Mister Wonderful — Daniel Clowes

There’s an unexpected sweetness to Mister Wonderful, the latest work from Daniel Clowes (new in hardback from Pantheon). Sure, we’re still deep in Clowes territory here, with misanthropic protagonist Marshall offering up acerbic observations on wealthy yuppies, phony poseurs, and jerks on cell phones—all shot through a lens of self-loathing—but Mister Wonderful (subtitled A Love Story) is optimistic, a study in possibility that never tips over the sheer cliff of despair on the other side of romanticism. With its sense of balance, both emotional and narrative, Mister Wonderful is in some way the “good twin” to last year’s Wilson, a work that pointed to the illusory nature of growth and the futility of human connection.

Where Wilson measured the life of its eponymous protagonist over decades (and in extreme hyperbole) as he sought to regain contact with his estranged family, Mister Wonderful  covers just a few hours in the life of Marshall, a sad man set up on a blind date with nutty Natalie, a woman he immediately pegs as way out of his league. Marshall quickly romanticizes the possibility of a life with Natalie, struggling to keep his composure throughout their coffee and dinner date.

Natalie curtails the date to go to a party with old friends, but a surprise (violent) encounter allows Marshall a sliver of heroism—and a chance for more time with Natalie. They head to the party together, only to run into Natalie’s ex-boyfriend, giving Clowes plenty of oomph for a strong third act.

There’s a cinematic scope to Mister Wonderful. The book is 11″ x 6″, and Clowes makes excellent use of his Sunday’s comic page dimensions, exhibiting a level of detail and precision that imbue in Mister Wonderful an air of realism (one that contrasts the cartoony elements of evil twin Wilson). Clowes’s artistic powers are refined, balanced, and agile; he displays a command of color and shape that help define the strange emotional contours of Mister Wonderful, a book about second chances and those rare moments our interior lives might sync unexpectedly with the concrete possibilities life affords us.

Mister Wonderful is funny and balanced, but it’s not for everyone, including some longtime Clowes fans who might quibble with the book’s apparent slightness. Mister Wonderful clocks in at 80 pages, and while some readers may feel shortchanged, perhaps they are overlooking the scope of the work. Clowes is at the height of his powers here, deftly controlling a spare story about  midlife tumult. There’s maturity and depth in this graphic novella. “Novella” isn’t the right term—Mister Wonderful is closer to a long short story, expertly told. Clowes still exhibits some of the sharp, mean edges that marked his earlier work, but the points are more finely honed, more subtle and precise. Some of the erratic weirdness we find in Clowes’s early stuff isn’t on display here, but this is more on account of Clowes’s stronger command of his medium’s formal elements. The bizarre, cynical spirit remains, however. Thankfully, Clowes makes no attempt to redeem his weirdos, nor does he push them into an unearned, false conclusion. Instead, Mr. Wonderful presents their problems and hang-ups and shortcomings as very real, even as it suggests a tint of unironic optimism. Recommended.

AV Club Interviews Daniel Clowes


The AV Club interviews comix creator Daniel Clowes. (Read our review of Clowes’s hilarious and acerbic book Wilson)From the interview—

The A.V. Club: People often ask musicians if they listen to their old albums or filmmakers if they watch their old movies, but do you reread your old comics?

Dan Clowes: I try not to. [Laughs.] It usually doesn’t lead to anything good. The only way I can ever experience them really is if I completely forgot what they were about. Once I send it off to the printer, I try to never look at the work again, if I can help it. Usually when I put together a book like this DeathRay hardcover or that Ghost World special edition, then I have to reread it and see if there is anything I want to change or any re-coloring I want to do. That’s when I’m faced with the actual work. When I’m working, I’m too close to it. I’m sort of inside, and I can’t see it at all. So when I have that experience of rereading it years later, it’s jarring.

“Cute Dog” — Daniel Clowes

Read our review of Daniel Clowes’s Wilson, or buy the book from Drawn & Quarterly..

Wilson — Daniel Clowes

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.

“Marriage” — Daniel Clowes

From Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson, available from Drawn & Quarterly.