Mr. Wonderful and Nine Short Works

by on May.11, 2011, under Comics

I’ve written a lot about how certain authors’ past work has earned them the benefit of the doubt with me when they come out with new stuff. If I know someone has talent, I’ll wait and see where he or she is going even if I don’t get it at first. I know I described exactly that dynamic when I reviewed Ted McKeever’s META 4.

But there’s a related, reverse dynamic as well. There are experiments I’ll tolerate, even enjoy, from a new writer that I would reject from someone more established. I don’t want to see talented, midcareer authors skiing the bunny slope.

A little less than a year ago, Dan Clowes showed what a confident author at the height of his powers can accomplish with Wilson, about which I wrote:

For a book to defy narrative convention, that’s not so hard. To do it while remaining an enjoyable read, though, is one of the hardest things an author can try to do. Clowes pulls it off gracefully.

Wilson was all forward motion, tramping through years at a fast march. Clowes’s new book Mr. Wonderful goes all the way to the opposite extreme, taking us blow by blow through a single date between two damaged, lonely people in early middle age.

Unfortunately, where Wilson felt fresh, this feels like ground Clowes has covered before. The point-of-view character who alternates between misanthropic observations of the world around him and self-loathing observations of himself feels very familiar from such old Eightball short stories as “The Stroll,” “The Party,” and “Marooned on a Desert Island with the People on the Subway.” Those older pieces worked because while they lacked any broader moral or thematic point, they introduced us to Clowes’s way of seeing the world and they were funny. Mr. Wonderful comes when Clowes’s voice is already well established, and doesn’t really try to be funny at all.

At this point, I feel like the stakes in Clowes’s work need to be higher than they are here. Something more needs to be at play than a simple story wreathed with sharp observations. It was in Wilson, so I know Clowes is still capable of it.

Partial preview here, though if you have a New York Times account you can pretty much read the whole thing online, as it was originally serialized in the Times Magazine here.

At the other end of the career spectrum consider Nine Short Works, self-published by Jon Allen. These pieces are all voice and perspective, for the most part not even the semblance of a story. In “Lazy Sunday,” for example, a woman potters around her house, calls her sister for content-free small talk, then potters a bit more. That’s it. In “Fun & Games” a pair of boys get into a fight and one pokes out the other’s eye. In the closing panels a grown-up man in an eye patch barbecues on the patio with his girlfriend or wife. “A Taste of China” is nothing but views of the inside of a cheap Chinese restaurant.

This is narrative resolutely defying meaning; it’s as if someone took Adrian Tomine’s early Optic Nerve minicomics and stripped away even the small, poignant gestures toward character and plot that those contained. I could guess that the meaning refused by the majority of the pieces is locked up in the two cryptic, non-figurative ones also included, but that’s all it would be, a pure guess. The art gives no more clue: it’s plain and functional, rather like Jeffrey Brown’s.

Yet I like it. The pieces seem almost like poetic meditations rather than stories, maybe a little something like the prose poems of Francis Ponge.I appreciate the way they just sit there, stubbornly pointless.

In the unlikely event Jon Allen reads this and cares about my opinion, though, I’ll add this: Nine Short Pieces is a trick you can only pull off once. It’s a great introduction to an interesting mind at work. Now let’s see what else you got.

You can read pretty much all of Jon Allen’s stuff, including his new book Inside the Slow Spiral, at his website. Nine Short Works seems to be only on sale through Bergen Street Comics, so if you want it and you live outside Brooklyn, you might have to email him.

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