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Daniel Clowes:

Wilson

In May 2010, Daniel Clowes visits the UK to promote his first all-original graphic novel, Wilson published May 27th in the UK by Jonathan Cape, participating in two special Comica events with Chris Ware. First up they’re in conversation with author/graphic novelist Audrey Niffenegger at the Cochrane Theatre, London on Monday May 24th. Then they are chatting with me in Brighton at the Corn Exchange on Tuesday May 25th. More details can be found on the Comica site.

Nothing is left to chance in a Daniel Clowes book. He considers everything carefully, down to the last design detail. And this is certainly true of his latest graphic novel, the first not to be serialised before elsewhere. That said, Clowes may not have anticipated some very British associations of the A4-size hardback format, with laminated, wipe-cleanable covers on thick board and substantial paper stock for its 80 interior pages, which reminds me, and probably many other Brits from a certain vintage, of a much-loved traditional Christmas children’s comic annual whether The Dandy’s Desperate Dan or Hanna Barbera’s Huckleberry Hound.

Wilson, the title, and the name (presumably first name) of Clowes’ new leading man, appears in a variety of hand-drawn display fonts, once of the front cover, four times full-width on the back cover, and no less than 98 times in various sizes across the all three endpapers, both front and back. And nowhere is the name cropped by the edge of the paper or into the spine, but always complete. And Wilson is repeated a further three times at the front, one per right-hand page, before we finally arrive at page one of the graphic novel. The final time is done in a mock-illuminated funfair style of lettering in yellow complete with light-bulb circles. Wilson, as a title, name and character, is insistently centre stage, the star attraction. It’s showtime.

Equally unaccidental is the book’s closing spread, after the story’s final right-hand episode and before Clowes’ last-page self-portrait and biography. This is a completely white spread of paper, surely not merely excess pages because he ended it too soon, but an ambiguous blankness, erasure, revelation, fade to white, to interpret as you will. In fact, Clowes confided to me that he had not consciously pre-planned this final white expanse as such, but that it resulted from his cutting back on the number of strips finally chosen for the book. He remixed several unused pages into a ‘deleted scenes’-style two-pager for The New Yorker magazine. 

Throughout Wilson, Clowes sticks to a set three-tiered grid of six to eight panels but also mixes up his colour schemes, periodically stripping down his palette to black and a single tasteful shade, sometimes with a pale cream or grey tint to suggest a different paper stock or faded newsprint. Clowes relates his character’s unravelling chronologically from middle-age to old age through 71 one-page strips in contrasting styles across the spectrum from big-nosed cartoonish distortion and stylisation, with nods to Charles Schulz, Mort Walker and E.C. Segar among others, through to some surprisingly fine-lined, near-realistic rendering. The latter offer an unusual departure from Clowes’ past comics, revealing a skill for delicate, naturalistic observation to portray his dying father’s disturbing accusatory stare; an awkward bedroom scene as the balding Wilson discovers a dozing girlfriend’s tattoo; or simply the overlooked hairs sprouting out of his earlobes in the opening spread’s portrait. For me, this affecting sensitivity is an exciting and crucial development in Clowes’ maturing draughtsmanship.

Clowes of course is a master of comedy comics and knows their rules and formulas. His choice of the single-page “gag” format runs the risk of enforcing a predictable pattern to the flow of the narrative, with the last panel regularly offering the twist-in-the-tale punchline, often presaged by a panel to pause for a “beat” or cue the gag to follow. But Clowes undermines these expectations as early as the third strip, abruptly altering the drawing, lighting (suddenly set at night with Wilson almost entirely in silhouette), and above all the tone. With blunt poignancy, his solitary night-walker haltingly recalls his mother’s death. Not many laughs here, folks. If talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, then Wilson qualifies. Whether alone, accosting strangers or conversing, mainly one-sidedly, with friends and loved ones, he is almost entirely insensitive and unembarrassable, his speech balloons dominating every page and every episode (with not a thought balloon in sight). The more we see of Wilson’s bitter diatribes or cringe-inducing encounters, the more his messy, compromised, disappointing life becomes clear. He is alone at the centre of his universe, and in his view, everyone else’s.

