Sunday, January 30, 2011


I have been struggling with ways to describe this book. Charlie Brown all grown up and even more disillusioned? Garfield meets Sartre? A Larry David comic strip without all the celebrity trappings? A Swiftian misanthropic parody of a daily comic strip? It's not quite any of these things, but what I can say is that I felt simultaneously repulsed and compelled to read this book in one sitting.

Daniel Clowes, author of acclaimed works such as Ghostworld and Ice Haven, created this series of 4-panel comic strips in slightly different styles. In them he follows the exploits of Wilson, who does little and is critical of everything. In time, we see him deal with the loss of his ex-wife, the death of his college professor father, the search for a daughter he didn't know he had, and periodically we sort of feel sorry for him. But Clowes punctuates all these moments with a reminder that Wilson is an egotistic jerk who cannot empathize with others. In many ways, his life reads like a stereotypical talk show participant, only he is supremely intellectual and self-important, and the result is a strange mix of humor and dread.

Clowes has making comics for the better part of three decades now, with most of his work appearing in independent anthologies and series such as his seminal Eightball. Wilson is his first original graphic novel to appear first in non-serialized form. Clowes has garnered many accolades for his work, winning multiple Harvey Awards for writing, artwork, and individual stories. Two of his works, Ghostworld and Art School Confidential, have been adapted into movies, and he has been working on at least two other screenplays since.

Reviews on the book have been somewhat mixed, though they all point to Clowes's skills as a storyteller. NPR's Glen Weldon comments on how Clowes grapples with "bleak truths" and self-laceration but also sheds life on the pomposity and humor of these situations. The Hooded Utilitarian's Ng Suat Tong wrote a very detailed and pointed analysis, ultimately criticizing the book and Wilson's "disjointed urban misanthropy" as "vintage Clowes made simple and unrelenting." Along with multiple spoilers he posts a good number of links to other discussions of the book. Sam Lipsyte reviewed the book for The New York Times and found it a mix of "tragedy and farce" that marks the lead character as a workable symbol for humanity, even if not in a universal manner.

As for me, I found the book alternately funny, horrifying, and unsettling, but I also found myself thinking about it days and weeks after I read it. I wouldn't call it a pleasant read but an evocative and thought-provoking one.

Tom Spurgeon has a large, in-depth interview with Clowes here.

A pdf preview is available here from publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

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