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Book Review

‘Wilson’ shares one man’s anger and angst, in comic form

By Max Winter
July 15, 2010

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We’ve probably all known someone like Wilson. The center of Daniel Clowes’s latest graphic novel, a misanthropic, stoop-shouldered, paunchy fellow in his mid-40s; he has no wife, no job, few friends, just a dog who he likes more than most people for company.

He’s not an Everyman but an Everyschlump with occasional Everyman aspirations. He greets others openly, but the openness turns nasty. When he tries to redeem himself, the results are bad. Nevertheless he expands, in his way, and even if the expansion is flawed, he is, in the end, redeemable for being human.

Wilson’s story unfolds through a series of single-page comic strips. In the book’s first frame, Wilson exclaims, “I love people!’’ as he’s out walking his dog. By the page’s last frame, he’s asking a talky neighbor, “For the love of Christ, don’t you ever shut up?’’ This conversation level is his norm, and though he’s rarely unjust in his criticism of others’ hypocrisy or egotism, he can be truly offensive. After rhapsodizing over how overweight women offer “a primal sense of security, an inexhaustible wealth of maternal protection,’’ he undercuts himself: “Of course, some of them really are disgusting.’’ This isn’t the first genuinely angry character in Clowes’s oeuvre. The girls of “Ghost World’’ got off some similarly grouchy lines. However, Wilson’s anger has a more mature edge.

Wilson’s life story explains his behavior but doesn’t necessarily justify it; the more we learn about him, the more we want his script to change. His wife left him 16 years ago, yet he still calls out “hey, baby’’ into his empty house when he comes home. He lives in Oakland, accepting it as a “good, honest American city,’’ but he can’t help angrily pointing out a derelict defecating on the sidewalk. His defensive shield does go down every now and then, however. He travels to Chicago early on in the book, to see his father, who has stage four lymphoma. When he passes the baseball field where he and his father used to play catch, he collapses on the pitcher’s mound, crying “Oh daddy daddy daddy.’’ The sadness driving his rage is a surprise, its expression a welcome relief.

So the question becomes: Can Wilson change? Not without a struggle, and not entirely authentically. In Chicago, he tracks down his ex-wife, once a prostitute, now an out-of-shape and grumpy waitress. After Wilson discovers his ex-wife had a daughter and put her up for adoption, they find her all too quickly. The search is collapsed into a page or two, the sort of jump that was fine in “Ghost World’’ or the surreal, futuristic “David Boring’’ but is hard to digest here. After the reunited trio sneaks away for a weekend, mother and daughter press charges against Wilson for kidnapping, and he’s jailed for six years. Clowes peppers the jail sequence with scattered funny banter, leaving his hero largely unchanged. After further losses, Wilson does change, and reaches qualified contentment, finally settling down romantically. Also, when he discovers that his estranged daughter has a child, making him a grandfather, he describes himself as a “miracle’’ — an epiphany that happens, again, a bit too fast.

Clowes varies his visual style from page to page, to great effect. In some frames, Wilson is drawn fairly realistically, in a world of somber browns and mauves; elsewhere, more standard comic colors dominate, and Wilson becomes squat, with an enormous round nose. Oakland and Chicago both have an eerie, lonely, empty mood to them in Clowes’s hands, as well: The streets are long and empty, their sole figures beaten by life. Though the story in this book is a bit bumpy, Clowes’s visual finesse makes a terrific backdrop for Wilson’s uncomfortably familiar face.

Max Winter’s “The Pictures’’ was published in 2007.

WILSON

By Daniel Clowes

Drawn and Quarterly, 80 pp., $21.95