BOOK WORLD

Daniel Clowes's new graphic novel "Wilson," reviewed by Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 1, 2010

WILSON

By Daniel Clowes

Drawn and Quarterly. 77 pp. $21.95

It's not as though I haven't noticed the rise of the graphic novel. Over the years, I've dropped into any number of bookstores and inevitably found -- and envied -- the three or four young people always sprawled on the floor next to the shelves labeled "Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels." No other readers look quite so utterly absorbed in their books.

Back in the 1980s, I even oversaw a special Book World "Close-Up" devoted to comics: We ran pieces about Alan Moore's "Watchmen," Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor," the Hernandez Brothers' "Love and Rockets," Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and the work of Frank Miller. I remember being especially fond of Miller's samurai adventure "Ronin." There might have been something about Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!" too. Comics, it was clear even then, had darkened since the glory days of Carl Barks's "Uncle Scrooge," and superheroes were no longer as uncomplicated as they were in the heyday of Superman.

In fact, many of the best comics were already addressing themes far more grim and gruesome than anything in EC's old "Tales From the Crypt." Dysfunctional families, genocide, sexual violence, plain old existential despair -- there wasn't much that was comical in their generally noir outlook on life. They made "The Postman Always Rings Twice" look like a happy love story, a fairy-tale romance.

Since then, graphic novels and comics have grown even more aesthetically complex and disturbing. Think of Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" and Alan Moore's and Melinda Gebbie's "Lost Girls" -- or consider "Wilson," the latest from Daniel Clowes, author of "Ghost World" and "David Boring," recipient of all the major awards in the field, and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker.

In this album the hero is a fat, bearded and profane Everyman of some indeterminate middle age. Even more than most of us, Wilson has made a mess of his life. When the book opens, he's unemployed and cares only for his dog. Things go downhill from there: His father dies, he hooks up with his ex-wife (whom he suspects has been a druggie and prostitute), discovers that he has a now-grown (and very alienated) daughter, goes to prison and, after his release, learns that he has become a grandfather. The book ends with Wilson in a bare apartment, staring out the window, as raindrops skate down the panes of glass. "Of course," he murmurs to himself, "that's it! Of course!"

Ever since Scott McCloud's foundational "Understanding Comics," people have come to realize that there's a lot more going on than meets the eye in what Will Eisner calls "sequential art." In "Wilson," the first thing you notice is that the "novel" is divided up into page-long "chapters." Each bears a title, such as "Oakland" or "Taxi Cab" or "Shopping Mall," and most take only six or seven panels to relate an incident from the protagonist's life. Most of them end with an unexpected kicker or reverse, often a kind of joke or comment on the human condition.

In "Pure Bliss," Wilson sits peacefully with his ex-wife, Pippi, and newly discovered daughter on a pier, overlooking a lake. He speaks of "the connection between us. We don't even have to say a word -- it's purely chemical." He keeps on in this vein: "Don't you feel it, Pippi? Don't you feel like we're doing the right thing for once in our stupid lives?" Finally, his ex-wife answers, "I don't know." And an incredulous Wilson responds, in shock, "You don't know?? My God, Pippi!" There's a final panel break, and then we're looking at the little group from the back, as Pippi adds, "I guess maybe this whole kidnapping thing makes me a little uncomfortable, Wilson!"

Because each chapter can stand alone, it takes a while before the reader recognizes that they are moving forward in chronological order, gradually telling a unified story. In "Post Office," for instance, Wilson plans to send a box of dog feces to someone. Only much, much later do we discover -- during a family dinner party -- the identity of the recipient.

Throughout, Wilson periodically accosts various strangers, and these encounters often resemble concise, absurdist dramas. While waiting for a plane, he asks a well-dressed businessman about his job. The man, ill at ease, answers: "I'm in senior management at a small equity firm, and I do some consulting for various -- ." Wilson interrupts, saying he doesn't want "all the mumbo-jumbo. I want to know what you actually do. Like the actual physical tasks of your daily life." The man splutters that a lot of it focuses "on how to best implement managerial strategies in -- ." Wilson suddenly erupts:

"Listen to me, brother -- you're going to be lying on your deathbed in 30 years and thinking 'Where did it all go? What did I do with all those precious days?' Some [expletive]-work for the oligarchs? Is that it?"

The man answers: "Look, I'm proud of what I do, and I work very hard to -- ." At which point, Wilson buries his head in his hands: "Oh God, it's so terrible the way people live!"

While Clowes's art is essentially realistic, he seems to have deliberately emphasized the round-faced dumpiness of Wilson, Pippi and their daughter, Claire. No one in the book is at all physically attractive. At the same time, he varies his drawing styles: In some, Wilson is distinctly gnomish or cartoony; in others, he's thinner and more normal-looking -- even as some chapters are in color, some in black and white, and several in a washed-out monochromatic blue or pink.

Who is the audience for "Wilson"? Certainly not those young people I see sprawled on the floor with Japanese manga. This is a book about life's passages and disappointments, and will be most appreciated by those who know something of quiet desperation. It's not a pretty book, and even its language is so vulgar that it's difficult to quote from. But this descent into a man's soul is certainly a long way from what my mother used to call "your funny books."

Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.


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