by Daniel Clowes (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010)

A decade after David Boring, Oscar-nominated Daniel Clowes releases another full-length graphic novel, Wilson. It has been optioned for a movie to be directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways).

It's not easy to like Wilson, a middle-aged misanthrope who overanalyzes everything to the point of moral condescension. That's what you get with a Daniel Clowes story: droll observations wrapped around icy black humor, coming from the mouths of bored and desperately lonely people. This time around, though, there seems to be something essential missing. There's a decent enough plot with a twist or two, and some pretty good artwork. Unfortunately, that's about as deep as it gets.

Wilson is supposed to be an extended character sketch, but how far into character development can you go with a self-involved, boorish man who is afraid of modern life and gets into conversations with complete strangers whom he then ruthlessly denigrates? Wilson simply isn't three-dimensional enough to be very engaging. He's pessimistic and lazy, bloviating Woody Allen-style about everything but without a trace of Allen's diamond-sharp wit, while blaming everyone else for his inability to make a significant connection with another human being. The (rather too) obvious joke is that he's his own worst enemy.

Wilson's rather aimless life takes a sharp turn when he reconnects with his former wife, discovers he has a daughter and embarks on an adventure that lands him in jail. It's somewhat interesting but there's really nothing that showcases this particular narrative in a new way.

Wilson is told in panels just like American Splendor's one-page strips, with a different drawing style on each page and free-floating observations on the postmodern life that Wilson obviously hates. Unfortunately, the virtually nonstop cynicism is already stale by the end of the first page, as is the "punchline" ending of each chapter.

After two re-readings I can't decide if it's because the "angst" thing is overdone or underdone. It seems to me to be a case of not so much tapping into an admittedly well-used trope as much as it is leaning on it. These days, depression and self-loathing aren't exciting enough by themselves to cast a spell on a reader, very likely because these days it seems so many people are already depressed and full of self-loathing that an exploration of these particular psychological states is completely redundant. In Wilson, these characteristics are over-exaggerated. It's possible to read it as a satirization of such extremes, as though Wilson is being punished for being so selfish and for blowing everything out of proportion. I feel, however, that Wilson's unending moping and complaining is really a plot device that has been overused to the point of irritation. Read as a satire, it still has no teeth because it's distinctly lacking in what my musically educated friends call "hooks," the neat turns on the familiar that create something original from something commonplace.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's indulgent. I do feel Clowes is trying hard here, and wants to do something interesting. But it doesn't have the bite, or the originality, of Ghostworld or Eightball . The ending doesn't really redeem the material, as it's very much a sort of seen-it-coming-from-a-mile-away sort of thing.

White middle-class angst is specialized territory that Clowes has already covered well, much better than he has here. I wouldn't call Wilson a fail, but I would tell anyone who wanted to read Clowes for the first time to try his earlier titles first.

review by
Mary Harvey

29 January 2011

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