Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Change of Clowes

Posted by Don MacPherson on August 1st, 2012

Wilson original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Daniel Clowes
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Price: $21.95 US/ $23.95 CAN

Wilson does a lot of things well, not the least of which is showcasing cartoonist Daniel Clowes’s versatility as an artist. Not only does he offer multiple styles over the course of the book, but he also effectively combines short-form strip comics with a long form story. The book is also replete with social commentary and criticism, much of which hits the mark quite effectively. Taking centre stage throughout the book, though, is the title character’s negative personality. It’s clear the cantankerous central figure is meant as a stand-in for all of us; his hypocrisy and laziness, his apathy and outrage — it’s meant to be our own. Wilson is an engaging read — I couldn’t stop turning the pages as I began reading — but the effectiveness of the characterization also serves as something of a detriment. Wilson is such a loathsome figure, I almost didn’t want to read about him. But only almost.

Unemployed, divorced and generally adrift in life, Wilson goes about his days, tending to the one creature he truly cares for in the world: his dog, Pepper. But when family issues draw him back home, he discovers a life he could’ve led, sees mistakes he made and spots opportunities to recapture some lost years. Despite a number of seeming epiphanies, he keeps making the same mistakes, and this time around, they tear his life apart in a much more devastating way. Wisdom continues to elude Wilson, though, even after he’s able to bounce back and return to the rut that served as such a comfort years before.

The back cover of this hardcover graphic novel offers up four alternative mastheads, and the differing Wilson logos reflect the shifts in style Daniel Clowes employs from page to page inside the book. At first, I suspected the more realistic styles he employs on some pages were meant to reflect more serious subject matter, but that theory doesn’t really play out when one scans the book. Clowes keeps us on our toes. Often, the tone of the art doesn’t match the dialogue, and at others, they seem like good fits. I think my favorite pages are those that boast styles that are clearly meant as tributes to traditional, old-school comic-strip art. Charles Schulz’s influence pops up in the book from time to time, and there are those with more exaggerated elements that evoke memories of cartoony, underground/alt comics.

Clowes also plays with color palettes throughout the book. The lighter, simpler styles are matched with much brighter colors, while some employ a duller, two-tone approach. The constant shifts in coloring techniques and choices spotlight the importance of the process to storytelling. It provides more than texture. It dominates the mood, even sometimes overcoming the nature of what the characters are discussing or experiencing.

Wilson sees himself as superior to all those around him, opting to interpret the comfort or happiness others experience in their lives as weaknesses. And when he encounters someone similarly miserable, he still sees himself above that individual, casting himself in a more optimistic and healthy mode of life than his new counterpart. I also appreciated the scenes in which he’s demonstrates he doesn’t want to be bothered while showing an eagerness to intrude on others’ lives. And when he’s not bothered, he laments and rails about being ignored. Perhaps the most disheartening but nonetheless resonant aspect of Wilson’s character is how familiar he is. We’ve all met someone like Wilson, someone who’s self-important without cause, who’s lacking in ambition and denigrates those who achieve through hard work.

While Wilson isn’t a figure to be admired, Clowes uses his miserable life as a window into a world with which some readers might be unfamiliar. It’s a world of hard choices and hard living. It’s not Wilson who provides the look into such a difficult existence. Pippi, his ex-wife, is the primary avenue, and she stands out as strong and admirable as a result of the adversities she’s overcome. In fact, her role in the story reveals just how toxic Wilson truly is, as he derails her life once again. She was clearly better off without him, and her mistake in forgetting that is an unfortunate one.

Wilson absolutely sucks the life out of a room, not only the room in which he finds himself, but the room in which the reader sits and thumbs through these pages. If anything, Clowes has done his job too well. He refuses to allow the title character to redeem himself, and I respect the choice. A happy ending, a rebirth for Wilson would be too predictable, too easy. Furthermore, Clowes recognizes people don’t change so easily, especially when it’s for the better. The sheer craft that went into this book is thoroughly impressive, but the bad taste the lead character leaves in one’s mouth tempers that appreciation. 7/10

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