In the first line of the first panel of the first strip in Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson, the eponymous character, looking directly at the reader, claims, “I love people!” The statement is both ironic and strangely true. Our hero Wilson loves the idea of loving people, and goes about his daily business (walking his dog, drinking coffee, mailing boxes of shit to his former in-laws) in a way that maximizes human contact. With no real family of his own, Wilson reaches out to every person he passes by, addressing them as “brother” or “sister” in an embracing, Emersonian spirit. The problem is that, as much as he loves the idea of loving humanity, Wilson pretty much hates every person he meets. Here’s the opening episode—
Wilson comprises about 70 one-page episodes, each with six or seven panels, each essentially self-contained yet part of a loose plot. The episode above is indicative of the structure of each chapter: a build-up, a monologue, often delivered to disinterested stranger, and then an anti-punchline in which Wilson reveals the ironic cognitive dissonance at the core of his being. The effect can be hard to process, and Clowes’s acerbic humor is clearly not for everyone. Although Clowes uses a traditional Sunday comic page structure, his technique is unsettling: the humor is drawn not so much from the deflationary punchlines that end each chapter, but the overall disconnect between perception, desire, and reality that those punchlines reveal.
Clowes uses this method consistently throughout Wilson, but alternates styles and color palettes, moving from a classic-Clowes style familiar to anyone who’s read Eightball or Ghost World, to a bouncy, cartoony style (see: “Marriage”). The choice to change up the styles calls back, again, to the Sunday comic pages of yore; it also underscores Wilson’s unstable identity, as the narrative slips through gradations of more realistic to more cartoony representations. It is a consistent inconsistency.
Surprisingly, Wilson has a cohesive plot. After the death of his father, Wilson seeks to reunite with his ex-wife, whom he believes to be a drug-addicted hooker. He also hopes to meet the child she was pregnant with when she left him—
Wilson does find his wife. And then he finds his teenage daughter. And then he kinda sorta kidnaps her, or at least doesn’t bother to return her to her adoptive parents. And then he goes to prison. But maybe I’m spoiling the plot now. In any case, Wilson’s adventures are hardly zany. They are poignant and sad and pathetic and cringe-worthy. Clowes is willing to punish his already-tortured protagonist, and yet there’s a payoff for pour Wilson. Throughout the graphic novel, Wilson yearns for human connection, yet is always disappointed by the humans around him who can never measure up to his ideals. Like any sociopath, Wilson lacks a meaningful emotional core; throughout the narrative he longs to experience an epiphany, staring at the ocean, for example, in the hopes illumination. He finally earns this epiphany near the close of his life. The moment is unexpectedly touching, and provides the kind of balance that proves Wilson a work of art and not merely a collection of funny strips. Recommended.
Wilson is available now from Drawn & Quarterly.