans of Clowes and fans of independent comics in general. The preceding sentence might be a bit redundant. Such is Clowes' legacy that those two groups are more or less synonymous.

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