6/06/2010

Wilson

Daniel Clowes isn't known for working at a prodigious pace. Ever since Eightball #23 was published in 2004, his only comic was Mr. Wonderful - serialized for a few months in The New York Times Magazine. In the meantime, he's also launched a career as a screenwriter with adaptations to Ghost World and Art School Confidential. Wilson is Clowes most ambitious post-Eightball comic work to date, and features a most unadorned version of the unlovable curmudgeon archetype.

The titular character (It's not indicated if Wilson is his given name or surname) would be a much more difficult person to stomach if not for the comic's structure. Wilson is organized as a series of one-page gag strips, each designed to deliver a withering punch line. Wilson begins the story by happily proclaiming his love for his fellow human beings. But his misanthropic personality soon becomes obvious. In the early strips, Wilson accosts complete strangers by engaging in conversation with them. At first he appears genuinely interested. However it soon becomes apparent that he doesn't care about them except as a convenient target for his ridicule. Wilson casts his net far and wide. He cuts some people off for talking too much. He bullies others for refusing to converse with him. He disses their jobs, the vehicles they drive, their taste in movies, or their religious beliefs. Like Charlie Brown futilely trying to kick that football out of Lucy's hands, Wilson seems driven by the need to reach out to other people. But he's unable to connect with them due to an inability to suppress his inner critic. He's the type that doesn't suffer fools gladly. However, he takes it to such an extreme that just about anything someone else says, or doesn't say, can set him off. No wonder he's unemployed and friendless, not counting his pet dog.


The gag strip format allows readers to absorb the character in easily manageable bits. Even so, seventy one pages of Wilson sneering at random people would grow quickly tiresome and repetitive. At first unnoticeable though is that with each succeeding page, a story emerges as circumstances force Wilson to interact with family members. First he's called to the bedside of his dying father. Then he attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife. And then he searches for a daughter he never knew he had. The social ineptitude that drove people away from him has far more painful consequences as Wilson's takes more active steps to re-establish his familial bonds. But the gap between his ideals and reality is vast since the people who know him best have already grown weary of his overly critical attitude. If Wilson were a straightforward family melodrama, this would be a character flaw that he would have to confront and overcome in order to earn the audience's sympathy. A convenient explanation could then be tossed in to account for its origins. Rather, Clowes adherence to the gag strip formula keeps the reader at arm's length from the character. While Wilson does become more miserable, pathetic, and earnest in his goal to find love and acceptance as the story progresses, he remains a comic figure who elicits some disdain, if for nothing else, for all the misery he inflicts on those around him. Wilson doesn't transcend his assigned role until, perhaps, the story's very last panel. Nevertheless, it's an oddly effective way to hold the reader's attention.


Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the book is that every page is marked by a change in graphic style. Clowes utilizes the full gamut of his craft: from realistic character renderings, to classic big foot cartooning. He colors range from grays, his preferred blue-greenish duotone, to his subdued four color palette. While the play of styles is clever and amusing on its own terms, I'm not sure they represent anything deeper than Clowes just having fun with different approaches, or his way to keep things interesting to him. They don't seem to represent any logical schema. But they're not annoyingly random either. Rather, they're all unified by an underlying organic approach. The quality of his line doesn't vary significantly. His instinctive color combinations remain consistent. And Wilson's visual identity has a way of carrying over through each stylistic shift.


Because Wilson is a deeply irritating character, the book is unlikely to become a fan favorite. Given the all-encompassing nature of his ire, many will find something to dislike about him. But the emotional distance afforded by the technique Clowes employs makes the character easier to witness. The incremental revelation of personal information with each page is both highly entertaining and hugely riveting. Sure, Wilson might be the world's biggest prick. But he's also the overweening ego, found to varying degrees, within all of us.