It’s hard to avoid wondering if at least a little of Wilson derives from Clowes himself. It seems likely that this is yet another alter ego, mouthpiece or persona, inspired more or less by the author’s observations and perhaps reflections on surgery a few years ago which cleared up a heart problem, giving him almost a new lease on life. From the first two pages, we already know that the character resides in Oakland, California and has a dog, like Clowes, as he discloses in his last-page bio. Another clue is that, as with Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World, Wilson is a partial anagram from Daniel Clowes’ own name. We don’t learn Wilson’s other name (it seems Wilson is his first name, as everyone addresses him this way). To complete the anagram, Wilson’s other name could have been Deacle, Caldee, Dale E.E. perhaps. Or Clowes could have remixed every letter again to make Wes Loincland, Lois Neecwald, Declan O’Lewis…

Working with the constraint of the single-pager of between six and eight panels, Clowes cleverly builds up running gags (a love-hate of fat women, horror at the headlong pace of change, especially nail bars, “the terrible way people live”), at times planting the first part of a joke whose pay-off follows much later. He also uses the turn of the page to stage some hilarious leaps forward in time and story, forcing the reader to enjoy the dawning realisation and connect the dots. One underlying theme, despite Wilson’s anomie and misanthropy, is his genuine desire to connect with others, to find some sense of belonging and meaning to his life. With a deftness and satire, Clowes has actually crafted a subtly existential, even spiritual quest, though he would probably be reluctant to admit it. The sixth instalment introduces the word spiritual, showing Wilson sitting and looking out across a stretch of water where his parents used to come:

“I didn’t really get what they were looking at, but it seemed to give them some kind of spiritual replenishment. I guess maybe they were trying to connect with something bigger, something vast and everlasting.” This first instance ends with the punchline of him walking off, grumbling, “Fuck it, this is a snooze-fest.” But the search for connectedness and the symbol of water gradually builds through the book, as Wilson loses his father and now utterly alone, struggles to reconnect with his ex-wife Pippi, and with their daughter, whom Pippi has had adopted. At one point, he takes the two of them back to a jetty on the water’s edge, but in the next vignette, Pippi’s lack of maternal feeling towards her daughter is brilliantly evoked by the empty motel swimming pool which she and Wilson sit next to. Water occasionally recurs, from a dripping roof to a canal, from a lake to raindrops running down a window.

Anger and ambivalence about religion also seethe through Wilson’s character. For a start, he swears like a trooper, but most of all uses the Christian expletives of God, damn and hell, and in particular, Christ, including Jesus H. and friggin’, no less than 23 times in total. Proudly ungullible, he is quick to mock others’ faith, and yet composes a funny yet touching eulogy, ending prayer-like with an “Amen”, to his most beloved companion, his dog Polly. Religion may have failed, leaving a spiritual vacuum in our atomised society, but Wilson feels something missing, which becomes more and more important as he ages.

Clowes maintains a coolness and understatement, avoiding showing fully some of the most emotional moments in his story. Wilson’s only tear is barely discernible as Clowes switches deliberately from a front view of his face to a profile. The scene remembering his mother’s death is in darkness. Clowes consciously zooms out in the last panel of the penultimate episode, to prevent us from seeing the ageing Wilson’s expression here. For the final page, he shows us only part of Wilson’s face from over his shoulder. In the telling these slices of later life, it’s the contrast of the in-your-face confrontational manner with these distancing techniques and moments of vulnerability and hope that somehow eventually makes us come to understand and even care about this frustrated, flawed man, and perhaps make us care a bit more about our fellow man.

So what will you make of those two closing white pages?

Posted: April 25, 2010

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Wilson
by Daniel Clowes
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