Synopsis with significant spoilers. “Wilson is a big-hearted slob, a lonesome bachelor, a devoted father and husband, an idiot, a sociopath, a delusional blowhard, a delicate flower.” His misanthropic existence is filled with misdirected rage and a search for meaning and connection. His closest companion is his pet dog, Pepper, but his father’s death prompts him to leave her in a quest to find his ex-wife, Pippi, and his daughter, Claire. He finds them both with the aid of a private investigator but this fleeting happiness ends when he is imprisoned for kidnapping his daughter. When he is finally released after a period of 6 years, he discovers that his dog has died. His ex-wife is already dead by her own hand. His one time dog-sitter, Shelley, becomes his only consistent companion. Wilson is briefly reunited with his daughter and discovers that he has a grandson. The connection is short-lived and she will only communicate with him through the distance afforded by an internet connection. The closing page shows him at an uncertain rest while contemplating the fall of raindrops on his window.
Wilson stares out at us from the cover of his book. His eyes are dead in their sockets and enclosed by thick spectacle frames. His shirt is packed into a pair of ill-fitting pants; his cranium over-sized in relation to the rest of his body; his creator’s birth date etched into the pavement slab behind him.
His disjointed urban misanthropy is vintage Clowes made simple and unrelenting, while the structure of his hate recalls the Sunday funnies as filtered through the hands of “Charles Schulz, Mort Walker and E.C. Segar” (Paul Gravett). These choices allow Dan Clowes to acknowledge the foundations of his episodic comic, his first work to be released without prior serialization. Each page represents a single moment of conjunction in Wilson’s life, moments which he almost unfailingly renounces and denigrates. The segmented nature of Wilson encourages us to view the character’s metamorphosis like cuttings from a long running strip: gags are developed upon and refined; the protagonist’s intransigence only partially amenable to change; his epiphany on the final page as strange and enigmatic as the musings of a cartoonist on his final job.
Much has been made of the varying styles Clowes employs throughout Wilson. Sean T. Collins doesn’t feel that “the kaleidoscopic array of styles in which Daniel Clowes drew Wilson says much of anything”, this itself being the “gag”. Jog proposes that it is a “a simulacrum, in that the way us readers see him is broken up page by page so that he’s “as if” spotted by a somewhat different (biased, interested) observer, even in scenes where no observers are actually present.” Ken Parille advises his readers that “the styles of Wilson represent a refusal to participate in the lie of certainty and consistency — in place of such assurance Wilson substitutes a series of beautifully executed styles that give us an honest, and therefore incomplete, portrait of a compelling character.” Tom Spurgeon believes that “the author intends it as commentary on just how difficult it is to “know” a character or more generally get at truth through art.” The latter three commentators would appear to be circling the same essential point, a point which is distilled in Spurgeon’s simplification. What this amounts to in reality is a more diffuse and instinctive approach to the selection of style; a technique which allows Clowes to elaborate on temporal and interpersonal connectedness (one of the main themes of Wilson) as well as the shifting of perceptions.
Color unites and amplifies in Wilson. There are the pink balloons which enclose Wilson’s fake dog voice (page 15 and 62)…
… a voice he uses to creep people out and which comes back to haunt him when he ponders the death of his pet later in the book. These moments are clearly meant to be both darkly humorous and ironic in all their displaced meaning.
In another instance, brownish hues (page 14) foreshadow a scene where Wilson sets out to deliver a box of dog shit to his relatives.
Reality, in all its color and detail, can also be a deceptive mask. The jovial and realistically drawn character on the first page (realized with a full palette) who then lets loose with a stinging request to “shut up” in the final panel informs us that surface and substance often have little to do with each other.
The darkly drawn and silhouetted scenes of Wilson reminiscing about his mother’s death (page 9) drive past exterior appearances into the shadowy depths of his soul.
This technique is repeated on page 16 of Wilson where the protagonist traverses the dark corridors of his library while contemplating a call to his father.
The sequence proceeds through the bright light of correct decision before coming to a definitive end in his father’s death (page 19 and 26).
These pages will serve as well as any to show how Clowes connects his narrative through formal mechanisms. Each moment in which Wilson confronts his father’s (and his own) mortality is laid out in the primary style seen on the very first page of this book. This includes his unconscious desperation when he talks up a traveler at the airport (page 21)…
….as well as his indignant confession to some strangers on an airport shuttle (page 23).
