by Daniel Clowes
Reviewed by James R. Fleming
There's a guy who sits outside my local coffee shop every afternoon running his mouth. He insults people, makes inflammatory statements (he's all for "dropping every bomb we got on the Middle East"), and offers his uninvited comments about most any topic under the sun (last week he opined that cat piss smells worse than dog piss; the week before he told a woman that her teenage daughter looked pregnant). Sometimes people ask him what his problem is, and he always replies by shaking his head and saying something like "I'm just telling it like it is." He doesn't appear to be crazy, or dangerous -- he's just an asshole, pure and simple.
In that respect, he reminds me of Wilson, the protagonist of Daniel Clowes's new graphic novel. A blowhard and a misanthrope, Wilson doesn't possess the slightest measure of self-awareness. Important things happen in his life over the course of the book, but he doesn't gain much in the way of any lasting perspective from those events. Even when he does seem to experience a realization, he either fails to grasp its significance or forgets all about it by the start of the next story. He believes he's always right and that everyone else is always wrong. Wilson's an asshole, and that's what makes the book great. Clowes is willing to take a character that is completely despicable and present him without apology or any sort of overt moralization.
While Clowes's work has long been acclaimed for his engaging and quite funny writing and his crisp and unique art, often his characters have seemed distant and emotionally dead, as if they are just drifting through life. But Wilson makes clear what Clowes does so well in terms of characterization and story structuring. Reading Clowes isn't like reading graphic novelists such as Alan Moore or Grant Morrison; he is not one for narrative puzzles, layered psychologies, or in-depth background and context. Clowes, rather, puts everything on the surface of his stories; he presents his characters honestly and with all of their flaws exposed.
Despite the emotional weight of Wilson and the sheer amount of things that happen within it, Wilson himself is decidedly simple and pedestrian. He is middle-aged, alone, and mean-spirited -- not to mention sarcastic, self-righteous and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Plenty of things happen to him over the course of the piecemeal narrative: his father dies, he reconnects with his ex-wife, finds out he has a long-lost daughter, completely screws up his relationships with both of them, gets sent to prison, comes out and starts another miserable relationship, and he ages all the while. The story moves in chronological sequence and consists entirely of one-page vignettes, self-contained strips (each with its own title) that almost always conclude with a biting remark from Wilson or a failure on his part to realize anything about himself or anyone else. The entire book is perfectly balanced, line for line and panel for panel, which is part of what makes it so startling and engaging -- not a single vignette falls flat or seems even the slightest bit out of place. The art looks like a sharp, polished version of something you might see in a contemporary domestic newspaper comic. There are no splash pages, no jarring perspectives, and no experimental visuals, save for an intriguing movement between a cartoony and realistic style.
In the end, Wilson illustrates what makes Clowes such a great graphic novelist: he is willing to be bold in ways that most contemporary writers and visual artists -- especially those who have attained the level of mainstream success that Clowes has -- are not. In presenting a protagonist who is so unlikable and placing him at the center of his story without apology or reservation, he offers Wilson as a quiet, understated character study -- a portrait not of the artist or some sort of tortured Romantic hero, but of a miserable, foolish nobody, the sort of guy so many of us sit across from on the bus every morning, or when we get our coffee every afternoon.