Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes

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Mister Wonderful
By Daniel Clowes
Pantheon Books

dan-clowes-mister-wonderful-cover

Wilson wandered and meandered and generally spun its wheels until somewhere near the midway point, when, thankfully, things congealed. It was almost as though the artist didn’t truly recognize an objective until the book was well under way. Now granted, such an approach doesn’t always spell disaster, and surely some of our greatest works have begun life largely devoid of purpose, but in the case of Daniel Clowes’s last book, the result felt downright aimless at moments in that first half, as though the cartoonist were content to let the book exist largely as canvas for showcasing different styles, a skill on which he has seemingly never had to work too hard.

Perhaps part of the book’s failing (which, of course, is not to suggest that the book was a failure, per se), was the fact that, aside from the its strip-per-page format (which was certainly a point in its favor), Clowes didn’t seem to have imposed too many restraints upon himself, which resulted, ultimately, resulted in a slight loss of control over the story’s direction.

Mister Wonderful, on the other hand, is a book defined by its own constraints, beginning with the serialized format with story was originally presented—as 20 installments, which first saw publication in The New York Times Magazine, a format that shares a sense of finite space per issue with Clowes’s own Eightball, a series that gave rise to the artist’s tightest and best work.

Aside the built-in limitations of format, Clowes has constructed Mister Wonderful around two key self-imposed restraints. The first is time. Along with the limited pages, the story is grounded on a rather short timeline, largely revolving around a single night.

The second even more concrete restriction is the fact that, for all of the external dialog that exists on these pages, Mister Wonderful never really truly leaves the protagonist’s head. His internal monolog is our center, our compass, our play-by-play, our comic relief. It spills forth psychosis, offers up context and back story, provides asides, puts us through the emotional ringer before a single word is ever spoke, and, on occasion, even manifests itself in an overtly cartoonish manner, as a Charlie Brown-esque hovering raincloud, or a standalone, floating voice of reason like something straight out of The Flintstones.

The result is a story devoid of any slack. Sure, it doesn’t offer the grandiose, ensemble cast of the sublimely terrific Ice Haven, but that’s not the point. Clowes does much of his best work when he’s operating in his own head, whether with the short autobio strips he would occasionally offer up in Eightball or with a storyline like Ghost World, where the lead characters often served as mouthpieces for what really seemed to be the author’s criticism against the direction of an eroding society.

The limited number of panels has also forced Clowes to let the spatial constraints take some of the brunt of the storytelling, zooming in on panels, which sometimes take up full pages of the oddly shaped book, a lesson he learned, perhaps from the time he’s spent in films in recent years. At particularly urgent moments, Clowes will interrupt the pacing to blow up a tiny fraction of a panel, laying bare the imperfections of the formerly minute line. These choices are themselves almost a compelling enough reason to pick up a book of material that’s largely available for free online.

The best reason, however, is the ability to crack open the strongest and most concise work we’ve seen from Clowes in a while, an ode to the pitfalls of middle-aged dating, the fallacies of love, and the struggle to step outside our own heads long enough to show another human being our true selves.

–Brian Heater

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One Comment to “Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes”

  1. Duffy | March 9th, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    I think you’re pretty much wrong about WILSON but I adored MR WONDERFUL when it ran in the NY Times, and I’m psyched for this publication!

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