by on Aug.04, 2010, under Comics

Okay, I know Dan Clowes’s Wilson was published in April, but I only discovered this week that it exists, so I don’t care, I’m writing about it. Clowes has done something remarkable here, and it’s worth comment.

It starts with Clowes’s understanding very well how his readers perceive him: as an unforgiving, hilariously acid misanthrope. You start reading the book and find a series of full-page funny-paper strips with approximately the same comic beats as classic Peanuts. There’s a setup and then a punch line that doesn’t so much complete the joke as derail it. With Charles Shulz that derailment was usually gently satirical, while Clowes’s takes the form of unexpected bile. Just like Peanuts, it’s genuinely funny.

The art varies from page to page: on some, Sally Forth–style semirealistic figures; on others crude, round-headed caricatures; the rest somewhere in between.

Just as you begin to relax into that rhythm, though, after a dozen of these pages, you begin to realize that these aren’t just disconnected jokes. A story is taking shape. And that story is kind of sad, as Wilson flies to his dying father’s bedside.

Then the story gathers steam. Wilson tracks down his ex-wife. He learns he had a daughter put up for adoption, and tracks her down too. He goes on a road trip with his daughter and ex-wife. He goes to jail for kidnapping his daughter. He gets out of jail and starts a relationship with a new woman. His daughter visits to tell him he has a grandson.

The episodes don’t string together into a single narrative arc. At each stage there are the makings of plot—characters have desires and conflicts that prevent them from fulfilling those desires immediately. But those conflicts never build to anything unified or coherent.

Clowes is well aware of this. “We like our stories to end with a promise of hope,” Wilson says. “‘Happily ever after’ and all that. Too bad real lives don’t have that structure.”

Then immediately—like two panels later—he does have an explosion of hope, and in the final six-panel page that follows, a moment of serenity. So he gives the audience what it expects, but in a way that defies the audience’s wants by leaving the moments of triumph unearned. The structure of the book makes earned triumph impossible.

I can’t overemphasize how impressed I am by all this. 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. He even continues to draw Wilson in different styles page after page, keeping him recognizable and showing him aging at the same time.

PDF preview here.


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