Mr. Wonderful
by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon, 2011)

Given that all of Daniel Clowes' characters are misanthropes who are too sensitive for the world they live in, you are bound to get some high level, very caustic weirdness. But that's what Clowes does best: remind us all that we are outsiders living on the periphery, while somehow being humanistic and insightful.

Mr. Wonderful is more likable than his previous efforts. Although it covers familiar territory, it's a lot more positive. His main character is still a handwringing worrier whose anger is very close to the surface, but Marshall is a much more empathetic character this time; it also helps that there's more of a happy ending. Clowes' neurotic, very emotionally damaged characters can be trying but this time it's easier to connect with them on a human level.

The story is also a bit more simple. It's about a blind date with hilarious consequences, much more like What's Up Doc, not quite his usual bleak meditation on the awfulness and heartlessness of humanity. There's not grim paranoia at work so much as a quiet desperation that is met head-on by a willingness to actually stop wallowing in misery and surrender solitude and walk out the door and take a chance on people.

The story starts with a middle-aged man, Marshall, sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for his blind date to arrive. A half hour later she finally does show up. Her name is Natalie, and in the course of the next hour she convinces him she's almost too good to be true. There has to be a catch, of course, and there is. But it wouldn't be a Daniel Clowes story without a little bit of pathos.

A long After Hours kind of story follows, with the night testing them in ways Marshall never thought possible. He's desperate to preserve his one chance in six years at a decent love life, and he'll do whatever is necessary. He is a walking, talking billboard of fear, hope and anxiety. It's very easy to relate to his insecurities precisely because they are so human.

I like Clowes' device of plastering the thoughts in Marshall's head over the thought bubbles of others, making it impossible for him to see or hear the world appropriately through the clashing din of his own inner monologue. Again, though, it's easy to relate to. We all get caught up in the nets of our own fears and lose sight of what's important. And sometimes all that self-consideration can lead to some pretty interesting self-revelation.

Not to mention that the artwork is totally framable. The colors are perfect as always. Clowes really knows how to utilize panel space very well, and here he uses a lot of full-page blow-ups and spreads, all to great effect.

This may not be everyone's cup of tea. Clowes isn't known for being positive and hopeful. But this is still the most even-keel work he's done in years. He still has a touch of contempt for modern life and the people in it, but Mr. Wonderful's sensibilities are much sweeter. Clowes actually allows the preposterous hope that Marshall and this woman, Natalie, might actually have something, a human sort of something, not some codependent nightmare or twisted version of the real thing. That's some genuinely forgiving and ultimately realistic stuff going on there.

review by
Mary Harvey

14 July 2012

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