Friday, July 2, 2010

Getting Bitter All The Time

You have to read Daniel Clowes’s
new graphic novel Wilson at least twice.

You read Wilson the first time, you might come away with an overwhelming feeling of what an unsympathetic schmuck the main character is. Not bitter and arch in an entertaining Lloyd Llewellyn way or with the slapstick angst of Ivan Brunetti, ho ho ho, but just damned sad & ingrown & mean & unenlightened & all those things that are the opposite of what regular yoga practitioners would tell you is the Bodhisattva ideal.

You read the book for the second time, you’re more likely to see emotional distance and pain that not even a yogi’s One-Legged King Pigeon pose could describe the deep contortions of; you’re more likely to see Wilson’s struggles  – often half-hearted, mostly half-assed, yes; but relentless to the point of something like bravery – to move beyond that.

Yes, bravery.

Warped and reluctant, sure; but bravery nonetheless.

Because how difficult is it, at times, to sincerely connect with other people, to appreciate the miracle of existence, even when you’re not half as miserable as this miserable Wilson? Answer: It’s pretty fucking difficult, at times. And yet, here’s good ol’ Wilson – how he hates us – trudging his way through the latter half of his life and trying, trying, trying to connect somehow, with someone, with anyone, to glean some comfort from his existence in panel after panel, drawing style after drawing style, page after page.

The way Clowes shifts his illustration through familiar spectra of “the funnies” works to relieve the initially monotonous harshness of Wilson’s outer personality, hints at a complexity mirrored within the character, and simultaneously refutes the idea that simplicity of drawing is equal to simplicity of message.

“What is man,” asks the Bible’s Psalms, “that thou art mindful of him?” Wilson is Wilson, a distinct character dealing with complex issues, whether he’s rendered at some level of realism or reduced to wacky big-nose style. Clowes has worked this tack before (cf. Ice Haven), but it’s especially successful here, partly because of a tight focus on the one character and partly because ... well, okay, I don’t know about you, but the times in my adult life when I’ve most regularly come into contact with the Sunday funnies have been pretty bleak times. The Sunday funnies are what’s read in the grimy break room when you’re hungover and between the halves of a double shift in a go-nowhere food service job; the Sunday funnies – so many of them often unfunny to anyone with, like, a functioning forebrain – are what’s used, with stale cigs and bitter coffee, to blot the hollow pain that follows from the one you love breaking your heart the night before.

That’s why the (stunted, negative) humanity of Wilson doesn’t seem out of place in this range of cartoon styles; it seems, unexpectedly, right at home.

And so, at the end, unexpectedly, does Wilson.

I’m telling you that you have to read this book at least twice.
But, if you do that, you’ll probably read it
again and again and again as the years slide past.

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