By Daniel Clowes
80 pages, color
Published by Drawn & Quarterly
It was in 2004 that Daniel Clowes released the last (and at this point, presumably final) issue of Eightball, and with his work in the past decade on movies like Ghost World and Art-School Confidential it was a reasonable assumption that Clowes might have been giving up on the comics art form entirely. With Wilson, though, Clowes makes a full-fledged return to the comics format, in his first original graphic novel. And perhaps because he’s been gone a while, Wilson seems designed to try and see how far it can get under the reader’s skin.
Wilson is told as a series of one-page, old-school Sunday comics broadsheets. It initially starts as a series of one-off stories, establishing the character of Wilson and his general misanthropic, sociopathic nature. With those first twelve strips, each story is angling towards a specific punch line, that rim shot sound as Wilson lays out a withering final jab at the current subject of his ire. We start seeing this on the very first page, with Wilson being upbeat and cheerful for what we will later is clearly a struggle at best. As he shoots down the random stranger that he stopped to talk to, though, Wilson’s nature is revealed: a person who interacts with other people solely to use as sounding boards, no more respect for them than with any inanimate object. If they talk too much, he cuts them down. If they’re busy, he ignores their complaints and barges in. But at the same time, Clowes is trying to position Wilson as an over the top, "I wish I’d said that," mouthpiece for the reader. All of the frustration and annoyance that anyone has ever faced in regards to stupid people is here on the page; the difference is that Clowes heaps it on over and over again, time and time again. At first it’s amusing, then you start to realize that Wilson as a person has nothing else to offer anyone.
And then, as the book progresses, a larger story begins to flow from one page to the next, and in doing so there becomes a slight shift in the story. Instead of random strangers that Wilson cuts down, we start seeing him have to deal with family, and Wilson becomes a much more interesting book. Meeting up not only with his dying father but also his ex-wife and a daughter that she’d given up for adoption after they separated, Wilson’s lack of social niceties and understanding becomes less of a setup for jokes and more of a widening flaw that is cracking and pushing through his foundation. For the first time in decades he’s offered, for a split second, something that would approach normality. But even as he tries to make things "right" in his head, the huge disconnect between the way the world works and how Wilson’s mind works grows. This is someone where it makes you start to wonder how he’s managed to function in modern society for as long as he has. There’s something not wired quite right in Wilson’s head, but at no time does Clowes use this to try and dreg up pity from his readers. Instead it feels like the reaction he’s going for is a strange mixture of scorn and schadenfreude. Wilson’s net of pot shots is cast far and wide, with Clowes knowing that some are going to hit home with readers, while others will target those that readers dislike. It’s a strange but effective technique; try to at least briefly offend everyone at some point, and you’ll hit friends and enemies alike.
Clowes is casting the artistic net wide as well, drawing the book in a variety of styles; some in a more realistic manner that past Clowes readers are used to in books like David Boring and Ghost World, others are much more cartoonish, or drenched in a two-color palette. There’s no specific pattern to the shifts in style; sometimes a more simple approach is used to illustrate a lighter piece, other times it’s one of the darker moments in the book. It seems at times simply there to try and break up any fear of a visual monotony—something I don’t think that Clowes needed to worry about—although it is amusing to see the characters drawn Little Lotta style while talking about rather dark moment’s in the book’s saga.
Wilson seems to delight in making its titular character unlikable, but personally I found it all the more absorbing as it went along. Wilson wouldn’t be an easy person to be around in real life, but this arm’s length distance away courtesy Clowes makes him worth gaping at. I suspect the real litmus test for the reader, though, is how much or little of Wilson they later recognize in themselves. I suspect that if anyone says that none of Wilson is part of them, the reality is that they’re actually the closest to the main character. It’s a fun ride through a twisted man’s life, and it reminded me how much I’ve missed Clowes’s comics in general. Hopefully this is the start of a regular return to the printed page for Clowes.