Dan Clowes’ Wilson is one of the most anticipated graphic novels to arrive in stores for some time, written as it is by one of the most respected pioneers of “alternative” comics. One of Clowes’ earliest graphic novels, Ghost World, a story of two alienated teenage girls’ dissolving friendship set against the limiting possibilities of middle-class America, received wide acceptance and was made into a critically acclaimed film. Clowes was co-nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay.
When Clowes turns his critical eye to a topic, very little escapes his scorn. His collection of stories around the fictional character Dan Pussey is a scathing commentary of the male-dominated, emotionally stunted comic-book culture. His short story “Art School Confidential” has long been cited by art-school survivors as a bang-on critique up of all that is wrong and limiting in the pretentious–and often untalented–art world that shuns illustration and comics.
When his short story “Caricature”– a dark epiphany of meaninglessness in an aging caricature artist’s life–first appeared in Clowes’ comic book Eightball, it set the bar for North American alternative cartoonists, demonstrating the depth and maturity of what can be done in the medium.
His subsequent graphic novels, David Boring (Pantheon Books, 2000) and Ice Haven (Pantheon 2005), both received considerable critical acclaim for their commentary on society and their inventive storytelling techniques. Clowes has described David Boring as his attempt at creating a comic that could not be made into a film. In Ice Haven, the story unfolds as a fragmented series of cartoon strips drawn in different styles the view a single event. Both books challenge the reader to see more than is presented on the page.
Wilson is the first graphic novel to be released without first being serialized in Eightball, or any other venue, which makes its release that much more anticipated (it is to be released at TCAF in May–and Clowes himself will be giving a presentation on the book). Wilson does not disappoint. It is a masterwork that distils the existential themes touched upon in almost all of Clowes’ previous work.
Wilson is an asshole, a self-absorbed childish jerk who manages to remain a somewhat sympathetic character. Wilson is a single, middle-aged man in a great deal of pain, trying to reach out and find a connection to something bigger than himself–even if it’s just one other individual–but his constant negativity, his complete lack of empathy, and his adolescent self-absorption and bossy nature drives everyone away. It is as if he has a mild form of autism or his character is the result of years of undiagnosed Asperger syndrome.
Like Clowes earlier novel, Ice Haven, Wilson is told in comic strips; unlike Ice Haven, the format is not crucial or as obvious in the telling of the story. Each strip is an unwavering six panel, page-long segment. Each page has a simple title and a punch-line, and varies only among a few drawing styles–all of which reference Clowes’ own drawing styles in Eightball. Each strip lays down the story brick by brick in a repetitive fashion, and it is this narrative strategy that most effectively moves the reader. Each of Wilson’s interactions, each page with a punchline, is both tragic and absolutely hilarious. Interspersing tragic and comic pages, the reader participates in an understanding of Wilson’s interactions with other people. We laugh at what he says and at his immature jokes, but we are also aware of the repulsion of his victims and understand that these vignettes, taken together, are not very funny at all. Pieces of information outside of Wilson’s view are only imagined by the reader. There is no narration, no narrative voice other than order of the drawings. There are no word balloons to tell us what other characters are saying on the other end of the phone. We are in the room with Wilson himself, but not in his head.
Because Wilson is pared down to the life of a single character, we can focus on the existential dilemma Clowes puts before us without distraction. Wilson cannot connect, try as he might. His father passes away, an event that stirs thoughts of his own mortality, and so he attempts, in his own perverse way, to re-create a nuclear family, thinking that doing so will grant him the feeling for others he needs in order to connect. He thinks he can do this by staring at the ocean, as his parents used to do when he was a child.
Wilson is very readable, and it’s Clowes’ best work to date. It can be read as a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when a person fails to empathize, or as a judgement upon the impossibility of empathy. I believe this work seals Clowes reputation as a modern day American Albert Camus. And the comedic timing is totally fucking hilarious.