This stream of stylistic consistency is only interrupted by two moments of unbridled fatuousness (an encounter on an airplane and another with his father’s nurse) where his despondency is temporarily alleviated.
There are other instances where style is used as a linking device across the leaves of this short book. Page 17 (“Fat Chicks”) has Wilson eyeing a slightly rotund, blonde female while sitting at a cafe.
The page is inscribed in a style which is reiterated (less the cross hatching on Wilson’s nose) on page 36 where he is seen having a nightcap with Pippi, his blonde ex-wife, for the first time in 16 years.
The normal looking individuals who inhabit the more realistically drawn page which follows (page 37) militates against the sense of body dysmorphia found in the earlier passages.
Wilson is possessed by fantasies about Pippi. His encounter with a blonde prostitute (page 33) is a moment of self-deception as is his habitual insistence that his wife once indulged in illegal pharmaceuticals (a point she vehemently rejects).
The thin, blonde working girl becomes a substitute for some longed for interaction and is met on the opposite page (page 34; drawn in a similar style so as invite comparison) by the reality of a slightly overweight and depressive waitress, the ceiling lamps acting as stray and enigmatic thought bubbles. Of course, such illusions have a habit of taking on a life of their own in Wilson. When confronted, Pippi never actually denies a life on the streets and is later found to have a strange mark of ownership on her back. She later dies from a drug overdose in sympathy with Wilson’s earlier accusations.
Paul Gravett has pointed to the symbolic use of water in Wilson but its presence bears repeating as well as elaboration. Characters can be found communicating over cups of coffee, copious amounts of tears and various large bodies of water throughout Clowes’ book. Of particular note are the structural similarities of 3 pages. Page 12 has Wilson staring out at the ocean, an activity which his parents used to engage in for hours when he was a kid. The seaside is vibrantly colored, his solitude interrupted only by some graffiti scrawled on the walls of the pier.
The prison yard on page 58 is spare and of single pigmentation, a counterpoint to his zen-like meditation on the slow drip of a melting icicle . There are six panels here and they represent the six long and empty years Wilson spends in prison.
The final page of Clowes’ work brings muted hues and, perhaps, some unhindered contemplation and enlightenment. The colors recall those used in the earlier scene in prison, with water in the form of rainfall, seen and heard against a firmly shut window.
The key to Clowes’ hydrophilic conundrum can be found in Wilson’s words (on page 12), the gravity of which are defused by a curt kiss-off line:
“Mom and dad used to sit for hours staring out at the lake when I was a kid. I didn’t really get what they were looking at, but it seemed to give them some kind of spiritual replenishment. I guess maybe they were trying to connect with something bigger, something vast and everlasting…Or maybe it’s more complicated than that. Maybe it’s something about the chemical make-up of water, or the connectedness of all things…I feel like if I sit here long enough, it will come to me. I feel like I’m on the verge of a profound personal breakthrough.” (emphasis mine)
The words bring to mind an earlier scene in which Wilson compares the loss of his mother to never being able to see the ocean again. His mistake lies in misconstruing the virtues of companionship for those of a colorless liquid.
The scene on page 51 (titled “Pure Bliss”) is a re-enactment of his parents’ inclinations cut short by the revelation that Wilson’s daughter has been taken against her will (hence her weeping fit on page 44).
It suggests that any metaphysical comprehension on Wilson’s part is illusory; a kind of spiritual mumbo jumbo and a subset of his self-delusion which may in fact be all that is concrete in his life.
Each turn of a page brings meaning to previously obscure imagery. It is only upon seeing Wilson in prison that we realize that a bright light in the penultimate panel of page 53 signifies the arrival of the police.
Only upon further reflection do we see the empty swimming pool on pg 52 (the more truthful absence of water) as a sign of things to come.
Wilson is released from prison only to discover that the only living thing which he cared for unreservedly (his dog, Pepper) has since passed away. Pepper is his surrogate child and the dog’s sitter, Shelley, a kind of surrogate wife. His grandson (revealed by his daughter in the closing pages of the comic) is a new life which brings new hope for kinship. Even the nameless stranger who barely tolerates him while tapping on his laptop (on page 11, 65 and 76) closes his screen to look at him for the first time in years.
