Wilson by Dan Clowes

Categories:  Reviews

By Dan Clowes
Drawn and Quarterly

dancloweswilsoncoverSurely Dan Clowes has one of the toughest jobs in all of comics: being Dan Clowes. Such a statement is by no means an attempt to pass judgment on Mr. Clowes’s daily life. Dan Clowes may, on a whole, be a perfectly satisfying thing to be. Some time ago I learned the dangers of projecting the fictional traits of one’s characters upon their creator, and as such, I would never go so far as to suggest that Clowes is somehow the embodiment of the those sad sack outsiders figures who so often populate his panels.

Rather, it’s hard not to imagine any artist operating on Clowes’s level being, in some sense, in the shadow of his or her last great work. For Clowes, it’s been a career teaming with last great works, and in no sense has the artist lost his stride. Over the years and decades his approach has become, perhaps, a touch more subtle, but, save for the most radical of tranformationalists, nuance, quite understandably, has often becomes the currency of seasoned artists.

Hard to believe, but it’s been a half-dozen years since the masterful stroke of The Death-Ray (Eightball #23) and nine years since Ice Haven appeared in its original, floppy form (Eightball #22). I won’t bother to go any further. That would sort of timeline will likely make us all feel ancient.

When it comes to taking his time, Clowes is no Mazzucchelli or Spiegelman, and with his on-going screenwriting career, it’s hard to blame the artist for turning his attentions away from the medium on which he was weaned. While he’s unquestionably become one of the most celebrated artists in the field, success in indie comics likely comes nowhere close the benefits reaped from success in indie film.

And, of course, in the interim, there was Mr. Wonderful, serialized for The New York Times Magazine. And in 2006, there was open-heart surgery.

But somehow it feels like forever. And six years is plenty of time in which to amass unrealistic expectations—the manner of expectations that will inevitably project themselves into disappointment upon the first viewing of any new project.

I’m likely not alone in having scrutinized the first panel and page of Wilson for an unnatural length of time. The titular protagonist is introduced immediately. Fitting, really, as he will appear in nearly every frame of the book (flipping through, I can only pick out a handful of panels in which Wilson is not clearly visible).

“I love people!” he declares in the opening panel. By the ending of the page he’s asking, “for the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?” of a fellow dogwalker prattling on about her tech support issues. It’s a crash course in character study unfolded in seven panels. It prompts a largely unanswered question about whether Wilson does in fact verbalize the constant frustration with the human race most of us keep to ourselves.

But whether or not the character sees fit to let fly such unchecked aggression, the end result is seemingly the same. In the road to middle age, Wilson has burned every potential bridge of human interaction. Wilson is alone.

As a character without context, Wilson seems a familiar figure in the annals of late-period underground comics history: the unlovable curmudgeon. Paint a darker beard on him and he might as well be an Ivan Brunetti self-portrait.

Of course, from a purely aesthetic view point, the Wilson on this first page is clearly a Clowesian character. Almost to a fault. The open-mouthed close-up, the hand-in-pocket slouch—it’s almost as if the artist set out to mimic his own style, and frankly it’s a touch worrisome. After so many decades in the industry, it must be incredibly enticing to rely of muscle memory, crafting some spiritual successor to the one of his seminal tales of isolated angst.

On page two, however, it’s clear that, at the very least, Clowes is not content to fall into older patterns of storytelling. Each page of Wilson is presented as a different strip, as though the book were a collection of some long-running syndicated work, ever seemingly self-contained bit exploring a different cartooning style.

It’s hard to know whether one must accept the book’s strips chronologically, or whether Clowes is intent on just building up a character bit-by-bit, paying no attention to a larger story. The beats are largely the same—Wilson offering up something near insight, ultimately shaken off in favor of a profane fuck off to the world that has no doubt spited him one time too many.

But like those initial doubts about Clowes’s aesthetic choice, worries about wheel-spinning storytelling are soon lifted. As Wilson shakes up his own existence in search of a long lost key, so too is insight shone upon his life until this point, in a tale that brings Wilson to Clowes’s old hometown of Chicago, to a hotel room in bed with a prostitute, to prison. And maybe even, ultimately redemption. Damned if it isn’t impossible to say for sure. Even after a penning a number of screenplays, Clowes happily still eschews the comfort of a Hollywood ending.

And even after finishing the thing and sleeping on it for a number of days, I can’t same for certain how much I enjoyed Wilson. In the end I couldn’t resist the urge to gauge online reactions of the book. As with any Clowes work, words like “masterpiece” have since been bandied about. Some have even declared it Clowes’ greatest work. I’m not sure I fully agree with either synopsis.

It’s a strong work, certainly. We’ve been trained not to expect anything less from Dan Clowes. But is it a David Boring or a Ghost World or a Death-Ray or an Ice Haven? Perhaps not. The book still fresh in my mind, it feels like an exercise in creative uses of the medium—something akin to Seth’s Wimbledon Green, only with a less carefree approach to its subject matter.

In this case, however, I’m certainly open to being wrong—Wilson, at the very least, is a book that will no doubt demand reexamination in the months and years to come.

–Brian Heater

One Comment to “Wilson by Dan Clowes”

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