Daniel Clowes: Wilson

I enjoyed Daniel Clowes’ ‘Justin M. Damiano’, his contribution to Zadie Smith’s Book of Other People, and bought his novel David Boring on the strength of it. As usual, I never got around to reading it, and as usual, it ended up being leapfrogged by a new book of his which caught my eye.

It would catch yours too.  Wilson is published as a large hardback, A4 size, with a glossy cover, like a children’s annual.  Its ‘hero’ peers out at us – uncertainly? beseechingly? – looking faintly ridiculous with his too-large head.  This book, we are told, is Clowes’ “first original graphic novel”: his others were serialised before appearing in book form.

This makes Clowes’ structure and format all the more interesting.  The book is a series of around 70 single-page vignettes of Wilson’s life, from midlife to old age.  What makes it especially interesting is how the strips change according to context.  The first strip, for example, in isolation reads like a simple comic ‘reverse’:

But after reading the rest of the book, we recognise it as an indicator of his effortful – and always failed – attempts to conquer his worst sociopathic qualities.  He tries – my god, how he tries – but Wilson, sure enough, is not a people person after all.  On another page, his attempts to make polite smalltalk with a stranger at a coffee shop are met with increasingly terse responses, until a silent frame passes (the beat; the comic timing that the graphic format enables) and Wilson shouts, “Hey, shithead – I’m talking to you!”  It’s a joke, but funny mainly because it’s not funny.

Time and again Wilson fucks up by falling back on ‘jokes’, sarcasm and anger.  The emotional heft of the story is between the thick pages, not on them.  This means that the reader is well advised not to rush through from scene to scene (though it’s awfully tempting to do just that), but pace them and space them, like a collection of stories.  We see only the absurd and grotesque moments, and between pages anything from hours to years can pass.  Soon we realise just why Wilson keeps striking up conversations with strangers.

Here again the last frame tops the page off: it’s a punchline, just not a funny one. What Clowes does so well is to trick the reader so that sometimes, what appears to be a silly or surreal moment in the last frame – a WTF! moment – turns out to be straight, sincere and a stiletto-like incision into Wilson’s character.  The drawing style of the strips varies, reflecting aspects of the man: a comic exaggeration, a monochrome dullard, a suffering noir hero.  We learn more about how alone Wilson is, that he doesn’t have a job, that his dog Pepper is his only regular companion, and that he keeps meaning to ring his elderly father, until eventually his father rings him.

Wilson goes to visit his father, leaving Pepper with the dog-sitter (“Nothing serious, I hope.”  “Hell yes, it’s serious!”), and the ill-fated conversations with strangers and the anti-punchlines continue.  Increasingly (“Oh God, it’s so terrible the way people live!”), they seem to represent more closely Wilson’s comment on his own life than on the lives of others (“I mean, Christ – do you realize how ridiculous you sound?”).

As the story continues in its staccato way, we find that Wilson has more family members than we – or he – realised.  The emotional background of the man, and the book, begins to fill up, back to front.  However, Clowes never allows his character easy get-outs, or simplistic – cartoonish – moral development.  Near the end, when Wilson does have a moment of epiphany (“I am a beautiful creature! I’m a living monument to nature’s genius! I’m alive and breathing and strong! A million-in-one fucking miracle”), it is forced, ironic – and, to top it off, delivered to a stranger (perhaps the same stranger) in a coffee shop.

Wilson is embarrassing, excruciating, funny and satisfying.  The artwork is unobtrusive, but essential: the structure of the book would be less effective and the force of the story mostly absent without it.  To conclude in a way as conflicted as the man himself, on the one hand the book feels like a piece of standard literary fiction given wings by its graphic novelty.  On the other, Wilson seems to me to be a small revelation, not just for its structure and form, but for the quality of its content.


  1. Yes! Clowes gets the Asylum treatment!

    He can do no wrong in my eyes so I can only agree with your comments, John. The 8-Ball stuff has the funniest ‘sports’ stuff surely ever committed to fiction…and David Boring is immense.

  2. Clowes was doing a signing the other day at Gosh with Chris Ware. I naively thought I might be able to drop in at the end of the session on my way into work and pick up a copy of this (and get Ware to sign my Jimmy Corrigan) but was confronted by a queue that went round the block. There was even a couple dressed as the girls from Ghost World remarkable in and of itself but even more so for the fact that one of them was a man.

    I think I shall have to take a look at this. Thanks John.

  3. I’m surprised and very pleased to see a graphic novel on Asylum! ‘Wilson’ is a wonderful, nasty, sad book, and I have to admit that I recognise Wilson’s reaction to the one man who doesn’t compliment his dog. ‘David Boring’ is great, too, but I wonder how much appeal it would have to people without much exposure to comics, since it involves a fairly savage look at part of that world’s history. But I’m with Lee… I’ve never not enjoyed a Clowes book.

  4. Aargh! When talking about ‘David Boring’, I was actually meaning Clowes’s ‘Pussey’, which is the one about comics.

  5. It’s not even 1st June and you’ve already made me break my resolution not to buy anything from Amazon. You’re the literary equivalent of the Child Catcher.

  6. I submitted last night and finally galloped through this – I was intending to ‘save’ it but it is increasingly apparent that this is a bogus way of preparing for future readers block (which, from my point of view, is nothing more than disliking one book because it’s not another, which I could just as easily be reading, but won’t, as it’s really, really important (for some reason or other) to do battle with a book that I know is marvellous but I just don’t have the reserves of focus to do justice and therefore instead read incrementally and in fractured, unnecessarily wearied snatches (when I could easily put it down and leave it for a few months, by which time it will be just the ticket etc)) and I needed a laugh. It’s completely marvellous, particularly the two pieces that involve his taking stock by his dying father. I mean, I’m talking about the best EVER use of the word ‘f**ker!!’ for a start, amongst other perfectly poised episodes -.’Hey, shithead – I’m talking to you!’ – ‘You’ve got the wrong guy, Frankenstein – I’ve never seen you before in my life.’ (Out of context, of course, these don’t remotely work – it’s jsut that, as I type them, they provoke repeat laughter that I so wish everyone could experience.) Wilson should be a legal requirement: it will enrich your life and, as a bonus, often make you laugh out loud in misanthropic recognition. And it’s 100% Wilsonesque.

  7. Just thinking about it now prompts a laugh. It could be his best work. I urge you to check out Chris Ware (though I’m sure you already have?) for the other contemporary great in that ‘line’. The Acme Novelty Library and Jimmy Corrigan are essential.

  8. Ah, a five-star review to boot! Good stuff. Corrigan just gets better. Imagine my trouble getting people to read ‘a comic’ though…….

  9. John,

    How did you get the pages to insert into your review? When I’ve tried to do graphic novel reviews it’s been a real issue for me. I tend to end up with smoe random pages I’ve managed to find online which I then include by way of example. Were you just lucky in the random pages you found or do you have some more sophisticated technique?

  10. I scanned them on, Max, using our office scanner, and uploaded them to my WordPress account as I normally do with cover images. So these were the specific pages I wanted to write about. The book is a sturdy hardback so it withstood the scanning without any harm.

  11. I wondered if it might have been something like that. I may try that next time if the book will stand it (some will where there hardbacks as here, the softback ones though not so much).

    I’ve still only read his Ghost World. I found a printout of this review kicking around at home which reminded me of it. Must read more Clowes.

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