Before it all ends, there’s a loud summation of everything that has gone on before, a cacophonous foreboding of what is to come on the final page of Wilson:
“We like our stories to end with a promise of hope. “Happily ever after” and all that. Too bad real lives don’t have that structure. Or hell, maybe they do. Maybe it’s right there in front of us and we can’t see it. I’m so fucking sick of feeling bad; sick of worrying about my mortality and the goddamn loneliness of the human condition…”
Wilson’s cry of freedom which closes this page (“I am a beautiful creature!…A million-in-one fucking miracle!”) ….
…is lodged in the space normally reserved for the punch line and maybe that’s all there is to it, a moment of incautious and ludicrous hope. It is left to the reader to decide whether Wilson’s final moment with us is an act of God on the part of the author or merely an act of desperation; a futile desire to see meaning where there is none.
(1) A discussion of Wilson at The Comics Journal message board
(2) A symposium on Wilson at The Savage Critics. Probably the most extensive discussion of Wilson available online at this point in time. Coming up for debate are issues concerning reader identification, the dichotomy between family and friends, and the effectiveness of the characterization, stylization and denouement.
I’ve avoided any value judgments in the above review but have more sympathy (for somewhat different reasons) with the cautious or plainly negative views expressed by Jared Gardner, Jog and Douglas Wolk, than those opined by Sean T. Collins, Paul Gravett, Brad Mackay, Ken Parille, Tom Spurgeon, Tucker Stone and Glen Weldon (who are generally enthusiastic).
Wilson is skillful in means but lacks something in its substance, perceptions and emotional resonance. The book may be best appreciated as a kind of cultivated entertainment, humorous in parts but one which is largely empty beneath its bag of tricks.
As is made clear in the article above, I don’t completely agree with Wolk when he says that the stylistic changes are simply a “display of mastery on Clowes’ part rather than particularly like an additional layer of meaning added to specific scenes” but there is a germ of truth in his suggestion that “all the stylistic choices Clowes makes here are within a distinct, limited range of visual style.” This may be a purposeful decision and not one limited by his skills as an artist.
It is easy to see Tucker Stone’s point when he writes that his “immediate response to [Wilson was] that [he] thought that Clowes was commenting on other comics, on his contemporaries.” Of these, Ivan Brunetti is more violent and self-lacerating, Adrian Tomine more grounded in certain kind of reality, Chris Ware more frequently emotionally satisfying and clever as a formalist. Even the younger Clowes seems more sophisticated in his rancor. Clowes’ qualities as a writer and cartoonist (more literary, less poetic) are ill-suited to the pared down comedy of Wilson, a deficit which throws Schulz’s achievements on Peanuts into sharp relief. Tucker is kinder in his final assessment suggesting that much of the comic consists of Clowes’ gentle ribbing or referencing of his contemporaries. He does not, however, work up enough fire to submit that Wilson is a full on satire and an attack on the sub-genre as a whole, mainly because there is nothing in Wilson which suggests as such.
(3) An interview with Dan Clowes at The Star.com
“But the idea of actually committing to doing an entire book, and the thought of how long I knew that would take me, that was a hurdle to get over. But once I got going it went much more quickly and pleasantly than I’d feared. I see no reason at this point anymore to do things in the serial format. It just doesn’t make sense anymore, the way the world works these days.”
“He’s certainly written from within, but he’s not at all like me in most ways. I’m not the kind of person who can come up to a person and sit at a table and start talking. Wilson is completely uncensored. He has no self-regulating mechanism. He is like a walking id who does not filter himself to make himself more palatable.”
(4) An interview with Dan Clowes at The Boston Phoenix
“QN: Why the six-panel format? Was it a challenge, each page requiring a punch line?
I’d just finished reading the biography of Charles Schulz. And there’s a quote from Schulz saying, “A professional cartoonist can take five minutes and cobble together a completely workable idea for a comic strip, where nobody would even notice that it took him five minutes. That’s what it means to be a professional.” So I sat down with my sketchbook, and I just started doodling comic strips about this guy I’d never thought of a minute before that — who turned out to be Wilson. I tried to do it sort of like a Peanuts strip, where they had a certain rhythm and a punch line.”
(5) An interview at the DCist
“When I actually sat down to write it, I tried to devise a master style that would work for the entire book and I kept veering between doing really cartoon-y styles and then going to a much more realistic style, and trying out all these different methods. And as I was doing that I realized that that was the only way to do the entire book. There was no one style that made sense for this book. It would have to be this kind of mosaic approach where you’re seeing kind of different facets of this guy on different days, and kind of separating each strip into its own different universe that’s not necessarily related to the others in sequence.” (emphasis mine)